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Yogev Shetrit: A Jazz Journey Through Diverse Traditions

Yogev Shetrit: A Jazz Journey Through Diverse Traditions

Courtesy Yossi Zwecker

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Improvisation is a fluid process guided by the composition's structure and harmony. While I draw inspiration from jazz legends, I strive to create my own sound and narrative.
—Yogev Shetrit
In the vibrant world of jazz, Yogev Shetrit, a drummer and composer from Israel, stands out as a multifaceted artist, seamlessly blending diverse influences to create music that captivates audiences worldwide. From his early fascination with rhythm to his deep-rooted connection to Moroccan tradition, Shetrit's musical journey is as rich and dynamic as the melodies he composes. In this exclusive interview, Shetrit shares insights into his creative process, the evolution of his sound, and the unforgettable moments that have defined his career. He also reveals some behind-the-scenes information about his new album Way of Tradition, to be released in September 2024.

All About Jazz : Let's speak about the very beginning. How did it all start? Why drums?

Yogev Shetrit : Before drums, I played a little piano and flute. There was always music in my house, with various influences. My brother listened to Middle Eastern and hip-hop, while my parents favored Moroccan and traditional music, as well as jazz. My mother particularly enjoyed Dave Brubeck's "Take Five." My father shared this love for jazz, while my sisters preferred mainstream music. So, I grew up surrounded by diverse sounds. I also admired local bands. One day, my parents bought my brother a small drum set, and I was fascinated. We started playing together, learning from each other. I became determined to learn drums, despite my parents' reservations due to the noise. Eventually, I convinced them, and I began taking drum lessons. At that time practicing in our building's shelter room presented challenges due to the instrument's volume, but now I have a studio with proper acoustics.

AAJ : And what initially brought you to jazz?

YS : It's been a journey. Initially, I played a lot of rock music like Metallica and Pink Floyd, collaborating with various musicians in my hometown. Eventually, I delved into fusion, discovering artists like Dave Weckl and Chick Corea Electric Band. Then, my friends introduced me to jazz, and I was hooked. I immersed myself in the works of jazz legends from Bud Powell, and anything from dixie to bop, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, all the idols, to contemporary artists like Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau. Brian Blade is one of my favorite musicians, too. And many influences, including the influences from all the cultures that we have here in Israel: Yemenite, Moroccan, Persian, all the people that immigrate from Europe. So it's a blend.

AAJ: When was your first paid gig, and what genre were you playing?

YS: My first paid gig was at a local festival in Beersheba, where I played rock covers of bands like U2 and Pink Floyd. I was around 16 or 17 at the time.

AAJ: Then you pursued your musical education. Was it jazz-focused?

YS: Initially, no. I studied economics with a focus on marketing. However, my passion for music led me to pursue a degree in musicology after graduating. I dedicated myself to drums, practicing whenever I could find a space to play. After completing my military service, I committed to a career in music. While my formal musical education encompassed various genres, jazz always remained my priority. I joined a band that played that kind of music. I also used to play at the traditional wedding parties. It's not jazz at all, but I played many different styles.

And then I really focused on jazz. In that process, also, I started to play with great musicians and we formed a band. It was called Coolooloosh Band. We played hip hop and funk with a lot of influence from jazz. Each musician there brought their own world of music. It's a blend of many influences.

We toured all over the world and played at many festivals. During this time, I always composed. I always played the piano, recorded myself, and started to compose just for myself. It's an interesting process.

AAJ: You mentioned that you started composing just for yourself, playing the piano. How has your composing evolved since then, and what is your composing process like now?

YS: Composing for me is a spontaneous process. All the compositions come when I walk around or just think about something and the melody comes. I record the melody and when I get back home I play it. If a melody comes to my mind while I am playing the piano, I record it and start working on the composition.

I try to understand whether I like it or not. If I like it, I work on it. But even if I don't like it, I keep it because I think someone might like it one day. It changes over time sometimes. Time changes the mood, the atmosphere. So I record a lot.

