The Omer Avital Group - "Asking No Permission" (Part 1 of 4 Part Series)
Lately I've been listening to a recording by Omer Avital that has piqued my interests. Although I own three recordings with Avital as leader, one in particular has been getting the most play while the other two sit neglected. I was trying to decide which one to review first. Reviewing his newest release would help keep the site feeling fresh and up-to-date and would perhaps benefit more readers who are still on the fence over purchasing it. Reviewing his older recordings would....um most likely go unread since people already own it or have made a conscious decision to pass on it. Although I want to keep posting reviews of new releases, I also feel a certain pressure to know more of Avital's catalogsince most of his work is new to me. As a reviewer, I have an obligation to know some of an artists' history in order to put his or her new releases into context. What to do, what to do?
After giving it some thought, I decided it would be a good exercise to review each of the three albums in chronological ordergiving each an individual review, but using the recordings to track the progress of Avital's career. Decision made, I put a plan in place. Starting with this review, I will release a new review each Thursday for the next 3 weeks; that's 3 reviews and one summation that will look at Avital's progress as an artist over those 3 recordings. Ok, let's get on with the show....
For those unfamiliar with Omer Avital, he was born in Givataima small Israeli town. Although his musical studies started with classical guitar, Avital eventually switched to bass while attending high school at Israel's leading arts program, Talma Yalin. By 17 he was playing music professionally and after a short stint in the Israeli Army, Avital migrated to New York City. Those familiar with Avital's recordings know his name is synonymous with the New York City club Smalls. From its opening night in 1994, Smalls has become the proverbial home away from home" as Avital joined Peter Bernstein and the then unknown, Brad Mehldau for the first ever set at the night club. Avital's connection with Smalls would grow through his work as a sideman, his permanent seat in the Jason Lindner Big Band, and eventually as leader of the sextet reviewed here. In fact, two of the albums to be reviewed in this series, including Asking No Permission, were recorded at Smalls.
I choose to start this series with Asking No Permission for two reasons. First, although it wasn't released until 2006, this recording was actually from 1996a time when only the most ardent jazz fan would recognize the name Omer Avital; and considering his official debut album wasn't released until 2001, this recording is a great way to experience Avital as a young leader. Second, the makeup of this groupthree tenor sax players (one doubles on the flute), an alto saxophonist, drummer, and Avital on basspresents an atypical format. I was intrigued, but also a bit hesitant; worried about the possibility of four saxophonists stepping all over each other in an attempt to gain the spotlight. Thankfully, Avital's six original compositions (there is also a number by Petekere/Young) are arranged so that the melodies have a layer for each musician and solos are generously given with ample space.
The first few times listening to Asking No Permission, I found myself a bit restless during the second half and had a hard time making it through the final two tracks. It wasn't that the final two tracks are inherently bad; instead I found that each of the last three tracks checks in at over 12 minutes (the three combined top 40 minutes). The melodies and rhythms are still exceptional, but some of the soloing gets dragged out and a bit insipid. All that being said, this is still an enjoyable recordingone in which the reward goes to the repeat listener who spends the time unraveling the complexities of Avital's compositions. Avital demonstrates a unique ability for layering the horns so that each enters the melody on a different note which eventually resolves in perfect harmony. Also to note are his tempo changes and dynamics (both during his solos and throughout his compositions). Asking No Permission is steeped in hard bop and the avant-garde tradition of Charles Mingus. Those who like the works of Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins will appreciate Avital's modern expression of their style. The inexperienced jazz fan will most likely find pleasure in the melodies, but may be put off by some of the longer soloing and unstructured segments. The vast majority of jazz fans however, will find plenty of satisfying moments worthy of repeat listenings.
The opening track, Know What I Mean?!," will slap you in the face with Mingus's Haitian Fight Song" (if you're unacquainted with Haitian Fight Song," get yourself a copy; you won't be disappointed). After a brief intro, Avital goes solo on the bass before leading a climax to the melody as the rest of the group joins in. In this 11+ minute song, each artist is given room to make an opening statement and introduce themselves. Avital's skills as composer and arranger are on full display; the warm melody of the harmonizing saxophones juxtaposed against the dry, throaty individual solos. This contrast is also employed briefly during each of the solos as Avital has the tenors enter for a quick restating of the melody. Opening with a Mingus-esq track may have some complaining about Avital not having his own voice," but those criticisms shouldn't be handed down so lightly. First, the fact that he can write a composition which has all the swinging, catchy elements of a Mingus tune is a good sign. Next, what bassist born in the past 50 years hasn't been influenced by Mingus? Finally, the fact that in his mid-20s Avital was writing complex compositions that bring to mind a jazz legend, only demonstrates his experience and proficiency as a composer are years ahead of his age; a trait which can be traced back to his high school days where at age 17 he was already writing all of the arrangements for his schools ensemble.
The only composition not written by Avital, Lullaby of the Leaves," is a bluesy number which speaks of a hot, sticky New Orleans night. The tenor solos are marked with a velvety touch as the musicians slide and smear from note to note. The rhythm maintains a dark, sultry half tempo feel, while the melody winds back and forth creating a circus like atmosphere. As the song progresses, the saxophones, especially the alto solo by Myron Walden, cries out into the night with a dry, desperate voice. Although not written by Avital, this piece fits the album well with its unique phrasing and tempo shifts.
12 Tribes" is a number based on tempo shifts and conversation. After Ali Jackson's drum intro builds up steam like a chugging train, the melody is set as a call and response dialog between bass and reeds. Avital steps up for the opening solo and for the first time, really unleashes his fingers. It's a balanced display consisting of speed and melodic phrasings. Next up, two tenors weave back and forth in an amalgamated solo before giving way to a single tenor sax solo (unfortunately, with 3 tenor saxophone players identifying each individually by name is nearly impossible). This lone soloist is in fine form as he shows off his chops flying through arpeggios with reckless abandon. This track is hard bop at its besthard driving, with a tempo vacillating between 4/4 and double time.
Like 12 Tribes," which clocks in at over 15 minutes, the last two tracks both push the 12 minute barrier. Both tunes open with a bass introduction before giving way to the brass. Between the two, the nearly 15 minute Kentucky Girl" offers a more interesting composition. As the melody is stated, and restated, Avital changes each saxophonists role while maintaining the integrity of the rift. On most occasions, the individual saxophones enter the melody with a different tonal inflection before resolving into a rewarding harmony. Avital and Jackson control the rhythm throughout, employing dynamics which creates a rolling up-and-down swing to the track. The bass solo is controlled and deliberate, using pacing to create a sleepwalking mood. The final track, The Field," incorporates the same harmonizing melodies (the throaty, dry saxophone layering is especially rewarding), but as mentioned above, the soloing can get a little long and drab.
3.5 out of 5, Asking No Permission is probably not going to show up on anyone's top 10 list and was not considered a critics choice for 2006. However, there is ample justification for releasing this album a decade after its recordingit shows a young Omer Avital writing and arranging interesting pieces that normally only comes with a couple of decades of experience. Is it a bit lengthy at times? Yes. Is it interesting and full of complex layering that will keep listeners coming back for more? Yes. Omer Avital has a bright future ahead of him and is another contemporary, young artist who appears to have the skills to help carry jazz deep into the 21st century. Go get yourself a copy, listen, listen, and then listen some more. Then stop back next Thursday and read the second review in this four part series.
Charles Owenstenor saxophone
Mark Turnertenor saxophone
Omer Avitaldouble bass
Gregory Tardyflute, tenor saxophone
Myron Waldenalto saxophone
Recording date: April 18, 1996
Release date: February 14, 2006 (Smalls)