It’s fitting that the first album I review after International Jazz Day is from Omer Avital, as it seems to me that in many ways his music epitomises many of the qualities enshrined within UNESCO’s mission to celebrate “the virtues of jazz as an educational tool, and a force for peace, unity, dialogue and enhanced cooperation among people”.
Born and brought up in Israel, to Moroccan and Yemeni parents (Abutbul is the original family name) his music is centred in contemporary Jazz but blends in influences from North African and Middle Eastern styles.
In the early 1990’s Avital moved with his friend, the trombonist Avi Lebovich, to New York, in order, as he puts it, to follow two dreams, to play with musicians he admired, and to become a good musician. The bassist Avishai Cohen also moved at about the same time; starting a trend that would significantly increase the profile of Israeli jazz artists.
These three would become key perfomers at Smalls, a Greenwich Village club that was the focal point for a generation of young players including Josh Redman, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Brian Blade and Brad Mehldau. Although initially signed to Impulse, the resulting album Devil Head never got released. Nonetheless, after a period of reflection and further study of his musical heritage, Avital has gone on to a successful career.
This is Avital’s tenth album as bandleader, this time on the Paris-based Jazz Village label. The group features regular collaborators, and fellow Israelis – Yonathan Avishai (piano), Asaf Yuria (tenor and soprano sax), Alexander Levin (tenor sax) and Ofri Nehemya (Drums). The prescence of two saxophonists recalls Avital’s earlier bands. Avital puts great stock in ‘growing up’ with his fellow musicians so that they understand each others playing intimately and their sound can grow organically.
This natural synergy is evident throughout “Abutbul Music”. The group has a deft ability to effortlessly switch rhythms and meters without the results sounding grating or forced. Avital does what all bassists/bandleaders should do; he helps create a structure for melody and harmony to shine.
The album opens with “Muhammad’s Market”, a swinging soul jazz number. “Three Four” is driven by fantastic piano lines, which chop and change throughout without losing the sense of the original tune. Yuria and Levin play fast, repetitive harmonies during the second half of the composition. For me this is the most recognisable Middle Eastern motif and one that reappears regularly through the rest of the album.
“New Yemenite Song” has such a great sound to it and is probably my favourite track. It starts out slowly, but when the tune gets going it really swings thanks to the rhythm section. Yuria and Levin’s playing has a spiritual power to it both in their harmonies and call and response.
I’m a sucker for a Bass solo and “Bass Hijaz (Intro in to Ramat Gan)” is bold enough to extend beyond a few bars. Eastern modes infuse this with something captivating, turning it from potential filler to a highlight.
The closer, “Eser (Middle Eastern Funk)” plays the album out with real style even pulling in some Montuno piano lines along the way.
Overall a really strong release where the beauty is in the balance of the sympathetic components – jazz that swings with eastern tones that enhance and stimulate melodic and harmonic content.