Much like real estate, security and sales of holiday knick-knacks, New York’s jazz scene has acquired an unmistakable Israeli accent — so much so that JazzTimes magazine stated that “no foreign country’s citizens are playing a more visible or essential role on the New York scene these days.” How did this happen? Acclaimed bassist and composer Omer Avital was among the first wave of Israelis to land here in the early 1990s. The Jewish Week caught up with him last week fresh off a gig at the Jazz Standard, which marked the release of his new CD, “New Song” (Motema Music). This is an edited transcript.
Q: So how did Israeli expats come to be such a force in NYC jazz?
A: What I can tell you is my own angle. When I arrived in New York [in 1992], with the first wave of Israeli musicians, there was nothing of this. The atmosphere was that no Israeli could make it in New York, that the two cultures were too different. But once we achieved a certain level of recognition, people back in Israel started to get interested.
When I was growing up in Israel, the jazz scene there was very weak. But once we started going back and forth between New York and Israel, bringing the music back in the form of shows and teachings, I could see we were having a serious effect on young musicians. It started the whole idea that making it in New York was a real possibility, that not only could Israelis play jazz there but they could be successful, valued. A sort of community started to form … and from there it really started rolling.
People tend to group the Israeli jazz musicians together, and from there it’s a short leap to calling whatever they are doing “Israeli jazz.” But is there such a thing?
It’s interesting — it’s not like there is a specific Israeli sound. Say Cuban music, it’s very defined, very recognizable. But Israeli music is too young to be coherent, because so are the Israeli people and culture. What do I mean? Music from Yemen is Yemenite music, music from Germany is West European music, etc. — but Jewish music came from very different places. In Morocco the Jews played like the Muslims in Morocco, not like the Jews in Poland. …
We, the Israelis, are just the beginning of the attempt to make something out of this mix. I wasn’t presented with a cultural “mix” growing up; I was presented with very different, very separate cultures that never mixed, and I had to find my own way to bring them together. I wouldn’t even say there is such a thing as a unified Israeli culture, and saying there is “Israeli jazz” is taking it several steps forward. … Everything is still forming, still open.
A recent article in Jazziz magazine hailed you as “a pioneer in folding his cultural heritage back into straightforward jazz.” Did coming here help you to do this?
When I came to New York I noticed that along with the very decent multicultural environment, which I love, there is also a pride in one’s heritage: everybody knew where they came from. That got me asking myself, who am I? What is my heritage, and where is my music arriving from? Yes, for the last generation I’m from Israel, but what about the whole history before that? I started studying Moroccan music and realized how rich it was, how it connected to all these other musics from Africa, to Latin and Sephardic music. …
For me, it’s all about making the connections. Coming back to Israel, in 1999, I studied how these musics connected to Hebrew folk music, and began exploring how Palestinian music folded into it. … Jazz I knew how to play; but if you want to incorporate something, you need to know it inside out.
What can you tell us about your new record, “New Song?”
It’s a portrait of all the different sounds I’ve been working with in the past years: Moroccan, Yemenite, Middle Eastern. I wanted to make them into one cohesive picture — to make the connections [between them] clear. And I think the album does that.