Spanning eight albums of steaming spiritual jazz, from his 2001 debut Think With Your Heart to 2012’s Suite of the East, Omer Avital brings the rich melodies and churning rhythms of his Israeli homeland to music that makes audiences erupt in shouts, impromptu dances, and emotional applause. As Avital has continued to study composition, taking two years off in the early ’00s to embrace classical European, Middle Eastern, and North African music, his own music has grown more powerful, more deeply felt, and more inspired. New Song is the latest document of his travels.
“I try to make it simple,” Avital says. “I am a jazz musician. I’ve played with many generations of musicians, but the most important thing is still the spirit of the music. At this point, my style is based on something real: tradition. That is a slippery term, but the greats who came before us created this language and this body of work and spiritual content that we build upon. So my music is less of a fusion, and more of an outgrowth of what I love and respect in this music. And my heritage goes right into it. Your journey is never disconnected from your society and where you live.”
New Song begins with the deceptively gentle “Hafla,” its piano, trumpet, and saxophone spiraling skyward over a lithe funk groove. It’s a subtle introduction to a determined record that is rich in ethnic rhythms.
What are some of the specific rhythms you play on New Song?
That’s a malfouf rhythm in “Hafla.” In Arabic, “hafla” means “to rap.” It can also mean food. It’s like the “3” part of a 3:2 clave in Cuban music. A lot of music in Africa and Asia is based on this simple rhythm in 4. It provides that rolling rhythm.
“Tsafdina” is like a trance at a midnight rave, while “Moroc” recalls Jimmy Garrison’s low-slung rhythms. What rhythms are you playing on those tracks?
The rhythm in “Tsafdina” is like a Moroccan gnawa. You usually hear it performed on something that sounds like a bass, but it’s actually a gimbri, an African instrument played by the Gnawa tribes. The gimbri is practically a bass instrument with two gut strings and one sympathetic string. It’s played for hours in ritual and healing ceremonies. “Tsafdina” is like a trance. It really connects to Coltrane’s music and to Yusef Lateef; all jazz has that trance element to it.
We use a traditional Moroccan Berber rhythm in “Maroc.” It’s a 6/8 African rhythm, like all the Afro-Cuban music. It’s coming from that tribal, ecstatic music that is connected to African-American churches, as well.
Your playing has a Mingus-like, bassistas- leader quality. But in this style of music, leading must also require a specific technique.
For this music, technique is about feeling. I also play oud, and that style is also a specific thing. But Jimmy Garrison used to do it naturally, as did Ahmed Abdul-Malik and Charlie Haden, too. Those guys had that feeling; they created that buzzing sound. It’s more Eastern. Once you get into that, it’s about open strings and vamps and keeping that buzzing sound.
How do you assimilate and adapt these different styles within your music, make them your own, and make it all so passionate?
The process works like this: You try to assimilate, you try to put it inside, and sometimes it doesn’t work. Then all of a sudden it will happen. It’s hard to control, so you have to be serious about everything you do. I don’t force things on other genres just to be special. You learn the music, and the meeting place for it all has to be authentic. And still, it’s mysterious.
New Song, [2014, Motema]; Avashai Cohen, Triveni II [2012, Anzic]
Bass 1933 John Juzek e bass
Strings Evah Pirazzi double bass strings
Pickup David Gage Realist Double Bass Transducer
Amp Acoustic Image Coda Series 4plus combo (small stages); Ampeg SVT (larger stages)
Cabinet No preference
Mic DPA condenser mic placed “in the middle of the bass, in front of the strings”