Omer Klein Middle East: Folk Spices the Jazz
The Israeli pianist Omer Klein works in a modern-jazz mode, brisk and borderless, and yet his music vibrates with cultural specificity, projecting a sense of place. He's among the current bumper crop of adaptable transplants from Israel to New York, like the saxophonist Eli Degibri, the multireedist Anat Cohen and her brother Avishai Cohen, a trumpeter.
Unlike some of these peers Mr. Klein uses Middle Eastern folk elements as a patently important part of his platform, maybe the most important part. At Smalls on Tuesday night he led his dynamic trio, with Haggai Cohen Milo on bass and Ziv Ravitz on drums, and focused on material from his recording Rockets on the Balcony," featuring the same personnel. Released last year on Tzadik, John Zorn's label, it's an album of coolly restrained ambition, easily the most potent in Mr. Klein's young discography. ("Introducing Omer Klein," his energetic debut, was released on Smalls Records in 2008; since then there has been a solo-piano album and a duo album with Mr. Cohen Milo.)
Tuesday's first set began as the album does: with España," a kinetic concoction set in 5/4 meter, its springy melody hitting the upbeats in a minor scale. Very quickly the band reached a high simmer, burbling with polyrhythmic intent: deftly syncopated bass lines, a flowing churn of cymbals and snare. Mr. Klein played a busy vamp with his left hand, leaving his right free to embellish on the theme. Then, for a substantial stretch of his solo, he dropped the left hand and concentrated on improvising a compelling line.
As a pianist he has multiple touchstones, some of them standard issue: post-bop modernists like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, whose styles he seems to have absorbed in equal measure. (One track on the album, Shir Avoda," features him on a Fender Rhodes piano, sounding a lot like Mr. Corea in the early 1970s.) And like most jazz pianists under 30 Mr. Klein sounds as if he has made a close study of Brad Mehldau, though he has a more insistent touch and greater faith in the power of crescendo.
The songs on Rockets on the Balcony" are compact vehicles, often epigrammatic and to-the-point. Heidad," which arrived midset, could pass for one of the hundreds of short-form pieces in Mr. Zorn's Masada playbook. Shining Through Broken Glass," which preceded it, was a ballad suffused with graceful melancholy, framing a contemplative solo by Mr. Klein.
And Baghdad Blues," which on the album has Mr. Cohen Milo bowing his bass while Mr. Ravitz taps a frame drum, landed more aggressively here. Effervescing over a drone Mr. Klein and his partners could have slipped into exoticism. But their effort felt too genuine for that.