omer avital group /
|1 Know What
2 Lullaby Of The Leaves (Petekere/Young)
4 Devil Head
5 12 Tribes
6 Kentucky Girl
7 The Field
All compositions by Omer Avital (Abutbul Music/ASCAP), except where otherwise indicated.
Recorded April 18th 1996 live at Smalls, New York City.
Omer Avital (bass)
Producers: Omer Avital and Luke Kaven
idea of jazz includes old and new definitions of swing and temperament,
as if the stylistic and generational divisions never existed. Ornette Coleman's
country hymns get in there, as do Woody Herman's close-harmony writing for
saxophones, Charles Mingus' tetchiness and ensemble friction, Lennie Tristano's
rambling counterpoint and the mesmerizing wail of Pharoah Sanders."”
– The New York Times
standout, strumming Spanish guitar lines one minute, sitar-like bent wails
the next, with a Mingus-like thump…A ferocity that not only invoked
Bird but ranged through some Hendrix-like noise and Bach’s G Major
cello suite as well…Instantly recognizable style.” –
The Village Voice
As Smalls first came into full swing in 1995 and 1996, there emerged a core group of especially talented artists featured in recombinant groups on an ongoing basis. Several new ensembles came to the forefront, bringing new repertoire to maturity through regular engagements at Smalls. One of the most memorable of these was without question the Omer Avital Group. The group, with stunning dramatic sweep and musical scope, made some of the definitive statements of contemporary jazz, helping to usher in a sound that still predominates today, ten years later. This disk is the first of a series of planned volumes of the essential recordings of this group, assembled from many hours of recordings I made between 1995 and 1997 at Smalls, capturing many of the group’s best performances during its most exciting period.
Omer Avital was born in Israel in the town of Givataim. He excelled in music studies early on, entering the Givataim Conservatory at age 11 to study classical guitar, and going on to Talma Yalin, Israel’s leading high school for the arts where his interests turned to jazz and the acoustic bass. After a brief period in the national service, Omer moved to New York to be in the heart of the international jazz scene. He quickly achieved recognition as a bassist of rarest talent and musicality, and became one of the most in-demand bassists on the scene, steadily performing, recording and touring with such jazz legends as Roy Haynes, Jimmy Cobb, Nat Adderley, Walter Bishop, Al Foster, Kenny Garrett, Steve Grossman, Frank Hewitt, Jimmy Lovelace, Rashied Ali, and more, as well as some of the great jazz artists of his generation including Mark Turner, Aaron Goldberg, Joshua Redman, Jason Lindner, Jeff Ballard, Brad Mehldau, Antonio Hart, Claudia Acuña, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Peter Bernstein, Greg Tardy, Myron Walden, Larry Goldings, and Ali Jackson among others.
The development of the Omer Avital group is tied closely with the history of Smalls. Avital was in fact on the first gig ever at Smalls, with the then-unknown Peter Bernstein and Brad Mehldau. Avital was a permanent member of the pivotal Jason Lindner Big Band, which developed over years into a weekly Monday night institution at Smalls. Lindner has played host to a generation of bright new talents, and has made quite a mark. The genesis of the classic Avital sextet captured here is partly to be found in Lindner’s band, which at various times in its early days also included Turner, Tardy, Walden, and Owens. The Lindner band always featured gifted and impassioned soloists playing on material with wide dynamics. Its unique qualities were due in part to the special character of the band’s rhythm section. As a rhythm section, Lindner on piano, Avital on bass, and Daniel Freedman on drums were fluid, able to seamlessly modulate together through unusual meters, moods, and stylistic changeups. These qualities carried over into the Omer Avital group.
