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Oded Tzur: A Thrilling New Saxophone Colossus

Oded Tzur: A Thrilling New Saxophone Colossus

Courtesy Chris Knight

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When I was starting out, Dexter Gordon was my main man. All I wanted in those years was to sound like Dexter. I was so impressed with the conviction in his playing. There was no hesitation, just absolute certainty with every note.
—Oded Tzur
Oded Tzur's 2020 album, Here Be Dragons, the Tel Aviv born, New York based tenor saxophonist's first release on ECM, triggered an eruption of purple prose. Critics competed to see who could convey the most enthusiasm. A few even suggested that the Tzur quartet was the inheritor of the mantle of the classic John Coltrane quartet. That might have been a little over the top and was certainly premature. Here Be Dragons was, after all, only Tzur's third album in a recording career which had begun as recently as 2015 with Like A Great River (Yellowbird). But in general the praise was justified. Here Be Dragons was exceptional.

The good news is that Tzur's follow-up, Isabela (ECM, 2022), is even better. He leads the same quartet, which is completed by pianist Nitai Hershkovits, bassist Petros Klampanis and drummer Johnathan Blake, and pursues the same trajectory. Exquisite, tender lyricism, composed and improvised, is punctuated by precisely articulated detonations of full-throated vocalized passion. It is an intoxicating, uplifting combination. The album is a perfect masterpiece.

Unlike its predecessor, which closed with a reading of "Can't Help Falling In Love," the Tin Pan Alley retread of eighteenth-century composer Jean-Paul-Égide Martini's "Plaisir D'Amour," Isabela is all original. It is a five-part suite, composed by Tzur in the form of a raga, a tradition he began studying with bansuri virtuoso Hariprasad Chaurasia at the Rotterdam World Music Academy in the 2000s.

One of the wonders of Tzur's tenor playing is that he has mastered the microtones and the slides and inflections of pitch which are essential elements of Hindustani raga. These were previously considered unattainable on the saxophone and are qualitatively different from the glissandos which were trademarks of alto player Johnny Hodges' style. It took Tzur almost a decade to perfect the technique, which he calls the Middle Path. In the process, he also honed a sound which is in its own way at least as big and broad as the one possessed by his formative influence on the tenor, the great Dexter Gordon.

One more thing. Isabela is barely over thirty-five minutes long. In fact, all four of Tzur's albums run for around forty minutes or less. In an age of digitally bloated playing times those are judgement calls for which he is to be congratulated.

Tzur talks about all this, and much more, in the interview below, which concludes with his list of six albums of transcendent importance to him.

Meanwhile, if you have yet to hear the aforementioned "Can't Help Falling In Love," the YouTube which follows this interview is essential listening. It features Tzur at his most gentle and caressing. To hear him get epic, check Isabela or elsewhere on Here Be Dragons.

Early Days In Tel Aviv

All About Jazz: When you were starting out, who were your biggest inspirations?

Oded Tzur: Dexter Gordon definitely and Lester Young, John Coltrane, people like that. I actually transcribed Dexter's solos for a couple of years. I was so impressed with his sound and also the sense of conviction in his playing. There was no hesitation, just absolute certainty with every note. When I was starting out as a jazz musician as a teenager, Dexter was definitely my main man.

AAJ: Who were your early teachers?

OT: In Israel we have a lot of great jazz educators. People who went to New York and came back and created a wonderful environment for younger musicians. One of my earliest teachers was Walter Blanding. He now plays with Wynton Marsalis in the Lincoln Center Orchestra. But he was in Tel Aviv for a minute and I took some lessons from hm. Then there was Erez Barnoy, who sadly passed away recently. He was also out of that focus on Dexter. A really big sound, very traditional chord progressions, teaching the nuts and bolts. He was a wonderful teacher.

AAJ: Did the existential threat posed to Israel by its neighbours make itself felt in the kind of jazz you played in Tel Aviv? And is it one of the reasons why so many Israeli musicians have relocated to New York?

