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Blues and Roots

Composer and bassist Omer Avital joins American jazz with Israeli and Arab styles, especially Yemeni and Moroccan, to create music with a new and vital connection to a shared Middle Eastern past

Ben Waltzer
April 01, 2011
Omer Avital.(Omer Haim)
Omer Avital.(Omer Haim)

Late in 2001, jazz bassist and composer Omer Avital sat on his sun-baked balcony above the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ein Kerem, cradling his first oud, an Arabic lute, whose sound he had heard as a child whose parents had immigrated from Morocco and Yemen. He breathed in the aroma of Persian cyclamen growing in the valley at the foot of Mount Orah, closed his eyes, and played for hours, then days, getting in touch with the sound of the instrument and Eastern melodies, until something much deeper than mere facility began to emerge.

“It was something in me,” he said over lunch at a Brooklyn café near the apartment he shares with his wife, Liat, and their 2-year-old son, Zohar (glancingly named after Zohar Argov, Israel’s first breakout Mizrahi pop star). “On this instrument, the oud, I could express that. Later, I listened to recordings from that time.” He turned his head to the side, laughing, and lifted his hand dismissively. “It wasn’t good.”

Avital’s humility belies the substance and import of his music: Over the last few years he has become a leading force in a hybrid that synthesizes American jazz, Israeli, Yemeni, Moroccan, and other Arab styles into something genuinely new and vital for its connection to a shared Middle Eastern past. And unlike the self-conscious projects in which many musicians cloak themselves—garments as easily thrown off as put on—Avital’s work has emerged in the course of his search to better understand his identity as a jazz musician, as an Israeli, and as an heir to a Mizrahi cultural tradition historically viewed as inferior by Israel’s Ashkenazi elite.

In 2008, the New Jerusalem Orchestra premiered Avital’s “Debka Fantasia,” an extended composition that unearths the Bedouin roots beneath Israeli folk tunes such as “At Adama (You, Soil).” And in 2009, he presented his “Song of the Earth,” a Middle-Eastern Afro-Jewish musical suite for 13 pieces at Merkin Concert Hall. On March 9, he appeared at Le Poisson Rouge in New York, with the Israeli-Yemenite singer Ravid Kahalani, presenting their joint project, “Yemen Blues.” And on April 2, Avital will perform again with his quartet at the Jazz Gallery, also in New York.

“Omer’s work is very important politically because it represents part of a trend in Israel over the last 10 or 15 years of Mizrahi Sephardim finding public space to reclaim identity,” said Carmel Raz, an Israeli-American violinist and doctoral candidate in music theory at Yale who has performed with Avital. “In the development of Israeli identity, you can be Arab and Jewish and live in Israel. They’re not mutually exclusive. The stage is now open for a broad way of being Jewish.”

Listen to “Eli,” by the group Yemen Blues:

Avital, 39, who has been known to wear a Jewfro, long sideburns, and beads that evoke an Israeli Superfly, grew up in Givatayim, then a middle-class Labor Party redoubt east of Tel Aviv. His late father, Eliyahu, was from a family of mughrabim, North African Jews from Morocco, who emigrated in the late 19th century. His mother, Dalia, comes from a Yemenite family originally from Ta’izz, near Sana’a, home of the great 17th-century poet Rabbi Shalom Shabazi, celebrated by Jews and Arabs alike as the “Shakespeare of Yemen.” While his grandparents prayed as Jews, and lived among Arabs, his parents sought to become secular moderns. Eliyahu, a photographer and free spirit, introduced Omer to big band jazz, Frank Sinatra, European classical, and Arab traditional music. Dalia, dogged and practical, worked for the phone company and pushed her husband to Hebraicize his last name, Abutbul, which means “Father of the Drum.” Abutbul became Avital (“Father of the Dew”), as Israeli as Smith or Jones is American.

“When I grew up, Mizrahi culture was considered garbage compared to the European; nothing to take seriously,” said Avital. “For my parents, there was a survival thing that was key. They wanted for me to be part of something, not grow up in the ghetto. My mother, who is dark-skinned, really suffered. They tried to integrate. They joined the Labor party and believed in the Zionist ideal, but they were laughed at.”

