Monday, January 26, 2009

Musically Speaking Blog: Jazz Crossing Cultures - Ryan Cohan & Omer Avital

What holds together the music in the first concert Merkin Concert Hall produces in 2009? Togetherness, camaraderie and working together multi-culturally to make the world a better place through music—specifically jazz music. While jazz is most often referred to as America’s art form, many of today’s very exciting interpreters and composers are from other cultures and bring their talents and ethnic music from home to bear on the forms inherent in jazz music.
Pianist/composer Ryan Cohan takes a philosophical approach in his suite One Sky and casts it for a straight-ahead combo playing music with some of the tightest piano playing you’re going to hear coming out of Chicago. While Ryan draws inspiration from a metaphysical realm, Omer’s music is produced by life in a metaphysical realm with a hybrid approach in his Song of a Land, subtitled A Middle Eastern Afro-Jewish Musical Suite. What I’m trying to say here is that they both take the same approach vis a vis “tradition”; it’s simply that they cut their material from a different cloth. Omer uses Israeli folk music, North African Andalusian music, Arabic music, etc., and Ryan writes music from a decidedly swing aesthetic.

What holds all this together? We have certainly had elements brought to bear on the musical language since the beginnings of jazz, but more and more we are finding direct references to other cultures coming from the musicians’ personal experience. This isn’t Philip Glass or the Beatles discovering Ravi Shankar and putting some of it in their songs; it’s someone who grew up within the tradition using folk music that is a part of their identity. This is not me claiming that Omer and Ryan have written music that trots out pieces recognizable by title. Rather, it’s me reveling in the fact that the music they produce is informed by personal experience, which is the spark that gives improvised music the hope of direct connection to an audience.

Ryan’s music captures the imagination through the door of philosophy offering us his personal view of just being in this world. Omer uses music from his past to show us where he’s been and where he’s headed at the same time. Both of them are leading jazz music to a new tomorrow.

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