OT: The answer to the first part of the question is yes, we definitely felt it. Everyone in Israel feels it. It is most certainly a defining fact of life. I suppose it's fair to say that the tensions and the complexities of our lives fueled some of the intensity with which we played. I can't really speak to why so many of us have left but I think it probably has more to do with career opportunities. In order to become a serious musician with an international career it feels like one needs to be based in New York or another large US city. When I was growing up, the focus of all the musicians was on New York-style hard bop. It still is today. In Israel there is a very large group of people who really have no interest in combining that style with any other musical or other fact of life pertaining to the local environment. I was like that for a time.

Moving Beyond Hard Bop

AAJ: What triggered your decision to move beyond hard bop and to find your own space in the music?

OT: It happened one day when I was seventeen and I was walking along the bank of a stream and I came across this plant which looked like the one they make saxophone reeds out of. I realized that I was face to face with the plant that makes all the sounds that I'd ever made, and also the sounds of each of my heroes including Dexter. It suddenly struck me, quite forcibly, that I needed to be standing in my own context, not Dexter's, for all that I loved him. That was a big moment for me because, like I said, all I wanted in those years was just sound like Dexter, to take that tradition forward.

So I began trying to find my own language. Over the next few years, I momentarily went into flamenco, Balkan brass bands, Western classical music, all kinds of other fascinations that I thought would maybe give me temporary relief from this burning issue. But none of them was really lasting. Then at a certain point I found out about Indian classical music and something about it really pulled me in. It gave me a sense of exploring the phenomenon of music itself, the fundamental phenomena of sound and rhythm, almost in laboratory conditions. Of course, this is a musical tradition that comes from a certain place, that belongs to a certain location and time, like all musical traditions, but there is something about it that is so profoundly universal, at least to me, that it pulled me in and allowed me to explore those fundamental things.

Some of my friends were able to go about it in different ways and play the basic jazz tradition but mix in a little Israeli music or a little bit of something else. I wasn't able to do that. I needed an answer that was all encompassing, something bigger than just my small corner of the world or, for example, New York—something that connects all these musical traditions.

AAJ: And raga provides such a connection?

OT: It does for me. I have also come to believe that what they call raga is called the blues in north America and it is a universal phenomenon. If you seriously investigate both musics you find that they share certain defining characteristics.

Raga: A Universal Science Of Sound

AAJ: What are those shared characteristics?

OT: It is a sense of gravity like you find in the solar system, a pull that the notes have on each other. First, consider the raga. You can look at a raga as a solar system that has one or two stars that revolve around each other and exert a pull on the planets around them. Within a raga's octave you have one or two notes that work in the same way. They are sustained for a longer time, they get the majority of your attention, and the other notes are pulled towards them. Specific and unmistakable relationships are then created between those particular notes that give rise to the mood, the distinct nature, of each particular raga. There are thousands of ragas and they have different scales and different relationships between the notes, but they all share this idea of a matrix with push and pull.

Now, consider the blues. If you accept the definition of raga as an ocean of possible melodies that could exist within a particular scale or scheme, and cannot be confused with another, but at the same time has infinite possibilities, then there is no other description of the blues but that it is a raga. Within its one scheme, the blues scale, it has an ocean of potential melodies and all of them are distinct. You can hear one phrase and you will immediately know "oh, that's the blues," it is that unmistakable, but at the same time there is an infinite amount of melodies that we could compose in the blues. In that sense the blues has all the requirements of a raga. On top of that it, blues and raga are both microtonal musics. They're never fully major, never fully minor.

So for me, raga is a universal phenomenon, a universal science of sound.

AAJ: Is there not a difference between raga and blues in that while raga has an infinity of scalar systems, the blues just has the one, the scale with a flattened third?

OT: You are right in that the blues is a whole genre of music that is based in one raga. When we are talking about Indian classical music we are talking about thousands and thousands of different ragas that all have different scales and different relationships and different notes that are important. In the blues there is just one—but it is such a magnificent raga that a whole genre of music has been created from it.

Universality Vs. Cultural Appropriation

AAJ: What is your take on the notion of cultural appropriation, which is similar to the notion propounded in gender studies which says a male novelist should not write from the point of view of a female protagonist, because he does not have a female's lived experience? It would be interesting to hear your thoughts, as a non-Indian embracing raga.