There is another process, the regular process for Coolooloosh Band: we did the recording, each of the musicians brought an idea and we worked together on the idea, composed together.

If I bring a bass line and a drum groove, the guitarist adds a guitar groove. We build it like that, layer by layer. When we recorded the Coolooloosh album, we recorded the first album live, but the second album was recorded in Philadelphia with a great producer from there, David Ivory. He used to work with The Roots and Erykah Badu and all these really great musicians from the hip-hop style.

We recorded drums, bass, and then all the rest. Now the process that I have in my composition is like that. I compose, I get the atmosphere, I get the mood, and then I play it.

I try to figure out if it's a happy melody or a sad melody. It depends on what I have. By the way, in the Covid time, when everyone was at home, I composed a lot and it was an interesting process how it happened. Mostly the melody came first, I played it and then I did the harmony. Sometimes a melody or a bass line came to my mind from a drum groove. I just practiced the drum groove and I heard a bass line. It's super cool and I'm really thankful for that process.

AAJ: Your new album sounds jazzier than your previous work. Could you tell a little bit about the new album? What idea stands behind it?

YS: This album is called Way of Tradition and what I tried to do there, was inspired by Moroccan music.

The process is the same: I compose, then I do the notes, send them to the musicians. But what is different from the other albums is that we have played these compositions in the new album many times at concerts.

So we got to the studio more prepared. Some of them were the fresh music that I composed in the last few months. But some of them were from the last two years. So we recorded one day, one long day, and the next day was very short, just one composition.

We recorded it live and I will do some overdubs on the percussion in my studio. But regarding the music, for example, the composition "Way of Tradition" was inspired, I think, by the Gnawa tribes and the Moroccan melody. But yeah, this part of the improvisation really makes it, as you said, jazz style.

I think it has a lot of world music, world inspirations. And also in this tune, "Family First," it's a soft melody, a ballad. So again, it's the same process like in other albums that I compose music and send it to musicians. But this time we really played it at concerts.

AAJ: When you are recording an album or when you were recording this one particularly, was this improvisation part pre-composed and pre-rehearsed, pre-prepared or is it a true improvisation? How do you balance composition and spontaneity?

YS: True improvisation. We have the subject, we call it the head. It's the melody. And then, part A, A2, part B. And then comes true improvisation. It follows the harmony and each take the improvisation is really different from another one.

And that's what is interesting in this process, in this kind of music, the jazz and the improvisation part is really interesting because it's in real time. By the way, if we go back to your first question, why jazz? It really amazed me how all these amazing musicians Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, how they improvised. It's in real time. It's like, "what are they thinking about?" This is interesting, very interesting to me.

This process, when you have a tune, the subject, and then the musicians need to improvise all at the same time according to the mode. So we have to be mindful, you know, it's a really mindful process. I think it's very deep and it's true improvisation. The improvisation part is improvised.

AAJ: You mentioned that you are interested in what those icons were actually thinking while improvising, but you yourself are a seasoned improviser, too. What are you thinking while improvising? Do you actually process the information? Like, "I'm going to play this or this," or is it just coming and rolling and you're just playing with that?

YS: No, I'm not saying, "yeah, I play this and this," of course, some of the phrases will come from transcription, from what we have learnt before, but when we practice, I try to get my sound. Of course, I am inspired by all of the great legends. And I try not to think about what I'm playing, but rather "to be in the language," because jazz is a language.

I have to build a story, for example. So I can't start with something that's not connected to anything. I try to be in the atmosphere of the tune.

When I improvise, I try not to think, but I believe it's a process that is based on all the years of practice and experience. We learn how to build it, how to do it. And of course, when we learned, always, the teacher said, "transcribe, learn from the greats, imitate them."

I think all this process of learning from the legends is learning the language. And it's very interesting because each musician has their own sound on ideas, on phrases. I'm a drummer, so I learned from drummers, but, of course, I can learn from a pianist or a trumpet player, a phrase that I can approach on the drums. It is the process of listening, research, and learning from the roots, from how everything started, each style of music, how it started and be able to imitate and then to get your own sound.

