Omer Avital
  • courtesy of the artist
  • Omer Avital

The 2015 edition of the Israeli Jazz & World Music Festival kicked off last night at Constellation with a performance by Tammy Scheffer’s Morning Bound, a bland pop-jazz project based in New York. The program steps up tonight when bassist Omer Avital presents his quintet for a two-evening stint at the Green Mill. The bassist, composer, and bandleader is one of the most prolific, imaginative, and active figures in the bustling community of Israeli expats working in the New York jazz scene—he leads his own strong groups and works as a propulsive sideman in many others. On last year’s New Song (Motema) he made his boldest attempt to fold the folkloric sounds of his homeland within a postbop setting, with mixed results.

He wrote all 11 pieces with a strong focus on sweet-toned melody, but the energy level and general vibe lack the fire that’s marked his earlier efforts, despite a superb band that includes trumpeter Avishai Cohen and tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm. Apart from the hypnotic Middle Eastern feel, the melodies convey a kind of mushy pop-folk sensibility. A piece like “Sabah El-Kheir (Good Morning)” has the vibe of a late Bill Withers song: glowing, pretty warmth, but little bite. Below you can check out one of the album’s best pieces, “Bedouin Roots,” which would still benefit from a bit more heat. The group Avital brings to town includes only one musician featured on New Song—pianist Yonathan Avishai—but the rest of the band is impressive enough to counter my qualms about the recording: saxophonists Eli Degibri (another Israeli working in New York) and Greg Tardy, along with drummer Johnathan Blake.

There are other promising performances in the week ahead, including the return of trumpeter Cohen’s fantastic trio Triveni at the Old Town School next Friday and a performance by a trio led by bass clarinetist Oran Etkin Wednesday at the Chicago Cultural Center. But I’m a bit disappointed at the middle ground this festival—now in its third year—has staked out. As great as the Cohen trio is, this is the second straight year the group has participated, while plenty of daring Israeli musicians like Assif Tsahar, Yoni Kretzmer, Yair Yona, and Ido Bukelman have been left out. Here’s hoping that changes next year.

Today’s playlist:

Femi Kuti, No Place for My Dream (Knitting Factory)
Athena Quartet, György Kurtág: Complete Works for String Quartet (Neos)
Jonathan Moritz Trio, Secret Tempo (Hot Cup)
Keith Rowe & Graham Lambkin, Making A (Erstwhile)
Big Bold Back Bone, Clouds Clues (Wide Ear)