ALON YAVNAI Releases "Shir Ahava" CD with NDR Bigband 3.27.12

Jazz Pianist/Composer Takes Big Band Sound Global with Influences from North Africa, Cape Verde, Middle East and Peru

Credits Include Grammy CDs with Paquito D'Rivera and Yo-Yo Ma


"Mr. Yavnai is a unique and brilliant artist" - Yo-Yo Ma

"A complex trans-cultural stew" – Ted Panken, DownBeat

Israel-born, Brooklyn-based pianist/composer Alon Yavnai has teamed up with Germany's NDR Bigband for Shir Ahava (Hebrew for "A Love Poem"), his first album of music for a large ensemble and the initial recording for his own AYM label, to be released on March 27, 2012. Yavnai, who has shared Grammy Awards as a participant in recordings by Paquito D'Rivera and Yo-Yo Ma, and is an Associate Professor at Berklee College of Music, has released three previous CDs with trios and a sextet. But Shir Ahava finds him working with the 17 members of the Hamburg, Germany-based NDR Bigband, expanding his musical palette and giving the musicians a chance to play music reflecting the composer's multinational background.

"This album does not necessarily fit the expectation one would have from a big band album," Yavnai explains. "The music is very different from what you would hear on a Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington or Bob Mintzer big band album. To me, writing for big band feels like painting. It is very rich and there are many possibilities to create a wide variety of colors and textures. Often I like to experiment with the woodwind section, for example, and write for flutes and clarinets. That gives the big band a whole different sound, something closer to a woodwind and brass section in a symphonic orchestra."

"The first time I ever recorded with a big band actually was with the NDR, back in 2005," Yavnai recalls. "I went there with Paquito D'Rivera, with some of his arrangements. That gave me the inspiration to do my own recording. So I approached NDR executive producer Axel Dürr and asked him if I could do my own production in the future, and he said, ‘Sure! Write ten arrangements, and we'll record them.'"

The music represents the composer's varied professional experience as well as his personal journeys, from "Shir Ahava" itself, a setting of a poem by Israeli poet Yehonatan Geffen, to "Au Castagney," reflecting on the bucolic setting where Yavnai's wife's family live in France, and "Ilha B'Nit" ("Beautiful Island" in Portuguese Creole), which was inspired by his membership in a Cape Verde band that toured those islands. "Travel Notes," heard in an earlier piano version on Yavnai's previous album of the same name, brings in the influence of Peruvian music with its festejo rhythm, as well as the related rhythms of Moroccan gnawa.

It's a mixture of national and cultural influences that comes naturally to Yavnai, who was raised in Israel for the first 22 years of his life, and began his musical studies there, but then followed his father and Argentine-born mother to Costa Rica. "I was there for a couple of years," he recalls fondly, "and we had a trio, the only jazz trio in Costa Rica, which was great: We had tons of time to practice!" Ultimately, however, his parents returned to Israel, while Yavnai moved to the U.S. to attend Berklee College of Music as a student in 1993. Like many an aspiring professional musician, though, he soon found himself playing in bands more than studying. "I was a bad boy, I didn't finish school," he admits sheepishly. "I wanted to play. Life just pulled in that direction so hard that I couldn't maintain both." (He later finished his Bachelor of Music degree at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and went on to a Master's in composition). He is now back at Berklee College of Music, where he teaches piano.

Yavnai had a breakthrough when he won the Great American Jazz Piano Competition in Jacksonville, FL, in 1996. That led to a week-long stint with Freddie Hubbard at New York's Jazz Standard and to an artist-in-residence appointment in Savannah, GA, that found him writing his first big band arrangements. "Once a month, I would go there for three or four days and rehearse," he says. "Each month I would write something new for them, developing my skills. I just loved the big band sound."

Simultaneously, Yavnai was building up a list of playing and recording credits that eventually included Yo-Yo Ma (the 2008 Grammy-winning Songs of Joy and Peace), Nancy Wilson (Turned to Blue), and a lengthy stint with Paquito D'Rivera (resulting in Grammy wins as musical director on Soldier's Tale in 2003 and as a member of the D'Rivera quintet on Funktango in 2006).

For Shir Ahava, Yavnai opted to launch his own AYM label, a logical-enough decision in a transitional period for the music business, but also one which is appropriate to a recording that is a labor of love. "The album is very personal," he says. "One reason I put it on my label is that I can do it exactly the way I want. That's a picture of my wife on the cover. The record is an embrace, it is a longing for home, both my original geographical home and also embracing my new home here. It's earthy, simple things. It's really about that. It's not pretending to be anything else.

"Starting my own label," he adds, "drives me to get proactive with my music, put it out there and not wait. Because I have kids, I think like that more and more. You don't know what will happen tomorrow. Also, I come from Israel, a very unpredictable place! It does something to your brain. It's like, 'The hell with all this waiting around. The music is here, it's recorded. I have an opportunity. Boom! I take it. Thank you. The CD is there. Next!'"

Yavnai will debut Shir Ahava in concert at two special big band events: on March 25th at Birdland in New York City (with special guests Paquito D’Rivera and Moroccan singer Malika Zarra) and on April 19th at Scullers Jazz Club in Boston. Details below.