While proclaiming Israel open to all Jews, David Ben-Gurion sometimes referred to Mizrahim as “savages.” “We do not want Israelis to become Arabs,” he wrote in the mid-’60s. “We are in duty bound to fight against the spirit of the Levant, which corrupts individuals and societies, and preserve the authentic Jewish values as they crystallized in the Diaspora.” As the historian Avishai Margalit summarizes: “For the Labor leaders only Ashkenazi Jews had ‘culture’; Oriental Jews had at best a ‘heritage.’ ” In 1977 Menachem Begin exploited their seething resentment, when his right-wing Herut party swept into office with widespread Mizrahi support.

As a boy, Avital won a children’s songwriting contest and began to play an old guitar. He got good enough to audition for the Thelma Yellin School of the Performing Arts, Israel’s predominant incubator of young talent. After a botched first attempt, his mother’s friend, a Yemeni cleaning lady who worked for the school’s music director, got him a second chance. He was accepted, and though generally ostracized for being an Oriental Jew, he was inspired by the sounds of jazz and blues around him and gave up classical guitar for jazz and the acoustic bass. He came under the sway of Emil Ram, a bassist who had studied in New York with Barry Harris at the legendary pianist’s Jazz Cultural Center. Ram, along with the late pianist Amit Golan, who also studied with Harris, carried back to Israel a muscular sense of swing and a historically rooted jazz lexicon.

“He had everything,” remembered Avital. “Meeting Emil meant finding someone who could give you a taste of what was really happening. From then on, I always had Mingus and Ellington in the back of my head.” Avital’s parents felt comfortable watching Omer play jazz, which resonated with Arab music’s tradition of incantation, improvisation, and trance-inducing rhythms.

Before he could pursue a jazz career, Avital, like most high-school graduates in Israel, was compelled to perform mandatory military service, which after a month of basic training he spent in the Air Force Orchestra. At first motivated by a sense of belonging, Avital soon found the experience a nightmare. He was disgusted by what he saw as the army’s anti-Arab and anti-Mizrahi sentiments. He became depressed, buoying himself with incessant chatter about his latest jazz obsession, Clifford Brown, the American bebop trumpeter of the ’50s who co-led a landmark group with tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins.

“They treat you like human garbage. I met the worst people I ever met. I thought, ‘I don’t want to be living in this country. If this is what’s it’s about, it’s not for me,’ ” he said. “My commander hated me. He’d yell, ‘If I hear the words Clifford Brown one more time, I’m going to send you to grease the bombs in the South!’ I was a bad influence in the orchestra.”

In 1992, following his discharge from the army, Avital boarded a plane with his friend, trombonist Avi Lebovich (the renowned bassist Avishai Cohen was on another flight the same day), and flew to New York to pursue his calling.

“I knew I could play and that what I do doesn’t interest anyone in Israel,” he said. “New York was the place. It allowed me to be something I couldn’t have been without it. I had two dreams: One was to play with the musicians I admired, and the second was to just become a good musician. I just wanted to get better.”

Listen to “Brighter Future,” from Live at Smalls:

Unbeknownst to him, Avital arrived just as a great wave of young jazz talent—global in orientation and possessed of shocking technical proficiency—was cresting in New York. Much of that talent revolved around the New School Jazz and Contemporary Music Program, where Avital spent a semester getting oriented before continuing his studies at Mannes College. In the early ’90s, New York was full of small bars and restaurants—St. Marks Bar, Nuyorican Poets Café, Zinc Bar, Jules, the Village Gate, the First Street Café—where musicians could play and hang out. (What few are left pay the same or less today as they did then, a sign of a struggling bohemia after dark.) Avital used these opportunities to learn standard tunes and build his confidence.

Now known for the missile-like speed, trajectory, and impact of his improvisation, Avital once remarked that he developed his sound not by acceding to some higher plane of musical understanding, but by deciding at some point only to play—to make heard—those ideas to which he could commit totally: strength through self-editing. To supplement his income he worked for a moving company run by his now brother-in-law.

In 1993 while on a gig at the Village Gate, Avital was heard by the bassist Dwayne Burno, who recommended him to saxophonist Antonio Hart. Hart took him on tour and featured him on his next record, along with Jimmy Cobb, the drummer on Miles Davis’ landmark 1959 recording, Kind of Blue.

