Jazz Pianist/Composer Takes Big Band Sound Global with Influences from North Africa, Cape Verde, Middle East and Peru
Credits Include Grammy CDs with Paquito D'Rivera and Yo-Yo Ma
NEW YORK CD Release Concert Sunday MARCH 25TH at BIRDLAND Special Guests: Paquito D'Rivera & Malika Zarra
BOSTON CD Release Concert Thursday APRIL 19TH at Scullers
Israel-born, Brooklyn-based pianist/composer Alon Yavnai has teamed up with Germany's NDR Bigband for Shir Ahava (Hebrew for A Love Poem"), his first album of music for a large ensemble and the initial recording for his own AYM label, to be released on March 27, 2012. Yavnai, who has shared Grammy Awards as a participant in recordings by Paquito D'Rivera and Yo-Yo Ma, and is an Associate Professor at Berklee College of Music, has released three previous CDs with trios and a sextet. But Shir Ahava finds him working with the 17 members of the Hamburg, Germany-based NDR Bigband, expanding his musical palette and giving the musicians a chance to play music reflecting the composer's multinational background.
This album does not necessarily fit the expectation one would have from a big band album," Yavnai explains. The music is very different from what you would hear on a Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington or Bob Mintzer big band album. To me, writing for big band feels like painting. It is very rich and there are many possibilities to create a wide variety of colors and textures. Often I like to experiment with the woodwind section, for example, and write for flutes and clarinets. That gives the big band a whole different sound, something closer to a woodwind and brass section in a symphonic orchestra."
The first time I ever recorded with a big band actually was with the NDR, back in 2005," Yavnai recalls. I went there with Paquito D'Rivera, with some of his arrangements. That gave me the inspiration to do my own recording. So I approached NDR executive producer Axel Dürr and asked him if I could do my own production in the future, and he said, 'Sure! Write ten arrangements, and we'll record them.'"
The music represents the composer's varied professional experience as well as his personal journeys, from Shir Ahava" itself, a setting of a poem by Israeli poet Yehonatan Geffen, to Au Castagney," reflecting on the bucolic setting where Yavnai's wife's family live in France, and Ilha B'Nit" ("Beautiful Island" in Portuguese Creole), which was inspired by his membership in a Cape Verde band that toured those islands. Travel Notes," heard in an earlier piano version on Yavnai's previous album of the same name, brings in the influence of Peruvian music with its festejo rhythm, as well as the related rhythms of Moroccan gnawa.
It's a mixture of national and cultural influences that comes naturally to Yavnai, who was raised in Israel for the first 22 years of his life, and began his musical studies there, but then followed his father and Argentine-born mother to Costa Rica. I was there for a couple of years," he recalls fondly, and we had a trio, the only jazz trio in Costa Rica, which was great: We had tons of time to practice!" Ultimately, however, his parents returned to Israel, while Yavnai moved to the U.S. to attend Berklee College of Music as a student in 1993. Like many an aspiring professional musician, though, he soon found himself playing in bands more than studying. I was a bad boy, I didn't finish school," he admits sheepishly. I wanted to play. Life just pulled in that direction so hard that I couldn't maintain both." (He later finished his Bachelor of Music degree at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and went on to a Master's in composition). He is now back at Berklee College of Music, where he teaches piano.
Yavnai had a breakthrough when he won the Great American Jazz Piano Competition in Jacksonville, FL, in 1996. That led to a week-long stint with Freddie Hubbard at New York's Jazz Standard and to an artist-in-residence appointment in Savannah, GA, that found him writing his first big band arrangements. Once a month, I would go there for three or four days and rehearse," he says. Each month I would write something new for them, developing my skills. I just loved the big band sound."
Simultaneously, Yavnai was building up a list of playing and recording credits that eventually included Yo-Yo Ma (the 2008 Grammy-winning Songs of Joy and Peace), Nancy Wilson (Turned to Blue), and a lengthy stint with Paquito D'Rivera (resulting in Grammy wins as musical director on Soldier's Tale in 2003 and as a member of the D'Rivera quintet on Funktango in 2006).
For Shir Ahava, Yavnai opted to launch his own AYM label, a logical-enough decision in a transitional period for the music business, but also one which is appropriate to a recording that is a labor of love. The album is very personal," he says. One reason I put it on my label is that I can do it exactly the way I want. That's a picture of my wife on the cover. The record is an embrace, it is a longing for home, both my original geographical home and also embracing my new home here. It's earthy, simple things. It's really about that. It's not pretending to be anything else.
Starting my own label," he adds, drives me to get proactive with my music, put it out there and not wait. Because I have kids, I think like that more and more. You don't know what will happen tomorrow. Also, I come from Israel, a very unpredictable place! It does something to your brain. It's like, 'The hell with all this waiting around. The music is here, it's recorded. I have an opportunity. Boom! I take it. Thank you. The CD is there. Next!'"
Yavnai will debut Shir Ahava in concert at two special big band events: on March 25th at Birdland in New York City (with special guests Paquito D'Rivera and Moroccan singer Malika Zarra) and on April 19th at Scullers Jazz Club in Boston.