OT: I don't know that I have a good answer to this question. I think that, for example, if I as a Jewish person who grew up in Israel and have experienced what I experienced in the complexities of life there, were to suddenly meet someone who is non-Jewish but is wearing a yarmulka just because they think it looks cool, that I would find a little bit problematic. Because this particular item is imbued with meaning for me, even though I am not religious. There were times in history when you would literally risk your life if you were to wear that. There is a danger in utilizing something like that for an immediate short-term goal like looking cool. That is an extreme example, but there is something to it.

With raga, though, what I feel is important is that if I want to incorporate Indian classical music in my playing—and I didn't grow up in India and I am not interested in ever being Indian—what is fascinating to me is the universal power of that artform. That is what is so beautiful about it. But, and I feel very strongly about this, if I want to incorporate this in my music, I have to study it seriously. I need to be serious about it and not do half the job, as we would say.

Nevertheless, there are some people who feel you do need to be Indian to play Indian music. But I wonder if people with that point of view would feel the same if someone in a non-European country wants to play Mozart? Would they tell that person, no, no, you have to visit Vienna in the 18th or 19th century if you want to play Mozart? No one ever says that. Why? Because we think of Mozart as universal music. I feel that Indian classical music is the same.

The Middle Path: Microtonality On The Saxophone

AAJ: Without getting overly technical, can you explain how the Middle Path works?

OT: The process of developing the technique had to do with a lot of experimentation as well as relying on my classical saxophone training and its particular use of the diaphragm. A key aspect of saxophone acoustics is what is called the "end effect," a term which describes a situation in which the airstream exits the instrument through a few different tone holes rather than just one. This naturally occurs in higher frequencies, which is why it's easier to slide in the upper register. Over the years I've found ways to simulate an end effect in the other registers of the instrument, mainly through an untraditional use of the keys, which then allows me to slide in the carefully controlled manner Indian classical music requires. Developing the technique took the better part of a decade.

AAJ: You have described finding the Middle Path as being, in part, "a matter of faith." Please expand on that.

OT: Well, when I arrived on Hariprasad Chaurasia's figurative doorstep I didn't think I would ever be able to play raga's slides and very subtle inflections on the saxophone. I was fascinated by the music for the reasons we discussed earlier and because I thought it was just a magnificent artform, a form of meditation, a rhythmically rich tradition that I was interested in. But I didn't think I'd be able to do those slides and inflections—and neither did I imagine that they were critically important. However, the more I learnt about the music the more I realized that these journeys between one note and another are really at the heart of what raga is. In Indian classical music a slide is not an effect or an ornament, it is the music. The music is what happens in those journeys between the notes. I realized that to fully grasp the meaning of the music I would have to learn, somehow, to play those [slides and inflections] on the saxophone.

In the saxophone tradition you have people who have done beautiful things with slides, of course, particularly Johnny Hodges playing those amazing glissandos on the alto. But that is all done by manipulating your airstream and your embrochure. In raga you are playing in an artform where you are having to constantly slide between the notes. So I was interested in finding a more effortless and precise technique. You have situations in Indian classical music where your microtonal pitch is a matter of life and death, not for you but for the raga. If you don't hit a particular microtone, but one that's just next to it instead, you create a whole other mood. You have to have absolute control over the slide, how fast it is, exactly how it moves, where it starts and where it travels to.

So when I said it's a matter of faith, it was because to start with I didn't believe the saxophone could do it. That was just because of preconceived notions I had about the saxophone. When I started investigating, I found many ways in which the saxophone can indeed exist between the notes. That's the beautiful thing about discovering an instrument: it doesn't necessarily have the limitations you think it has.

AAJ: You had to learn to feel the force, if you will excuse a Star Wars analogy.

OT: Exactly. That is exactly right.

Isabela: A Perfect Masterpiece

AAJ: In Indian classical music you have morning ragas and evening ragas and so on. Isabela feels like a morning raga—the sun is rising and it is going to be a glorious day. Is that how you feel it, too?

OT: That's a beautiful question. I don't have an immediate answer. In addition to morning ragas, evening ragas, afternoon ragas etcetera, there are ragas for different times of the year. For example, there is a rainy season raga. In fact, Isabela is inspired by that particular raga. It is called megh. It's a beautiful pentatonic raga, it goes [sings], so it skips the three and the six and it's characterized by these fairly long slides from the seven to the five and from the four to the two [sings].

AAJ: Is Isabela a real person?

