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Omer Avital: Rockin’ Moroccan

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Back in 1993, when I first arrived in New York, the musicians I met were like trees in a very dense forest. Everyone I encountered ranged from highly proficient to virtuosic, and they all had a great story to tell about their arrival.

In this environment it was impossible to truly stand out unless you were someone like Omer Avital. When I first met Omer he was the bassist in Antonio Hart’s band as well as many other people’s bands. He had a big, full and deep tone, yet he was a nimble soloist like a guitarist. He was able to swing the quarter notes like Ray Brown, yet there was a Middle Eastern tinge in his rhythm and his lyricism. Imagine swing with Moroccan embellishments. He was exotic. It was intriguing, intimidating and nourishing at the same time.

At that time I was hooking up with Cyrus Chestnut and some other guys and traveling a lot so I didn’t live in the Smalls dungeon like the others. Turns out something amazing was happening in there. By the late 90s, a handful of players—Omer Avital, both Avishai Cohens (trumpeter and bassist), Jason Lindner, Danny Freedman, and Avi Liebowitz, along with an Afro-Cuban contingency—galvanized the Middle Eastern jazz sound on the first Live at Smalls recording. It was new and vital, and it changed the jazz landscape.

Fast forward twenty years. I’m living in a different city, and here comes Omer Avital, still swinging and still exotic. He’s a headliner at this year’s Tarbut: Festival of Jewish Culture, so the Berney Theatre is the place to be on November 19. Omer’s quintet has some of the hippest players on the scene right now. Greg Tardy is a monster saxophonist—he’s played with everybody who’s anybody. Winnipeggers may remember drummer Daniel Freedman—he was here a few years back. Also on the bandstand are Yonatan Avishai on piano and Eli Degibri on saxphone. These guys are gonna tear it up!

For all of you who’re curious about the insider story, Omer will give a masterclass the day before the concert at 3:00 pm. Everybody is welcome…

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