NEW YORK - CD release concert: Sunday March 25 at 6:00pm Alon Yavnai's big band feat. Paquito D'Rivera & Malika Zarra BIRDLAND
BOSTON, MA – CD release concert Thursday April 19, 2012 at 8pm SCULLER’S JAZZ CLUB

Alon Yavnai: piano, compositions & arrangements
Sam Sadigursky: lead alto saxophone clarinet, flute, alto flute
Uri Gurvich: alto saxophone, flute
Dino Govoni: tenor & soprano saxophone, flute
Donny McCaslin: tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet
Paul Nedzela: baritone saxophone, base clarinet
Diego Urcola: trumpet
Itamar Borochov: trumpet
tatum Greenblatt: trumpet
Brandon Lee: trumpet
Rafi Malkiel: trombone, euphonium
Noah Bless: trombone
Kaji Tokunori Kajiwara: trombone
Max Siegel: bass trombone
Haggai Cohen-Milo: bass
Eric Doob: drums

May 8, 2012
Joe's Pub
Israeli Jazz and World Music Festival
Alon Yavnai Big Band w/ special guest Dave Liebman (saxophone)

Alon Yavnai- piano, compositions & arrangements
Sam Sadigursky: lead alto saxophone, flute, clarinet
Oscar Feldman: alto & soprano saxophone
Donny McCaslin: tenor & soprano saxophone, flute
Eli Degibri: tenor & soprano saxophone
Paul Nedzela: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet
Diego Urcola: lead trumpet
Itamar Borochov: trumpet
Tatum Greenblatt: trumpet
Brandon Lee: trumpet
Rafi Malkiel: lead trombone
Noah Bless: trombone
Kaji Tokunori Kajiwara: trombone
Max Siegel: bass trombone
Haggai Cohen-Milo: bass
Ziv Ravitz: drum

ALON YAVNAI and THE NDR Bigband: Shir Ahava Track Notes

Shir Ahava ("A Love Poem"):Yehonatan Geffen is a very well-known poet in Israel. He's a very big hero of my childhood. I love his book "Mainly Love Poems," and I took it and said, "Let's see if I can write music for one of these." I started improvising, just playing over a little ambient theme. It was a piano melody at first. Then I heard something else in my head; it wasn't enough. The big band arrangement was influenced by the army bands that I used to listen to in Israel. The flute is very strong in Israeli music, so there are two flutes on the record.

Travel Notes: It's the notes you take when you travel, and also the notes that travel on the manuscript paper. The rhythm is festejo, from Peru. I absorbed a lot of Peruvian music while living with bassist Oscar Stagnaro in Boston. I also like listening to gnawa music from Morocco, which shares not only the same time signature as Peruvian festejo, but also has a very close intention musically, although with a slightly different feel in its phrasing.

Au Castagney (At Castagney): The title refers to a breaktaking area in the Southwest of France where my wife's family meets every summer. There's a rustic stone house with a beautiful fireplace. Recently, my father-in-law bought an electric piano. Since it was there, I started playing every day, and this piece came out. At first, I didn't think "big band." But then I thought it would be nice to give it a more extended introduction and take it to a different place, getting the mood of the woods and vineyards.

Bitter Roots The title is not to be taken literally. I used the augmented second interval, which is used a lot in Arab music, and a rhythm called malfuf, in a 2/4 feel of Egyptian and Lebanese music, although used all over the world now. Malfuf in Arabic means "wrapped" or "tightly wound."

Zriha ("Sunrise"): The mood is one of optimism and renewed energy, what you feel when the sun rises and there is another day ahead to seize and explore. The melody of this song made me think of renewal and hope. I grew up in Tel Aviv, which is very sunny and bright, with warm weather. The sea was a big part of my childhood. I used to go there a lot on my bicycle, even at night, just to listen to the waves and breathe the air.

Ilha B'nit ("Beautiful Island"): Ramiro and Joao Mendez are Cape Verdean singer/songwriters whom I met when I was playing with Trinidadian steel-pan player Ron Reid. They were looking for somebody to play with them on a tour to Portugal and West Africa. It was a very moving experience for me. I also got very attached to their music. Here I've incorporated a rhythm which is rarely used now called bandera. It's in 3/4 time signature, like a samba in 3. This is my tribute to Cape Verdian music and, specifically, to the Mendez brothers.

Sof ("End"): It is like a coda. I decided to call it "Sof," meaning irreversible, final, after the unfortunate death by suicide of my friend, the drummer Take Toriyama. At the same time, the track itself evokes something peaceful and hopeful for me. The musical interest here is the choral sounds, with no drums or driving rhythms, more long notes, restrained and calm.


PRESS QUOTES for "Shir Ahava"
"Yavnai is an exemplary pianist, composer and arranger, the NDP Big Band a world-class ensemble, and together they have produced an uncommonly invigorating and impressive album."

"Shir Ahava is beautifully magnificent."

"It’s easy to hear how this Berklee professor could have won Grammys both for his work with classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Latin jazz legend Paquito D’Rivera."

"An understatedly powerful, very smart new album. Jazz doesn’t get as accessible yet as cutting edge as this often...."

" Yavnai achieves a signature borrowing from various ‘world’ musics....Moroccan gnawa....Peruvian festejo...and Cape Verdean bandera..."

"....[Yavnai’s] middle-eastern piano riffs add more complexity to the fiery arrangements... Shir Ahava is impressive."

...a finely calibrated ensemble of piano and big band orchestra with a stylish mix of jazz and world music."

"Mr. Yavnai is a unique and brilliant artist, one of the few musicians in the world who can master many distinct musical styles."