Since Omer Avital debuted as a bandleader in 1995, the Israeli-American bassist-composer has established himself internationally as a virtuoso practitioner of his instrument and a transformational composer and musical thinker. As a performer, Avital is a master of the various rhythmic and harmonic vocabularies that underpin 20th and 21st century hardcore jazz expression, which he approaches with a polyphonic attitude and articulates with prodigious technique. As a conceptualist, he is an avatar of musical multilingualism, as fluent carving out an erudite walking bassline as creating gorgeous melodies from percolating North African grooves, elemental vamps and Middle Eastern scales that descend from his Yemenite and Moroccan roots.
Born in 1971, Avital began his journey in Givatayim, Israel, a municipality that adjoins Tel Aviv’s eastern border. His father, Eliyahu, a photographer of Moroccan descent, introduced Omer to big band jazz, Frank Sinatra, European classical and Arab traditional music. His mother, Dalia, is descended from a Yemenite family. They met through their mutual love of dancing, and after their marriage, Eliyahu Hebraicized his last name, Abutbul, which means “father of the drum,” to Avital, “father of the dew.”
At 11, Avital won a children's songwriting contest. He began to play guitar, which he studied at the Givatayim Conservatory and later Thelma Yellin School of the Performing Arts in Tel Aviv. His love of blues guitar opened a window into jazz; at 15 he heard Jaco Pastorius, got an electric bass and became involved in fusion and rock. At 17, he met bassist Emil Ram, once a student of bebop guru Barry Harris, who introduced him to the music of Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington. Avital bought an upright bass, and soon became a fixture on Tel Aviv’s jazz scene. After a year of mandatory military service, which he spent in the Israeli Air Force Orchestra, Avital flew to New York in 1992.
After a semester at the New School’s Jazz and Contemporary Music Program, Avital matriculated at Mannes College, and immersed himself into an emerging scene being created in various small venues in downtown Manhattan by a wave of musicians who would soon be household names. In 1993, alto saxophonist Antonio Hart took him on tour, and included him on the CD For Cannonball and Woody, along with NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Cobb. That year, he also toured with tenor saxophonist Bill Saxton, and encountered drummer Ali Jackson, a frequent partner now well known for his long tenure with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
In 1995, Avital formed a four-saxophone, bass and drums unit at Smalls, the now-iconic Greenwich Village jazz club that he helped to launch in April 1994 on a two-night gig by a Peter Bernstein-led quartet that included Brad Mehldau, and another night with Mehldau’s trio. As time progressed, Avital became a regular presence at Smalls, along with such gifted same-generation friends as pianists Aaron Goldberg and Jason Lindner, drummers Daniel Freedman and Jackson, and bassist Avishai Cohen and trombonist Avi Lebovich, both fellow first-wave Israeli emigrants. He received a one-night-a-week sinecure, and began composing for a rotating cast of saxophonists that included such masters-in-the-making as Mark Turner, Greg Tardy, Myron Walden, Jimmy Greene, Grant Stewart, Jay Collins, Charles Owens and Joel Frahm in ensembles propelled by Jackson, Joe Strasser, or Freedman.
As Avital evolved his singular corpus over the next five years, accolades accumulated. Time Out New York wrote: “Years from now, when folks are remembering the early days of 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.” His music was first documented on Jazz Underground: Live at Smalls (Impulse!), along with pieces by five other Smalls-associated bands. Avital signed with Impulse! as a bandleader in 1998, and recorded his debut studio album, Devil Head, which, due to circumstances beyond his control, was never released. His first leader release was the 2001 studio album Think With Your Heart (Fresh Sound), which Downbeat awarded a 4½-star review. Of the subsequently-issued location recordings Asking No Permission and Room To Grow, both on Smalls Records, which reveal the heights this band could reach in live performance, New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff wrote: “So we weren't crazy: finally, here's proof that Omer Avital's sextet, which played at Smalls to a small but deep following in the late 90’s, really was good.” Avital also played in Lindner’s big band, and participated the collaborative OAM Trio, with Goldberg and Catalonian drummer Marc Miralta, which presented standards, bebop tunes and original music by each member on Trilingual, Flow, Live in Sevilla (with Turner), and Now and Here
Based in a small village near Jerusalem called Ein-Karem, he studied the Oud, and enrolled at Jerusalem’s Rubin Academy of Music, where he taught jazz and earned a degree in classical composition in 2004. He began to de-emphasize his bass playing and to investigate more thoroughly the various dialects he’d blended intuitively during the ‘90s. He studied counterpoint and Schoenberg; played Strauss, Mahler and Mozart in the school orchestra; studied Arabic quarter tone music in both its classical and folk forms; Israeli pioneering songs known as Zemer Ivry; and North African and Middle Eastern piyyut, Jewish traditions of sacred song, particularly of the Moroccan and Yemenite varieties.