An expectant air preceded the debut of this group. In the back of Smalls, in what used to be a kitchen, you could see things musical were being cooked up. Freshly penciled sheet music was strewn around, signs of the composer at work. Nascent riffs could be heard escaping from the decommissioned walk-in cooler where Omer would spend long sessions on the rehearsal piano inside. In the doorway at Smalls hung the band’s poster showing Avital’s intent gaze (reproduced here on the back cover). A serious look but natural, with no trace of self-conscious fashion sneer. In its beginnings, Avital’s group was featured on weekly late-nights at Smalls on Tuesdays at 2 am--after the bewitching hour, when it is more the music that is the prime mover, and less the dates and drinks. Here, over a period of a few months, Omer issued forth a stunning array of new tunes and arrangements for everything from duo to sextet. The group quickly caught on among musicians around town, and drew raves from critics. Peter Watrous in The New York Times (1/31/96) wrote: “The bassist Omer Avital's exceptional set at Smalls on Thursday night was cause for optimism for two reasons. The first is that the handful of young musicians in the band who were good improvisers a year ago have become more than that. Expressive, powerful and well informed, the sextet doesn't have a weak link….[Avital] and the drummer Ali Jackson have led the jam-session band, which plays from 2 to 8 in the morning, every Friday for nearly two years, and the communication they’ve developed is extraordinary.” As its notoriety grew, the group was brought on as an evening feature, frequently playing to packed houses on Thursday nights. One of those Thursdays is captured here.
Here Avital reveals himself to be a consummate musical dramatist and storyteller. His compositions are episodic, often having the ring of epic stories and folk legends set to music. Their dramatic force and poetic weight help drive the music. The ensemble chemistry is key to the success of the music. And the Omer Avital Group in its various instantiations had chemistry rare enough to make it memorable among jazz groups in history. Omer chooses his musical ensemble with the kind of care a director takes in casting the leading roles for a dramatic ensemble, and it makes a difference.
Avital and drummer Ali Jackson dance around the beat with effortless grace, setting the tone and pace with nuanced dynamics that range from a whisper to a gunshot. Jackson really uses his drums to speak, and he’s fleet and articulate. He first emerged full-blown on the New York scene around this time, as natural a drummer as there ever was. Music runs in his family, as he comes from a line of great jazz musicians that includes the McKinneys of fame. The four horns play the dramatis personae for Avital’s works. Mark Turner has proven to be one of the most influential tenor saxophonists of our time, and here he is a catalyst who infuses the group with energy and contributes a truly beautiful sound throughout. Gregory Tardy, soulful, sincere, and from St. Louis, had recently come off two years with the Elvin Jones group when this was recorded. He’s a powerful tenor player with an impeccable sound who’s a source of energy for any group that has him. Walden is a virtuosic lead alto player with a commanding tone that never wavers. His features, among them duets with Mark Turner, one of which is included here on 12 Tribes, made for some of the group’s greatest moments. Completing the front line is Charles Owens, a longtime musical associate of Avital’s. Owens was featured on the weekly Friday late night at Smalls for nearly eight years running, and his group was critically lauded for its appearance on the popular Impulse CD Jazz Underground: Live at Smalls, which also featured Avital in accompaniment.
Avital’s bass playing encompasses the full expressive range of the instrument. His grasp of music history is remarkable, drawing on Bach’s crystalline counterpoint, Israeli and Middle Eastern folk music, Yemenite Synagogue music, and early Spanish classical music. His command of jazz history is just as impressive. His influences on bass, among them Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Charles Mingus, Jimmy Garrison, Charlie Haden, and Jaco Pastorius, are paid just tribute in his music. As a composer and bandleader, Avital has clearly learned much from Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, both ingenious musical dramatists.
At the time of these recordings, now ten years ago, the merits of the group were clear, both in terms of the strength of the individual musicians, and in terms of the strength of the group as a whole. The music has withstood the test of time. Many groups since, by contrast, displayed novelty and promised much, but ended up being little over the mere sums of their parts. Outward novelty alone does not make for innovation. An element of synthesis is needed, and the knowledgeable insight required for that requires a grasp of history, unless one is to be content with reinventing the non-starter. When music is pressed, as it is here, into the service of a talented dramatist and storyteller drawing on a rich musical and cultural history, it becomes something more meaningful. And that I think will be its lasting legacy.