And of course, play with people. This is a very important part, not just practice at home or listen to music, but go out and play.

AAJ: You wear many hats—a performer, composer, educator. Which role do you find most fulfilling?

YS: Each role offers unique rewards. I practice a lot and I try to improve my technique, my sound all the time. This process is endless. And this is what makes it really interesting because every day is a process. I don't know how or why, but it's obvious that when I get to know of more instruments or for me especially the piano and I also play a little bit flute and guitar, so every time when I improve on those instruments, I feel a little bit different on the drums because drums is my main instrument.

Also when I compose, I listen to music and I get some ideas from the harmony. I think about a different way to harmonize a phrase or a melody. It's a day by day process. When I'm on a tour, I am really inspired by the people that I meet or the place I'm touring.

So everything I do in my life is effective. It has improved my ability to express myself because I really love what I do. That's what I wanted to do.

And even though it's not so easy, but this is my dream, my passion. As a performer, I relish the opportunity to connect with audiences and express myself through music. Composing allows me to channel my creative impulses and explore new sonic territories. Teaching is equally fulfilling, as I share my knowledge and passion with students, constantly learning and growing in the process. Ultimately, it's the synergy between these roles that fuels my artistic journey and drives my love for music.

AAJ: As a touring performer you have been on a large tour around the Central Asian jazz festivals. Could you share some inside information about the tour?

YS: I call it Tristan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. I played in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan at the Bishkek Jazz Festival, which I really love. It's my fifth time, I think.

I did a duo concert. I played with the Austrian pianist Martin Listabarth. And then at the Almaty Jazz Festival, in Kazakhstan. The day after I had a workshop in Almaty. And then, a duo concert with a local pianist in Uzbekistan at the Tashkent Jazz Festival. I had played in Tashkent, by the way, in April 2018. And now, six years later, I was back there. Also in Kazakhstan, I played there last year, in 2017 and 2018. So I was really happy to come back to all this area.

After this Tristan, I was doing some concert and workshop in Germany. And then back home to Israel. Then, I have a tour in Cyprus and then we have some concerts in the USA. Yeah, there are some tours coming soon.

AAJ: That's a busy schedule, lots of touring. And you have already toured around 30 countries. How do the audiences differ? Are there any specific traits among the audiences in Europe, for example, in Germany, compared to the audiences in the 'stans,' or in the US? And how do you choose your repertoire? Does your approach change depending on the audience you expect?

YS: Yeah, it's all about the audience's reaction. For example, in the USA, we played Andalusian and Moroccan music. I remember when we played in Minnesota at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, they really loved it. It was a completely new sound for them. The same goes for New Mexico or Iowa City. It was because they mostly have jazz—swing or contemporary jazz. So when they listen to our music, say, in Iowa City, it's something interesting and new for them. I actually sold 60 CDs there. It was a big surprise for me. It's a type of music they're not used to and it was very new for most of them. When we play in Baku, for example, it seems like they're used to this kind of music, or even in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, in Bishkek. It's a bit more similar to the rhythms and influences they're used to. In Germany, yes, sometimes the audience is like, "What is this music?" But then, slowly during the concert, they open up more and more. My music isn't just Moroccan tunes; it includes soft melodies, ballads. So I think that connects with them more, and then they become more open. Yeah, people react differently. For example, in Panama at the Panama Jazz Festival, they're more familiar with the 6/8 feel, so they understand it better, maybe, or they're more open to it than others. But it's still interesting to see how people react in each place I perform. In India, for instance, it was new for them, and they wanted more and more. You know, in India, a one-hour concert? No, you can play for two hours, and they'll be happy. So, people are open to listening. That's what I really like.

AAJ: Can you share a standout moment, an unforgettable experience during your tours, performances, or workshops?

