Monday, June 22, 2020

Omer Avital and Qantar bring Israeli sensibilities to the American street

Avital at work and play
From the opening track of "New York Paradox"(Zamzama Records) to the finale, bassist Omer Avital and Qantar look backward and from an oblique angle at some of the more vigorous jazz recorded circa 1960. My references are to "Shavazi," a kind of Israeli "Better Git It in Your Soul," and the determined if dour "Bushwick After Dark," which unfolds with the laid-back suavity of "Killer Joe."

Backward glances at the way jazz was recorded by Atlantic and Blue Note  (my song references are to Charles Mingus and the Farmer-Golson Jazztet) are to me not regrettable in 2020 if the personality behind the legacy-boosting is fresh. Talk about "advancing the music" should never obscure the value of decanting new wine into clean old bottles.

And so it seems to be the revived niche the 49-year-old Israeli-American bassist and his quintet called Qantar can idiomatically occupy. Based in Brooklyn, with a performance and recording outlet at Wilson Live in their neighborhood, Amital and his mates are a lesson in canny assimilation, projecting the richness of Israel's jazz orientation while reflecting the absorption of the American mainstream.

In addition to the assertive harmonic underpinning and deep flashes of brilliance from the leader's bass, Qantar is characterized by a two-saxophone front line: Asaf Yuria is heard on alto and tenor, while Alexander Levin is a tenor specialist.  The group is completed by pianist Eden Ladin and drummer Ofri Nehemya.

Amital wrote everything on "New York Paradox," from "Shabazi," the opening track that distantly evokes the Mingus hard-charger mentioned above, through the concluding piece, which is distinguished by a flamboyant yet elegant bass solo. Otherwise, the title track is as good a place as any to elucidate what Qantar is all about.

The paradox of New York City, which makes everything possible and many aspects of daily life next to impossible, is reflected in the way frequent trilling and a shuddering ensemble capture the metropolitan anxiety. There's a picturesqueness to the tunes that avoids the literal. So after you've noticed that the characteristic phrasing of "Just Like the River Flows" matches the words of the title, you're free to let your mind drift downstream along with the band.

I'm not sure of the reason for the French title of "C'est Clair," but it sounds as if, with lyrics, it could have been a Charles Aznavour ballad. And "Today's Blues" brings back the dueling-tenor format from days of hard-bop yore. To double down on the tune's assertiveness, Amital's bass line behind  Eden Ladin's piano solo is more than substantial, and a Nehemya drum solo leaves no doubt that yesterday's blues have infused Qantar's up-to-date version. When it comes to digging into musical roots, this band shows that transplanting what they come up with across a couple of big ponds works splendidly and can flourish.

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