Jazz Troupe Third World Love Returns to Its Visionary Home

Jazz group Third World Love gets together only sporadically, but every time they meet, as they will this month, it seems musical magic flows.

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Despite their name, supergroups, bands made up of stars from different projects, aren't usually very super. Perhaps this is because its members have no urge to prove themselves, or because there are too many leaders in the band.

That is not the case with jazz quartet Third World Love, whose members are pianist Yonatan Avishai from France, drummer Daniel Freedman from New York, bassist Omer Avital also from New York and trumpeter Avishai Cohen, who recently moved back to Israel with his family. It is a visionary jazz troupe formed after a chance 2002 meeting in Barcelona and last year it released its fourth album, "Songs and Portraits," which marks its return to jazz, without dropping the influence of music from around the world. It will launch an intense series of concerts tonight at Tel Aviv's Zappa Club that will end on January 21 at the Red Sea Winter Jazz Festival in Eilat.

"Yonatan brings the lyricism, simplicity and balance, Daniel provides the New York touch, Omar the vibes and I provide the rock 'n roll," Cohen says of the eclectic mix.

For years jazz was considered a formal, elegant style of music, like classical, only a little looser, but still something more suited to conservatory stages or designated jazz festivals.

However, when Third World Love gained a following with its second album, "Stones" in 2004, it actually happened at rock clubs. The band presented a different approach to jazz, a much more inviting one. "Our reception here was amazing right from the beginning," recalls Cohen. "600 people who couldn't get into the Japan Club in Tel Aviv because the tickets sold out. It wouldn't have been this way if we had defined for ourselves the style we are aiming for."

"Jazz is the ocean we come from; it's our home," says Avital. "We also grew up with lots of other styles; rock, African, Arabic and others. It's a mistake to think that jazz is supposed to be something Western and formal. After all, it started out in Africa. In the U.S., it's also seen as an African-American musical style. Our band had an opportunity to bring in something else; for example, I did this by playing the oud. What's nice about the band is that everyone can bring whatever he wants, regardless of which direction it's from. We didn't have a concept. The friendship and the closeness among us are what did it."

Changing of the guard

"When I went to New York, Israelis really weren't making a mark," says Avital, who in the 1990s appeared regularly at the renowned jazz club Smalls near Greenwich Village. He and Avi Lebovich were among the Israelis who paved the way for future generations of local jazz musicians who tried to make it in the big world.

A few years later, they were followed by the generation of Avishai Cohen and Eli Degibri, who also recently returned to Israel from New York, after being chosen to direct the Red Sea Winter Jazz Festival in Eilat together with veteran music editor and broadcaster Dubi Lenz.

"The generation is changing," Avital says. "We, the 30- and 40-year olds are now moving into the age range of the decision makers. It's a changing of the guards of sort and it's cool. Eli Degibri is a man deeply connected to the scene, is personally acquainted with many musicians and he has a lot of important contacts."

Among the newest generation of jazz players, Cohen and Avital praise guitarist Gilad Hekselman and pianist Omer Klein as outstanding young musicians now working abroad who are leaders in their fields.

"In April, my new album with Omer Klein will be released," says Avital, showing that "three generations" of Israel jazz musicians abroad are continuing to mingle and influence each other.

Before reuniting last year, it had been almost four years since the members of Third World Love played together. They continued to host each other in projects, but not as part of the band.

There are many reasons. All of the members started families over the last few years and at the same time continue working in other ensembles. In addition, since each one lived at the time in a different country, arranging any meeting was a complicated maneuver.

After almost four years of not playing together, the spark was reignited at a performance last year in Germany.

"We never forgot that we had something special, but I started taking it for granted," says Avital. "I started telling myself, yes, Third World Love always plays great and all is well, but I also want to do other stuff. I felt that we left the band a little too early. We didn't release the album, which has been ready since 2009 and remained on the side, because we decided to have the break."

There were, he says, artistic differences. "When there is no leader of the band, and everyone is an individual leader, then on one hand it's amazing, but on the other hand it's chaos. But when we played together again in Germany, it was so nice that we decided to release the album and do a concert tour." Cohen says the break was not caused by tensions among band members.

"We never said that we were fed up," he says. "We also met at concert tours and every such meeting was a new experience for us. We were a band that ... basically reunited every time it met. Musically speaking, we always did the same thing. Each one of us would bring to the rehearsal room a segment or arrangement and we'd start playing. We have no limits regarding style. For example, on our most successful album, 'Stones,' there's a 30-minute suite in three parts. We are not easy listening. The common thread we share is indeed jazz we learned, but everyone is influenced by other things. When we met for the first time, it was for a random series of concerts. When we did the first record we didn't even consider ourselves a band. We called our first album after one of the songs on it, "Third World Love Songs," and only after it was recorded did we decide we are band called Third World Love.

All that jazz

Cohen and Avital admit that "at first we went for rock fans and we were really into it, but our language was always the language of jazz and improv, even when we entered the World Music scene. We thought then of a performance style that was almost pop, with the essence of jazz. Today we allow ourselves to return to the format that is seemingly more natural for us; less effort on arranging things, and just going with the flow."

The album opens with "Songs and Portraits" which features an arrangement by Avishai for the Yemenite song, "Im Ni-nalu."

"It has the band's sound," says Avital, and sets the tone for the ensuing pieces including one that sounds like an Israeli song, "The Immigrant's Anthem," which is followed by a Spanish segment, "Spain," and then an African piece, "The Abutbuls."

"As the years go by, we are less afraid of being a jazz troupe and are more inclined to go for what we feel like doing," says Cohen. "Once we thought this might not suit the whole audience coming to watch us."

It seems the band has no reason to try and aim for the audience's taste, because to a large extent, it is actually shaping it. "Jazz is something deep," says Avital, "it's like being a member of a secret order and in on lots of secret codes for how to express yourself. The audience is secondary on this level, because it only comes afterwards."

Cohen backs him up and touts the lofty status the band has attained: "People come to hear what we want to do."

In their previous concert series in Israel, some six months ago, the band focused on material from its fourth album. During the current tour, they plan to present new material alongside it and see what the encounter between them yields. Cohen says that only when the band reunites and surprises itself on stage is there new material created there.