OT: [Laughs]. Yes, she is my wife. I decided to create this portrait of her, right after doing Here Be Dragons actually. I was fascinated by the prospect of trying to describe her in music and I have to say it was the most challenging thing I have ever done in music, because instrumental music is abstract. If you wanted to paint a picture of someone and you want it to be abstract that's your choice, because you can also make it a more literal presentation. But in instrumental music you don't really have a literal option. How could you possibly do justice to the most beautiful person in the world in melodies that you sit and write? She does like it though. I also feel like it helped me connect with the nature of my own music, because a raga is very much like a portrait. Each raga is like a person, it's distinct and individual. So in that regard it is very much like a person and it was the perfect opportunity to put everything that I have learnt into sharp focus. That's why I feel this is the best album I've ever made.

AAJ: All the material on your albums is written by you except "Lonnie's Lament" on Translator's Note (Yellowbird, 2017) and "Can't Help Falling In Love" on Here Be Dragons. Why those two tunes?

OT: At the time we recorded Translator's Note we were experimenting with playing standards, particularly ballads. We positioned ourselves within the American songbook and that was interesting. "Lonnie's Lament" came out of that particular moment. We did a lot of that live. Up to a point, "Can't Help Falling In Love" came about in a similar way. But while it is a ballad, it is also so foreign in respect of the sort of ballad you would normally have. I think that if you still sound like yourself when you are singing someone else's poem then that's a beautiful thing, because you are honouring someone else's poem when you are also honouring what you have together with your band.

AAJ: Final question. All your albums come in at around forty minutes or less, something all too rare in this digitally bloated age, where less is rarely understood to mean more. Is the brevity of the playing times deliberate or coincidental?

OT: I don't think it's entirely coincidental. I feel there's a certain moment in a concert or recording when you feel like the music has conveyed something, something meaningful that you want people to receive, and that's the right time to let go. I don't understand the notion that length of time is an indicator of value. It's like going to a museum and looking at a picture that you connect to and then saying "I wish he had painted it on a bigger canvas." No. This is the canvas. Trust the artist that they were intentional about this.

Six Transcendent Albums

Tzur says "I don't know if I have words to describe these albums. They kind of leave me speechless." He is right to avoid verbal descriptions of transcendent masterpieces, for the same reason that album reviews which lumber through every track and solo are mind-numbingly boring. Get the big picture, baby.

Nikhil Banerjee
Afternoon Ragas
Raga Records, 1970

This has the first raga I fell in love with, an afternoon raga called "Bhimpalasi." It only lasts for around thirty-five minutes but that's enough for a lifetime.

Hariprasad Chaurasia
Indian Night: Live Stuttgart '88
Chanda Dhara, 1989

Hariprasad Chaurasia plays a midnight raga called called "Malkauns." This is with the great tabla player Zakir Hussain.

Hariprasad Chaurasia
Rag Bhimpalasi
Nimbus, 1991

Here Hariprasad Chaurasia plays the same raga that Nikhil Banerjee plays, "Bhimpalasi." They have very different interpretations. It's one of the things we talked about, how infinite a raga is.

Zia Mohiuddin Dagar
Raga Yaman
Nimbus, 1991

An absolutely gorgeous album. Zia Mohiuddin Dagar plays the veena, this huge, low frequency instrument, a bit like a sitar but deeper in pitch.

John Coltrane
Interstellar Space
ABC Impulse, 1974

This album is a good example for me of that moment when Coltrane, as a symbol of jazz itself, showed so clearly a fresh direction, in which conventional harmony and aesthetics are thrown out the window. He's really shooting for the stars, going beyond what we conventionally think of as pretty or beautiful. I think this is the kind of album that I needed to hear when I was a teenager in order to really discover Indian classical music. Coltrane was a key figure in that for sure. He was also fascinated by Indian classical music, to the point where he actually named his son after Ravi Shankar. So this album, which I came across when I was eighteen, was an arrow for me, pointing in this direction. I went straight into free jazz for a while, seeing if that had the answers I was looking for.

Dexter Gordon
Ballads
Blue Note, 1991

This is a compilation, but a remarkable one. It's amazing, my favourite album by Dexter actually, for the way he interpreted ballads. The cover photograph is my favourite one of any musician, too.

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