Omer Avital
Photo by Shmulik Balmas

Omer Avital

Musical Director

Celebrated by critics as, “extraordinary” (New York Times), “roaringly inventive” (Jazziz), and, “one of the most exciting musicians to come onto the jazz scene in the last 20 years” (Downbeat), Omer Avital is a visionary composer, virtuoso musician, and gifted bandleader whose genre-defying ensembles are providing audiences around the world with swing and spiritual sustenance in equal measure.

Years from now, when folks are remembering the early days of the West Village jazz haunt Smalls, bassist Omer Avital’s name will be as synonymous with the club as Bill Evans’ is with the Village Vanguard, and Thelonious Monk’s is with the original Five Spot Café.Time Out New York

Born in the small town of Givatayim, Israel, to a Moroccan-Yemenite Jewish family and trained early in classical guitar, Avital’s hearty musical-spiritual appetite led him in high school to intensively explore the be-bop sounds of Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. After spending a year with the Israeli Army Orchestra, Avital made his way to New York City where he studied jazz at the New School for Music and encountered first-hand the openness, vitality, and depth of the American jazz tradition. Avital’s hard work paid off in New York as he quickly established himself as one of the most promising bass players of his generation, performing, recording and touring with legends such as Roy Haynes, Jimmy Cobb, Al Foster, and Rashid Ali. Excelling as a composer, arranger and bandleader, Avital became one of the leading figures at Smalls jazz club during its heyday in the 1990’s. In the words of Time Out New York, “Years from now, when folks are remembering the early days of the West Village jazz haunt Smalls, bassist Omer Avital’s name will be as synonymous with the club as Bill Evans’ is with the Village Vanguard, and Thelonious Monk’s is with the original Five Spot Café.”

In 1997 the Impulse! Label recorded and released Jazz Underground: Live at Smalls, featuring the Omer Avital Group along with five other bands. Avital signed with Impulse! as a bandleader in 1998 and quickly recorded his debut album, Devil Head. However, Impulse! consolidated with Verve, and thanks to internal politics, the disk was never released. Undeterred, Avital went on to record and release Think With Your Heart (2001), as well as numerous albums in which he was featured as co-leader and sideman with some of New York’s top jazz artists, including two albums with Rashid Ali, famous for his 1960’s recordings with John Coltrane.

Avital’s body of work from the 1990’s would be sufficient to guarantee his place among the outstanding players on the New York scene in the 90’s as well as among the top Israeli artists of his generation. But Avital is the kind of artist who is always searching for new sources of vitality and who is willing to do the hard work necessary to expand his mastery over the various aspects of his craft, so from 2002-2005 he stepped away from the New York jazz scene and moved back to Israel in order to undertake a period of intense study of different musical idioms: European classical music; Arab music in both its classical and folk forms; Israeli pioneering songs known as Zemer HaIvri; and North African and Middle Eastern piyyut, Jewish traditions of sacred song, particularly of the Moroccan and Yemenite varieties. That said, Avital did not completely cut himself off from jazz during this period, and together with some like-minded Israeli jazz musicians who happened to be old friends, he found the time to establish Third World Love, a quartet dedicated to making a distinctively Israeli sound that became one of Israel’s most successful jazz outfits ever, recording and releasing Third World Love Songs (2003), Avanim (2004), and Tel Aviv Sketches (2006).

Revitalized by his musical retreat, Avital returned to New York City in 2005 and began releasing music based upon material from the 90’s that also featured his musical compatriots from the days at Smalls, including Asking No Permission, (2006), Arrival (2006), The Ancient Art of Giving (2006), and Room To Grow (2007). For the next three years Avital played at clubs in New York City, travelled with his quintet to Europe, and together Third World Love released New Blues (2007).

But Avital was still digesting material from his period of study, and in 2008 the various elements that constitute Avital’s artistic personality ― American, Jewish, Israeli, Arab, and European ― came together, elevating his work to a new level and producing a unique sound that brought otherwise disparate elements into a compelling and unprecedented musical dialogue.

When the Israel Festival offered the opening slot in 2010 Harel suggested expanding their work with Rabbi Louk, and the New Jerusalem Orchestra (NJO) was born. Avital and Harel named the initial project Ahavat Olamim, or “Eternal Love,” and the result was an extraordinary blend of soul, tradition, innovation and first-rate musicianship.

First, in 2008 Avital composed his Bass Concerto, My heart is in the East and I am at the edge of the west. A confession of an Arab-Jew in Eretz Israel, in this piece he refined and extended Mizrahi music, popular tunes written in Israel by Jews from the Arab-Islamic world and sneered at by the Israeli cultural establishment, into high art. The concerto was performed that year at the Jerusalem Theatre and dedicated to Omer’s father, Eliyahu, who passed away in 2007. In 2008 Avital, together with the renowned Israeli musician and musicologist, Yisrael Borochov, also performed and recorded Debka Fantasia, an audacious interpretation of Israel’s pioneer songs, recasting the rhythms and emphasizing the music’s Bedouin roots. Debka Fantasia was released to critical acclaim in 2009. In addition, in 2008 Avital composed Song of a Land, an extended meditation on land and culture in the Middle East that refined and elaborated traditional Jewish, Arab and North African elements. Song of a Land was performed in 2009 at New York’s Merkin Hall. Finally, in 2008 Yair Harel invited Avital to play at the Jerusalem Piyyut Festival with the great Moroccan performer of piyyut, Rabbi Haim Louk. Avital had been listening to cassette recordings of Louk for years but had never met the man (Avital did not even know if Rabbi Louk was still alive), and he jumped at the chance to play with one of his artistic idols. The trial run at the 2008 Jerusalem Piyyut festival was a rousing success, and Avital later approached Harel with the idea of establishing a large ensemble. When the Israel Festival offered the opening slot in 2010 Harel suggested expanding their work with Rabbi Louk, and the New Jerusalem Orchestra (NJO) was born. Avital and Harel named the initial project Ahavat Olamim, or “Eternal Love,” and the result was an extraordinary blend of soul, tradition, innovation and first-rate musicianship. A two-disc recording of Ahavat Olamim, the NJO’s live performance at the Israel Festival, was released in 2011.

But even while Avital was hard at work unifying musical worlds, he also stayed busy on other musical fronts. In 2010 Avital recorded the sophisticated musical conversations of Yes! Trio with his long-time jazz collaborators Ali Jackson (drummer for the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra) and Aaron Goldberg. The disk was released in 2012. Then in 2011 Avital released three albums: the funky, Middle-Eastern grooves of Yemen Blues, the passionately swinging Free Forever, and the blues-inflected Live at Smalls. Avital’s hard-charging, reflective and joyful 2012 offering, Suite of the East, was listed among Downbeat’s best CD’s of the year, was recognized by TSF Jazz (France) as Album of the year, and was picked as one of NPR Music’s Top 10 Jazz Albums of 2012. That same year Third World Love came together to release its fifth album, Songs and Portraits. In 2012 Avital and Harel also rejoined forces for the NJO’s second musical project, Makam Yerushalem, performed at the David Citadel in Jerusalem. The show was ecstatically received in the Israeli media (“As Exciting as the Coming of the Messiah”) and the NJO is scheduled to perform again in September of 2013.

If anything can be said with confidence about Omer Avital, unique jazz composer and bandleader and now the official Musical Director of the NJO, it is that he will keep on doing his thing: travelling the world with his various musical outfits, composing great music, and refining and elaborating different musical idioms until, at their ecstatic heights, he obliterates the distinctions between them, making for a singularly joyful and human sound.