In a field crowded with pianists, any newcomer has a considerable challenge of getting heard, much less critical attention, but in the few years since his Fresh Sound debut, Duet (2007), with bassist Haggai Cohen, Omer Avital has managed to get the attention of Radical Jewish Culture mogul John Zorn and the upstart Smalls Records labelthe imprint of the New York club that, since its revival in 2004 and, in particular, with pianist Spike Wilner's involvement in 2007, has become one of the city's better go-to venues. With four releases as a leader to date, most recently Rockets on the Balcony (Tzadik, 2010), the barely 30 year-old pianist has been garnering increased attention and numerous awards.
For his solo piano showcase at Jazzahead!, the Israeli-born pianist was joined by a surprise guest. Percussionist/drummer Ziv Ravitz, Klein's longtime trio mate, was there to perform with another pianist, Florian Weber, as part of the German Jazz Expo. When Klein heard he'd be there, he invited Ravitz to sit in on a couple tunes. Klein opened the set solo, however, with a song recently recorded for a new album that's currently being shopped for a label. While it was clearly based on a predefined structure, as the piece progressed and opened up so, too, did Klein, leaning more heavily into the piano with a style that was clearly informed by Keith Jarrett, but with more carefully reserved virtuosity.
The two tunes that featured Ravitz, including "3/4 Mantra" from Introducing Omer Klein (Smalls, 2008), were understandably more intrinsically propulsive. Ravitz played his cajón with a kind of reckless abandon, empathically connected to Klein, who pushed-and-pulled his longtime friend with the kind of comfortable ease that only comes from sharing plenty of time together onstage and off. While Klein's solo performance would have been impressive on its own"Something About Love," from the new recording, was a particularly moving ballad that demonstrated the pianist's ability to say plenty with very littlethe surprise addition of a longtime band mate gave those in attendance an opportunity hear two facets of this talented up-and-comer.
After a brief dinner break, wandering back to Schlachthof for Overseas Night, it was almost impossible to find a way in, so crowded were the grounds and so over-packed was the actual concert hall. With Jazzahead!'s growth clearly outpacing the capacity of this attractive venue, this year was marred by it being almost impossible for media, invited to cover the event, to find standing room with sight lines to the stage, let alone a seat in order to take notes. After standing near the top of the hall for the end of Vinx's seta few years since his "big break" with Sting, but still as powerful and innovative as ever, as he looks to kick start his career again with a recent live recording, a film in the works (Memoirs of a Hip 'Ole Black Man, which may include footage from his Jazzahead! performance), and digital download reissues of his early recordingsit appeared that the only way to shoot and take notes was to lean against the stage, right in front of the massive PA system.
Fortunately, saxophonist/clarinetist Oran Etkin and his Kelenia group weren't so loud as to make that an uncomfortable hearing riskBorn in Israel but living in the United States since he was four years-old, Etkin has been refining a remarkable educational program for bringing jazz to young ears. He calls this method Timbalooloo and his classes, which are spreading to locations around the United States and attended by children of well-known names like Harvey Keitel, Naomi Watts and Liev Shreiber, Ken Burns, and Edie Falco, use the seemingly simple premise that instruments "speak," in order to expose children as young as three years old to music that too many adults mistakenly consider to be too sophisticated for infant ears. Wake Up Clarinet! (Timbaloolook, 2010) is a recording, however, that appeals to all ages.
As does Kalenia (Motéma, 2009), Erkin's "adult" debut whose genesis stemmed from meeting balaphonist Balla Kouyate literally the day after he'd arrived in New York from Mali. Kelenia also features percussionist/singer Yeye Kante and, for the Jazzahead! date, bassist Stephane Kerecki, and brings music from Africa and the Middle East into the jazz sphere. An easygoing yet charismatic performer, Etkin may have owned the stage when he was soloinghis saxophone and clarinet work impressive, but his bass clarinet playing that was most memorablebut he shared the stage democratically with his band mates, often moving to stage left to interact with Kante while leaving plenty of solo space for Kouyatye, whose website cites him as being "among the greatest balafon players in the world today," and for good reason. With two balafons lined up side-by-side to allow him access to a chromatic scale, Kouyate extended the pentatonic nature of this calabash-resonated frame, wooden-keyed instrument into the more sophisticated structure of jazz.
Grooves abounded, as Kelenia married Third World ethnicity with First World harmonies; none other than reed and woodwind legend Yusef LateefEtkin's mentor from an early age along with saxophonist Dave Liebmanhas spoken in praise of this veritable early-thirties cottage industry, whose work in education may ultimately eclipse his performance work, if only because of its importance in bringing jazz to a young audience. But, based on his performance with Kelenia, Etkin is clearly not someone to miss, and with two tracks on the 2012 Grammy Award-winning All About Bullies, Big and Small (Independent, 2011) and a 2011 Grammy nomination for the Health Food For Thought (Independent, 2010) compilation with Russell Simmons, Julian Lennon and Moby, Etkin's star is clearly on the ascension, so this may be one of the last times to catch him in such an intimate context.