On school breaks, Avital toured Israel with a groove-based unit propelled by American drummer Marlon Browden, that featured trumpeter Avishai Cohen and pianist Omri Mor, both Israelis. He also co-founded Third World Love, a collective quartet with Cohen, Israeli-French pianist Yonathan Avishai and drummer Freedman, described by Jazz Times as a “fired-up yet cozy admixture of jazz and global influences, hints of Middle Eastern melodies, Spanish accents and African rhythms.” Their ebullient lyricism comes through on Third World Love Songs (2003), Avanim (2004), Sketches of Tel Aviv (2006), New Blues (2007), and Songs and Portraits (2012).
In 2005, Avital moved back to New York, where he recorded Arrival [Fresh Sound] and The Ancient Art of Giving [Smalls], deploying, respectively, a sextet and quintet to document 18 tunes, some which he’d written during his stay in Ein-Karem. They document the beginning of a new compositional direction, synthesizing, in the words of pianist-journalist Ben Waltzer, “American jazz, Israeli, Yemeni, Moroccan, and other Arab styles into something genuinely new and vital for its connection to a shared Middle Eastern past.”
While ensconced in New York, Avital has fully engaged himself in the cultural life of Israel with a string of ambitious works that, Waltzer writes, “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.”
One such project is Avital’s 2008 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 which he refined and transformed into high art popular tunes written in Israel by Jews from the Arab-Islamic world. Another from that year is Debka Fantasia, on which Avital and Israeli musicologist Yisrael Borochov explored the Bedouin roots of Israel’s pioneer songs. Still another is Avital’s 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.
Also in 2008, Avital was invited to play at the Jerusalem Piyyut Festival with the Moroccan-born Israeli virtuoso singer and piyyut performer Rabbi Haim Louk, whose recordings Avital had admired for years. The success of that performance spurred Avital to broach the idea of expanding the context to a large ensemble, resulting in the New Jerusalem Orchestra (co-founded with Yair Harel), which performed the 2010 extended work Ahavat Olamim (“Eternal Love”), on which Avital arranged a suite of traditional Moroccan Piyyuts (released as a 2-CD set in 2011), and the 2012 project, Makam Yerushalem, performed at the David Citadel in Jerusalem.
In 2010, Avital co-founded and served as music director for Yemen Blues, a project conceived by singer-composer Ravid Kahalani (who Avital met at the Debka Fantasia project), that mixes Yemenite, West African, funk, jazz and blues flavors, as documented on the 2011 album Yemen Blues. In 2012, Avital began a project with Berlin-based, Israeli mandolinist Avi Avital (no relation), in which he displays his no-limits command of the oud towards articulating their shared interest in baroque, Moroccan and Israeli folk music. Avital Meets Avital’s August 2016 recording for Universal will be released on Deutsche Grammophone in June 2017.
But Avital—who earned Israel’s Prime Minister’s Award in 2008—still regards jazz as his primary vehicle of self-expression. His recent recordings of original music by his quintet with trumpeter Avishai Cohen and tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm include the 2011 CD Live At Smalls (Smalls Live) with pianist Lindner and drummer Jonathan Blake. Suite Of The East, with pianists Omer Klein and drummer Daniel Freedman, recorded in 2006, was released in 2012, when TSF Jazz (France) named it Album of the Year, and NPR Music chose it as a Top Ten Jazz Album. Jazz Times described the compelling 2014 CD New Song (Plus Loin/Motema), with pianist Yonathan Avishai and Freedman, as “fresh, sophisticated, authentic and—something that can’t always be counted on accompanying those other qualities—great fun to listen to… Avital’s melodies, as a rule, are remarkably singable. More power to him if his big-hearted music compels listeners to sing or dance along.”
For his summational 2016 CD, Abutbul Music [Harmonia Mundi], his tenth release as a leader, Avital recruited for the first time an all-Israeli band with pianist Yonathan Avishai, saxophonists Asaf Yuria and Alexander Levin, and drummer Ofri Nehemya. Pianist Eden Ladin comes on-board for an upcoming 2017 release by the Omer Avital Quintet, his working band for the foreseeable future. None of the musicians are over 30; each is following the example Avital set when he migrated from Israel to New York City to receive thorough seasoning in the art of jazz expression.
In their company, Avital, informed by his experience in the polyglot melting pots of his native and adopted homes, and by his deeply rooted blues sensibility, will continue to merge the streams of expression that permeate his sui generis musical production over the last two decades. Pragmatic and utopian, grounded and visionary, he’s a 21st century lodestar.