Avital also formed his own band, a sextet that featured four tenors, which appeared regularly at Smalls, one of the Greenwich Village clubs where the new wave of young musicians pooled.

“He brought so much, man,” remembered tenor saxophonist Charles Owens, a member of Avital’s group, who plays with a meaty sound that recalls Sonny Rollins. “He was such a badass that when people from Israel were noticed subsequently, they were always compared to him, which was a gift and a curse for them, I suppose, as leaders. I don’t know if he had a specific agenda for an Israeli sound. He was just writing what was in his heart. He brought together jazz, French impressionist harmonies, Middle Eastern rhythms and tonalities, as well as a love for four-part harmony. His pieces were very challenging, not necessarily because there were a lot of notes, but say for example holding the lowest note on your horn for measure after measure, and at a piano or even double piano level. What a great feeling when it came together. Magic.”

New York at that time was, Avital said, an ideal place for exploring his multiple identities. He and guitarist Amos Hoffman would hang out with their friend, a Palestinian oud player and Williamsburg falafel shop owner named Najib Shaheen (brother of the oud player and activist Simon Shaheen), who before buzzing them in would answer his intercom in a mock sinister baritone, “Go away you filthy Jews. You are not welcome here.” In Israel, Avital would take trips to the Sinai desert and spend time with Bedouins. He started speaking with his father in greater depth about North African music and reading about Israel before 1948, when strains of Zionism looked to the Arab, rooted in the land, as an example to emulate rather than a threat to defend against. All the while, his music, characterized by its tuneful gritty romanticism, became more distinctive, personal, and searching.

“I made my own music and people wrote about it. They treated me like I was saying something,” he said. “That wouldn’t have happened in Israel. In New York you can be a human being and think for yourself. In Israel you have to make it your career to think for yourself.”

Listen to “Faith,” from Arrival:

In 1997 Impulse! records signed Avital and prepared to release his first record, Devil Head, but before it could do so, the label dropped the project.

“I was a little disappointed,” said Avital. “I had that band which was going super well. I found myself doing the same things. What do you do next? I had the feeling that I don’t know what I’m doing. And then I met Liat and started this long-distance relationship.”

Avital had been traveling more regularly to Israel, which in the wake of the Oslo accords was slowly becoming a more hopeful place. “Once you had that possibility for peace, it was amazing, that whole Middle Eastern sensibility came to life,” he said. “Israel became a much hipper place for about three years. Everyone was going to India and they brought back a looser vibe. The old Israel was ending. A sense of possibility opens people up.”

Avital started to study Moroccan music and played with Israeli-Arab musicians in Nazareth and the Galilee. He played in joint Jewish and Arab bands with Arnie Lawrence, the American saxophonist who created the jazz program at the New School, made aliyah, and founded the International Center for Creative Music. He moved to Ein Kerem shortly after the events of Sept. 11 and began a course of study combining the European and Middle Eastern musical traditions.

In 2005, longing for the “openness of jazz and society” in New York, Avital returned and began to further develop the concepts he had been working on in Israel. He resurrected his own groups and released a string of albums on Smalls Records, the club’s label. And with the percussionist Yair Harel, the director of the Israel Festival, he co-founded the New Jerusalem Orchestra, which draws on traditional piyutim, or liturgical poems, and the work of modern Israeli poets.

“I’m really trying to rebuild a bridge to the past. I have to learn this tradition. I have to know it,” said Avital. “It’s part of my body. I have to not lose it for the future.”

Avital’s vision of a shared Middle Eastern sound—exuberant, inclusive, and hopeful—could easily provide the soundtrack to the region’s fast-changing present. “In Israel, and in the United States, the Arab world can be seen as unknown, as one block of darkness,” he told me. “And now all of a sudden it’s like the world is seeing the people of these countries for the first time.”

Near Grand Army Plaza he recounted a recent session he had in his apartment with an Iraqi-American trumpeter, a Syrian singer, a Moroccan Berber percussionist, and a Palestinian oud player.

“It was a great vibe,” he said, smiling.

Ben Waltzer is a jazz pianist, journalist, and assistant director of the Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance Program at Columbia University.

Ben Waltzer is a jazz pianist, journalist, and assistant director of the Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance Program at Columbia University.