Alon Yavnai & The NDR Big Band – Shir Ahava – AYM 65:35, [3/27/2012] ****1/2:
(Alon Yavnai – piano, arrangements; with the NDR Big Band)
It is not surprising that Alon Yavnai has taken a giant leap in recording a big band project. Starting at the age four, he pursued a dedicated musical education, both in his native Israel (Givatayim Conservatory) and the United States (Berklee School of Music). Like many great pianists, he shifted from classical music to jazz. His rise to prominence began when placed first in the Great American Jazz Piano Competition.
Soon after, he began a longtime collaboration with clarinetist/saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera. Yavnai composed on the Grammy winning latin jazz album, Funk Tango. He has performed with many artists including Freddie Hubbard, Joe Lovano, Nancy Wilson, Ravi Coltrane, Claudio Roditi, Regina Carter and The New York Voices. Yavnai heads up his own trio and released Travel Notes (2008) which features solo piano and trio numbers.
Following a European tour with D’Rivera, he decided to compose for larger ensembles and contacted the NDR Big Band. The result, Shir Ahava (A Love Poem) is an exciting, modern addition to the big band genre. The opening title cut begins with a melancholy piano introduction that is warmly engaging. As the tempo intensifies, the band joins in a bossa nova crescendo with a fuller sound, including solos on trumpet (Ingolf Burkhardt), tenor saxophone (Lutz Buchner) and flute (Fiete Felsh). “Travel Notes” (the longest track, over twelve minutes) evokes a significant latin sentiment with dense horn chorus and abrupt percussion. Yavnai’s rhythmic piano is a biting counterpoint to the brass. His middle-eastern piano riffs add more complexity to the fiery arrangement which include brilliant runs by Burkhardt and Buchner. The merging of the two motifs is captivating and the ensemble interaction is creative.
The mood changes on the mercurial “Au Castagney”. With delicacy, the instrumentation assumes a swirling romantic tone. An ethereal flute solo and fluid guitar (Sandra Hempel) lines inject an exotic mysterious context. There is a blend of afro-Cuban grooves and Semitic melodic themes on various songs, in particular “Bitter Roots”. The inclusion of a baritone saxophone (Frank Delle) is complementary to the orchestral surge. The atmospheric “Zriha” flows with a steady pulse, featuring a soaring trombone solo by Dan Gottshall. Each piece molds the individual phrasing into a larger musical sketch. Ilha B’Nit transitions from a somber classical introduction to a breezy muscular jam. The finale, “Sof,” revisits Yavnai’s elegant touch on piano as the band coalesces around this meditative ode.
Shir Ahava is impressive.
TrackList: Shir Ahava ( A Love Poem); Travel Notes; Au Castagney; Bitter Roots; Zriha; Ilha B’nit; Sof
Pure Pleasure Records releases a re-mastered vinyl of a live duo performance by Archie Shepp.