Israeli born tenor saxophonist Arnan Raz now resides in New York. Having stayed in his home country to study with the renowned IDF Orchestra and further his musical learning at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, Raz made a name for himself as a promising young saxophonist on the Israeli jazz scene. After graduating he felt it was the right time to move to New York where he was reunited with his old friends from the IDF Orchestra who had moved much earlier to the big apple. Since forming his quintet he has slowly but surely been garnering a reputation for performing his powerful blend of traditional and modern jazz. “I want to focus on sound” says Raz, “I believe that the saxophone sound has a lot of power in reaching people’s heart. Now days, in our materialistic world, it’s so hard to communicate that. I feel even more obliged to play music and to try to communicate with the audience on a ‘real level’, hoping to reach as many people as I can and to try and do good through music.” This is an approach that can only be applauded, and the music on “Second to the left” is testimony to what Raz is trying to achieve.
There are two things that stand out with this album. The first is Raz’s style of playing; his sound. He may be influenced by the legacy of giants like Lester Young, Stan Getz and Wayne Marsh, but to my ears there is more than a hint of Pharoah Sanders and Joe Lovano in his playing. His touch and feel for a young saxophonist is incredible. He obviously lives and breathes his instrument in a way that allows him to express himself in a very natural, unforced way. The second point I would make is the strength of the writing. The tunes on this album represent some of the finest compositions you will hear from either side of the Atlantic this year. Generally speaking, there’s nothing over complicated about them, they’re just great jazz tunes that allow the intuitive playing of the band to come to the fore. Raz is joined by Eyal Hai on alto sax, Daniel Meron on piano, Nadav Laquis on bass, and Dani Danor on drums. All of the musicians make important contributions throughout the recording, but it is the two saxes that really impress. For the most part they work so well together, with a unified understanding between the two lead players creating some mouth-watering moments. The perfect example of this can be heard on “Mykanos”, a folk-tinged tune that is quite stunning. The beautiful intro takes the piece into a gorgeous melody, underpinned by some excellent and touching piano playing from Meron. Then towards the end of the tune, the two saxes combine in harmony with such grace and elegance it is a joy to behold. Similarly, on “The Main Lawn part 1”, the use of the tenor and alto in unison is wonderful, before the two pair off onto different paths, entwining, diverting, and playing off each other to give the listener such a warm, engrossing experience. That said, for all its brilliance, there are times, if only occasionally, when the two saxes together are just a little too much. “It’s Easy To Remember (and so hard to forget)” is such a beautifully crafted tune, but I did find myself muttering the words ‘sometimes less is more’ to myself. The emotional power of the tune is at first generated by the piano, haunting in a subtle yet affecting bluesy way. When Raz comes in on his tenor sax it is just perfect. There is so much intensity in his playing, it just has to move you. But when the alto comes in as well, bringing a more conversational style to the piece, for me it loses that simple power and intensity, it just sounds a little messy and to my ears (and heart) loses its flow. That’s a minor gripe though, as overall it is the saxes that largely make this album what it is. Hai’s alto playing is excellent, but it is the band leader’s tenor playing that time and time again raises the hairs on the back of my neck. Listening to his solo on “The Main Lawn part 2” is like hearing Joe Lovano perform Coltrane at the top of his game. Awesome. The strength of the togetherness and the musicianship from the whole band is very evident on tracks like “Zahira” and “The White City”. If ever there was a band on the same wavelength this is them.
On this evidence we should be hearing much more from Arnan Raz in the future. I for one most certainly hope so. He has all the tools, and most importantly it would seem, the heart, to be one of the leading lights on the international jazz scene for many years to come.