Oded TZUR – Like a Great River – Enja

Oded TZUR – Like a Great River – Enja 7754,  39:37 (9/4/16) ****:

(Oded Tzur; alto saxophone/ Petros Klampanis; bass/ Shai Maestro; piano/ Ziv Ravitz; drums)

An innovative Israeli saxophonist working on a concept inspired by the Indian Classical bansuri master Hariprasad Chaurasia.

Israel has been profligate in its production and export of jazz musicians. The new generation tends to fall into two categories; either they have stupendous technical gifts (Gilad Hekselman, Avishai Cohen), or they have an original concept/stylistic affiliation (Oran Etkin with his Malian collaborators, Anat Cohen with her chorinho trio). Yet another Tel Aviv expat, alto saxophonist Oded Tzur, falls into the second category. In his liner notes, he cites just one influence, the supreme master of the classical Indian bansuri, Hariprasad Chaurasia. This is quite a name to conjure with, as it represents the acme of an improvisational art form, older and deeper than jazz. One wonders what kind of connection could be made, given that the Indian system of raga is based on melodic and rhythmic organization rather than harmony.

As it turns out, Tzur has found a grand inspiration in this music and translated it persuasively into a fresh jazz style. First, what he does not do; the three long tracks on Like a Great River do not dispense with harmony in favor of some kind of timeless drone, over which snake-charming noodling aspires to a trance state. Instead, they are based on modest harmonic language of folk music with unpretentious melodic hooks.  (He avoids at all times the cliche-ridden “middle-eastern” minor key.) The novelty comes in the phrasing, and melodic development as well as the interplay of the musicians.

In On The Dance, the alto enters playing as softly as it is possible to play. After the arresting melody the exercise begins. Phrase follows phrase in a slow breathing rhythm. This is akin to the statement of the raag.  Between are reflective pauses. Keen listening between all members of the quartet yields a focused but serene mood. Gradually, the group finds a rolling groove and the energy builds while the unfolding of the melody expands outward. A lovely Shai Maestro solo offers a second contemplation. Again, there is space between phrases. Rests and whole-notes (sadly neglected in so much jazz) abound. The drumming of Ziv Ravitz is intricately melodic and perhaps the highlight of this track. At 11:32, it is quite a feat to maintain a feeling of rapt beauty throughout and a testimony to the group-mastery of the concept.

The next track employs the exact same formula. Pianissimo intro in search of the simple melody, inhale-exhale, and lots of waiting, which pulls the ear toward each melodic shape and texture. Shai Maestro, well known for his work with Avishai Cohen, plays a shimmering solo full of middle voice trills and looping patterns. This gives way to an alto solo that aims at nothing less than an all-time standard for the softest playing. In a world full of loud stupidity, it arrives as a rare blessing. There is some microtonal subtlety as well (although it is closer to the intonational slipperiness of Charles Lloyd than to the alien sub-continent scales). At almost 15 minutes, this track is a marvel of concentrated playing. It might also be commended as a useful pedagogic reminder to saxophonists to attend to the dynamics and overall arc, especially in free-jazz setting.

A third track, Tzurkauns, arrives, and I am still waiting for a jazzed up hava nagilah in the dreaded a-minor. Instead, we get more of the same treatment, in which the bass of Petros Klampanis steps forward to guide the pattering drums and the Maestros dancing right-hand melodies on a circular path. Tzur plays in lower register of his horn on a tight groove, and once again the markings are all < soft to loud, and we climb to a stormy expostulation in which the figure of Hariprasad morphs into that of John Coltrane.

On the strangely titled Warrior Elephants Flying in the Moonlight, Mr. Tzur engages the bass in a modest dialog in a dotted rhythm melody of affecting simplicity. It lasts but 2:20 and suggests another possible path this original saxophonists could go, the duo. It feels truncated in its brevity.

Abruptly the group runs out of material. On the last track, Child’s Dance, they make use of a fade in and fade out. It seems like they ran out of studio time. It is a great groove, but it feels almost a betrayal to have it end at 1:22. No one is more disappointed than the outstanding drummer, who was cut off in the middle of a nimble-wristed Elvin Jones riff. What a peculiar way to end the record.

Very original stuff from the Israelis of late in jazz.  We admire the fresh innovations and artistic vigor. There is a live performance from this group available on Oded Tzur’s own site which shows this group in action and adds some intriguing visual effects as well. Highly recommended!

TrackList: The Dance; Song of the Silent Dragon; Tzurkauns; Warrior Elephant; Child’s Dance

—Fritz Balwit

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