Oren Neiman is sitting in his Westchester apartment with no electricity, yet another victim of Hurricane Sandy. Fortunately, his musical partner Gilad Ben Zvi still has power, “and we’re spending a lot of time there,” Neiman sheepishly admits.
Not that they need electrical power for their music. As Isra-Alien, the jazz duo plays acoustic guitars; Neiman uses a nylon-string instrument, Ben Zvi a steel-stringed one. And the time that Neiman and his wife spend with Ben Zvi is well-employed, given that Isra-Alien is playing Saturday, Nov. 10 (doors open 6:30 p.m. at Drom, 85 Avenue A,  777-1157, www.dromnyc.com) to launch its second CD, “Somewhere Is Here!” (The CD and its predecessor are available on the duo’s website, www.israalien.com).
“We had lengthy rehearsals,” Neiman says. “We had nothing else to do. We each lost a week’s worth of private students.”
If Oren Neiman’s name seems familiar to Jewish Week readers, it may be because he is the founder of a Jewish jazz festival, the Nigunim Festival, which has been running in various formats for the past three years. Which raises an interesting question, one that brings us to a crucial turning point in Neiman’s musical development.
A jazz group consisting of two acoustic guitars?
Neiman admits that over the past few years he’s been moving away from mainstream jazz and, not coincidentally, back towards the music of his native Israel.
“People’s initial reaction [to Isra-Alien] is, ‘Oh, you play jazz,’” Neiman says. “Not really. The colors are definitely more ethnically inspired, and some of the pieces are almost totally through- composed, closer to classical than to jazz. What stays with me is the improvisational mentality.”
But the sound, particularly on the new set, is decidedly un-jazz-like, with echoes of flamenco, Middle Eastern rhythms and colors.
“When we were initially asked what niche we fit, we called it ‘Mediterranean Gypsy,’” the guitarist says. “Not that we think that — it’s not necessarily the most sensitive way to phrase it — but it’s an easy characterization of what it is. As for the flamenco sounds, that doesn’t come out of a conscious effort. Neither of us are flamenco players, we both play with a pick and I don’t know a flamenco guitarist who would do that.”
Rather, that resemblance is the logical outgrowth of the explorations that united the two musicians in this project in the first place: an attempt to figure out what their backgrounds in Israeli music and culture would produce that was truly, well, Israeli.
“We started out by playing our own arrangements of different composers who went through a similar evolution — Astor Piazzola and Goran Bregovic, for example — trying to make music out of their region’s folk traditions,” Neiman explains. “Actually, we are old and close friends and we mainly wanted to do a project together. The question of exploring the roots of Israeli music came later, but it was a very practical element for us to have chosen.”
In that respect, Neiman argues, the path of exploration they are on is consistent with their jazz training, even though the end result may not be.
“Exploring and incorporating folk elements — that’s what jazz musicians have been doing since the beginning of their music,” Neiman says. “When I came here, it was to study jazz. But I’ve learned for myself that if I continued doing straight-ahead jazz, it’s not going to be authentic for me. Because of who I am and where I come from, this is the direction I need to go in musically.”
That realization, Neiman admits, carries a powerful load of irony.
He says, “As a musician, I listen to a really wide range of things, but at the end of the day, I had to come here to discover my Israeli musical roots.”