YS: There are many. If I start from the beginning, the first tour for this project was in 2017. The first place we played was Guatemala, and the people's reaction was unbelievable. It was so exciting. I remember when I came back to the hotel after the concert and I sat there, I said to myself, "What's going on here?" It was a concert just with my music, my compositions, and people bought 70 CDs from the first album. I was just with the first album, The New Path album, and people asked for signatures and photos. It was the first tour to Guatemala, and it was like, wow, because really the people were very excited. We did the first show, it was packed. And the second show, two days later, was sold out. From there we continued to Panama, to Kazakhstan, and then in 2018, when I played in Kyrgyzstan, it was also unforgettable because I really remember that I wanted to come back to this city to play more music. And it happened in 2021, we came back after the Covid time. The festival in Bishkek was the first tour after the Covid. That was really, really unforgettable. This year was the fifth time. I really love the atmosphere of Bishkek, first as a city and out of the city where I can do horse riding. I really love this. I even composed a piece called "Bishkek."

Also in the USA, we played at the Kennedy Center, which is a really important venue. I got this gig and represented the Israeli Embassy there in Washington. It was very exciting. And also in workshops, it's exciting to meet students and share my tradition and these rhythms, Moroccan rhythms, which are new to many people.

AAJ: So you're bringing those Moroccan traditional motifs, melodies to more people in the world.

YS: Yeah, this is my purpose. First, I really like this rhythm, and when I teach or share it, it's often something new for people. It gives me a chance to share my culture. And it's really nice that people are open to learning it. For musicians or artists, it's very important to be open-minded because you can improve from everything new that you learn. I really love to listen to Kyrgyz music, to Kazakh, to Uzbek, all different kinds of music. I love the traditional music of each country. I learn a lot from it.

AAJ: Apart from music, what are your interests or hobbies? You love horse riding; anything else? Do you think those interests and hobbies influence your music or your performance style or your creative process?

YS: I think, yes, of course. Apart from music, I really love sports. I really love to swim. Many ideas have come to my mind while swimming because it's just me and the water. I really love the water. And I swim four times a week or even five, almost every day. And, you know, all the thoughts are organized, and many ideas come to my mind, and I just relax. I used to run a marathon, but I don't do it anymore. It's hard. I used to be a bodybuilder also, in the gym, but now it's the swimming pool and horse riding. Apart from horse riding and sports, I like to cook with my kids. I like to be with my kids when I'm at home. We make pizzas, focaccia, pasta, cookies, or cakes. And I'm not much of a television person. I barely listen to the news. Sometimes I watch movies. When I'm not on a tour, I love spending time with my friends, my girlfriend, and my kids and doing what they love to do, playing some ping pong with my son, and also my daughter Ayala. She loves to sing. She came to the studio, and I recorded her a little bit. It's pretty cool.

AAJ: As a well-established musician what pieces of advice could you give to beginner level musicians? How to get your schedule busy, how to get gigs and tours, how to start on a career in music?

YS: First step is to believe in yourself, believe you can do it and enjoy the process because it's a long one. It's not an easy process. We have to practice. We have to understand that it's a long way to go. And of course, to be kind and to be prepared. If you get a gig, be prepared. And of course, there are some situations at first that we do some gigs without getting paid. No artist fee, just to play because we want to play.

If we're speaking about drums or each instrument, the rudiment, the scale, the drum exercises, and then to play a lot with music and understand how you can feel good on drums. Then, go to jam sessions and meet people who want to play with you and then they will call you. And to be kind and open-minded, it's also important. So what I did, I really was open-minded. I need to be in the market area, like to go to showcases such as Jazz Ahead! in Bremen. Networking, that's it. Not everyone has a booking agency. I mean, I wish I had one, maybe one day I will. But now I don't have it so I need to do it by myself. So it's important not only to be a good drummer, but also to be open-minded, right? To let go of the ego, to learn and practice, and play with people. It's most important to play with people.

All those things make a big puzzle, many parts until you get it. And when you get to the point, you have another point. I have a list of goals, what I want to do, which festival, what dream I want to do now. It's a super long process, but for me this is what makes the difference. I'm never bored, never, ever bored, never. Why? Because I can practice, I can listen to music everywhere I go and I truly love what I do.

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