Building A Musical Tower Of ‘BabEl’

Israeli alto saxophonist Uri Gurvich weaves ‘folkloric’ elements into his Middle Eastern-tinged jazz group.

05/10/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
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The sound rolls out of the saxophone, a sinuous, plangent moan that evokes rivers — the Nile,the Jordan, the Mississippi.

Uri Gurvich, the Israeli alto player producing that sound, certainly knows the Jordan, probably knows the Nile, but having split his primary time in the States between New York City and Boston, his grasp of the Mississippi is probably based, like so much jazz, on a couple hundred years of blues traditions.

But that’s OK, Gurvich’s connection to all those musically inspirational rivers is as solid as his playing is rock-steady, and his new CD for Tzadik, “BabEl,” reveals a major new voice both as an alto player and a composer-leader. Gurvich will be celebrating the album’s release with six nights at the Stone beginning May 14.

Born in Kfar Saba, Gurvich began playing alto “as a kid,” he says. “At some point most of my friends moved to tenor, so they needed alto players in the [high school] band and I stayed with the horn.”

It paid off for him. At 19 he won the prestigious Jazz Player of the Year award in Israel. He moved to Boston and studied at the Berklee School of Music, where his teachers included jazz elder statesmen like saxophonists Joe Lovano and Dave Liebman and trumpeter Herb Pomeroy. He also met and assembled a quartet that has been with him ever since.

In interviews Gurvich speaks frequently about the importance of “folkloric” elements in his music, and there is certainly a strong Middle-Eastern flavor to his writing and playing. But his working band is a heady mix of influences and the multinational flavor pays gorgeous dividends.

“It happened by accident really,” the 30-something musician says. “The first guy I met in Boston was Leo Genovese, the pianist. My parents are originally from Argentina [before they made aliyah], he’s Argentine, and we hit it off.”

Genovese led him to Francisco Mela, a Cuban drummer who had been playing with Genovese. Mela, in turn, brought along Peter Slavov, a Bulgarian bass player with whom he had been playing regularly for over a dozen years.

“They had a chemistry already,” Gurvich recalls. “And we all had a lot in common, but it’s nice that each brings a different flavor.”

Mela also brings work. The quartet is the core of his own project, Cuban Safari, which does for the music of his native land what Gurvich is doing for his.

“It’s definitely different when we play in Cuban Safari,” Gurvich says. “Francesco is my mentor, and I’ve learned a lot from him. We’ve been playing [as a quartet] for about six or seven years, and now I think we’re all familiar with what each is looking for from the other. We don’t need to discuss it. Cuban Safari is like wearing a different hat, we play with an approach that’s unique to Francesco.”

What about Gurvich’s hat? Is it a kipa? A shtreimel? Maybe, you should pardon the expression, a pork pie like Lester Young’s?

“I’m trying to write Jewish music,” he says. “It has those elements that make it come out Jewish or Israeli, and I’ve tried to keep that throughout the new album.”

Gurvich has a strong idea of what that means and of how the blend of cultures in the band works with that idea.

“I see the Jewish people as [living] the culture of diaspora, of immigrants and nomads,” he says. “They always had their own music inside the different environments [they’ve inhabited], and that’s special to the music. But they also were always influenced by the music of their surroundings. So I’m trying to do the same thing, but with the elements of jazz, trying to keep that approach. That’s what the members of the band help with. None of them is Jewish, but they’re playing Jewish music, and it’s interesting to see how they react to that.”

The blend on the new set is enhanced by the presence of guest artist Brahim Fribgane, a Moroccan oud and percussion player whose sound reinforces the Middle-Eastern tang of Gurvich’s original compositions.

Not surprisingly, when the band plays at The Stone, they will showcase the new material, but Gurvich has also planned for a series of evenings that will invoke the influences that his bandmates bring to the party.

“We’ll have different guests playing with us,” he explains. “Each night is a bit different. We’ll have [trumpeter] Dave Douglas with us the first night. We’ll play a some Argentine music one night, one night a trio with Brahim and another guest percussionist, one night a tribute to the great Israeli composer Sasha Argov, and the last night our guest will be Lionel Loueke on guitar.”

You might say that Uri Gurvich and his friends plan nothing less than a rebuilding of the Tower of BabEl.

Uri Gurvich and a changing cast of musicians will be performing at The Stone (Avenue C and Second Street) Tuesday, May 14 through Sunday, May 19, with sets at 8 and 10 p.m. each night. For more information on who’s playing what and when, go to www.thestonenyc.com. Gurvich’s two CDs, “The Storyteller” and “BabEl” are available on the Tzadik label.

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