Edgy Middle Eastern Big Band Jazz from Alon Yavnai
Israeli jazz pianist Alon Yavnai & the NDR Bigband have an understatedly powerful, very smart new album just out, Shri Ahava (Hebrew for “love poem”). He’s playing the cd release show at Birdland this Sunday at 6 (six) PM with a fantastic New York band featuring Paquito D’Rivera and Malika Zarra: if you’re a fan of Gil Evans, or Middle Eastern jazz innovators like Gilad Atzmon or Amir ElSaffar, this is a show you shouldn’t miss.
The album’s most striking track is titled Travel Notes. Yavnai has a long history with D’Rivera, so it’s no surprise that he’d be as fond of melodies and beats from south of the border as he is of the many traditions from his own part of the world. This one takes a bouncy Peruvian festejo groove and works a mighty series of shifting motifs from the orchestra to a biting, Arabic-tinged interlude where the piano mimics an oud. From there they works variations on the theme through rapidfire solos by trumpeter Ingolf Burkhardt and clarinetist Lutz Buchner to a fiery, practically stampeding conclusion. It’s a major moment in recent big band jazz.
Two other equally intriguing tracks are both pastorales that unexpectedly and vividly go noir. Au Castagney is a cinematic epic that leaps from comfortable cinematic ambience to become a spy story set in wine country, with deliciously creepy solos by Yavnai and guitarist Sandra Hempel, who mines some luridly terse Marc Ribot-style tonalities. Then there’s Ilha B’Nit (Beautiful Island), a homage to Cape Verdean music that shifts from lush exchanges of washes carried by two or three voices, to stormier, more rhythmic intensity that brings in some unexpected funk before going out with a darkly memorable bluster.
Bitter Roots is a hybrid Afro-Cuban/Egyptian groove that grows from increasingly agitated cadenzas over a one-chord jam to a series of hypnotic circular riffs. Zriha (Sunrise) builds from bright, optimistic atmospherics to an unexpected wariness calmed by a Frank Delle baritone sax solo, rising matter-of-factly to a clever false ending. The opening, title track juxtaposes pensive solo piano passages with sweeping, majestic charts set to an insistent bossa pulse; the album ends with a requiem for Yavnai’s friend, the late drummer Take Toriyama, brooding solo piano giving way to an exchange of voices that slowly introduce warmer, more comforting variations. Jazz doesn’t get as accessible yet as cutting-edge as this very often.
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