Sunday, 25 June 2017

Omer and Avi - the Avitals play Wigmore Hall

I have waited a long time to hear Omer Avital play in London. I saw him a few years ago in Paris and then again last year in Tel-Aviv where with his quartet he gave a majestic performance of most of the tracks from his Abutbul Music album, a wonderful collection of jazz pieces influenced by traditional Moroccan music. On Friday night at London's Wigmore Hall, the audience was treated to yet another stunning performance as accompanied by Avi Avital on mandolin and mandola, Itamar Doari on percussion and the ever reliable Yonatan Avishai on piano, we were treated to several tracks from the new album - Avi Avital meets Omer Avital.

Part of Wigmore's Late Night series, they played one long set set lasting in which we witnessed musical conversations between Omer and Avi, some stonking percussion solos from Itamar and flawless oriental-referenced piano from Yonatan. We also saw the Avitals move from bass to oud (Omer) and from mandolin to mandola (Avi) in a single song. From the first few notes of their opening number, Zamzama, we were transported to the Levant by music so atmospheric that you could almost see the haze coming off the desert sand. And all of this under the watchful eye of the mythological figures in the arts and crafts frieze above the stage.

Zamzama, Ana Maghrebi and Maroc particularly demonstrate the North African origins of the Avitals with constantly changing rhythms and moods. Arabic maqamat or modes are especially to the fore in Zamzamat  whilst Maroc had a more specifically Moroccan feel in large part due to Doari's expertise on the krakebs which resemble extra large metallic castanets. Ana Maghrebi, which translates to I Am Moroccan plays tribute to the Andalusian tradition and all three numbers have joyously uptempo sections. Omer's enjoyment of these was obvious as he danced and wore the widest smile in London. In addition to the lively numbers the quartet also performed a couple of ballads - Ballad for Eli dedicated to Omer's father who died ten years ago and Lonely Girl which featured a long, engaging introduction by Avi on mandolin. Both were written by Omer Avital.

The quartet also played New Yemenite Song from the previous album and chose Matti Caspi's Shalom Aleicham for an encore. Although on stage chat was kept to a minimum in favour of the music (which is good) Avi explained that the song was well known to Israelis of his generation as it was featured on the after shabbat dinner TV show that most families watched during the 1980's. He told us that they watched it because it was entertaining and because there was only one TV channel then. It was called Channel One. There were several people in the auditorium who recognised Caspi's song but this was not the usual Wigmore  crowd, it was a much younger than usual and I am almost certain it is the first time ululating has been heard in this prestigious venue.

The mixture of jazz and traditional North African rhythms was enthusiastically received by the normally reserved Wigmore audience.  Avi Avital is one of the world's leading mandolin exponents and has performed with major symphony and chamber music orchestras, combining world, jazz and classical music. This fusion of musical styles is common in Israeli jazz with musicians such as Avishai Cohen, Yair Dalal and others pioneering this approach. Dalal will be appearing in London soon too!

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