Photo: © Christie Goodwin (Deutsche Grammophon)

Avi Avital and Omer Avital: Avital Meets Avital

Avi and Omer Avital are united by their heritage and acoustic instruments, but separated by their musical background. Nonetheless, their differences fuse to craft intriguing sounds on their premier recording.
Avi Avital and Omer Avital
Avital Meets Avital
Deutsche Grammophon

It’s understandable but unjustified to assume that Avital Meets Avital, the debut collaboration between classical mandolinist Avi Avital and jazz bassist Omer Avital, is a commercial ploy. True, the unusual yet dazzling pairing of mandolin and bass has seen traction in recent years with excellent recordings by Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer, as well as Jesse Jones and Craig Butterfield. Likewise, there is inherent crossover appeal whenever musicians from the jazz and classical worlds join forces, although this does not always guarantee artistically inspiring unions. Considering Avi’s conservatory-trained background against Omer’s years in the Greenwich Village jazz scene (in particular at the legendary Smalls jazz club), the two seem to have little common ground other than acoustic instruments and a shared last name.

However, the closer one looks, the more they find connective musical tissue between the two. Notably, Avi and Omer dedicated part of their careers expanding their respective repertoire with new compositions and commissions that explore their native Israeli musical roots in the context of contemporary classical and jazz. Avi blends traditional folk melodies and rhythms alongside Baroque repertoire, while Omer explores similar ideas in his own recordings, notably with his Yemen Blues project. Likewise, both are fearless improvisers, perhaps not surprising with Omer but a notable factor with Avi considering modern classical musicians’ relative fear of the unknown. Collaborating here with pianist Yonathan Avishai and percussionist Itamar Doari (with a brief appearance from accordionist Uli Sharlin), Avi and Omer have produced a recording that beautifully blends traditional Israeli folk influences with song structures and aesthetics not far removed from modern jazz and contemporary acoustic music.

The opening track “Zamzama” honors their musical roots with an alluring melody and 7/4 time signature. The harmonically static hypnotic groove builds underneath solos from Avi and Yonathan like meditations on the song’s modal trance. With their improvisations, the two build intensity in concert with the rest of the group, both musicians developing a beautiful slow burn rather than an overt virtuosic tirade. Borrowing elements from folk music and jazz, “Zamzara” is a reflection on the meeting of the old world with the new, something of a thesis statement for the album as a whole.

The straightforward ballad “Lonely Girl” is a minor key affair that codifies melancholy in musically complex ways. Avi’s melody feels cinematic in scope, emoted with an artful application of dynamics while the core trio gracefully follows his lead with airtight precision. “Ballad for Eli”, another sorrowful track with slight peaks and valleys in intensity, exhibits a mood that somehow feels both tragic and nostalgic. Both works, compositions by Omer, exemplify his ability to write music that honors melodic folk traditions without feeling painfully pastiche.

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The album’s pulse picks up with “Ana Maghrebi” and “Avi’s Song”, original tunes that showcase Avi and Omer as improvisers. The energy of these works naturally contrast with their slower counterparts throughout the album, and their arrangements help them feel richer and more complex than simple audience-baiting, fast-tempo burners. The vivaciousness of “Maroc” makes it a pulsing highlight of the album, a dancing adventure for the group that likely makes it an excellent closer in concert. When Avi and Omer lock in on the tune’s rhythmic motif at the conclusion, their drive is heavy without feeling overbearing, a propulsion that reveals two brilliant musicians from different backgrounds who’ve found excellent common ground.

Aside from bluegrass, the mandolin doesn’t often lead modern ensembles, but Avital Meets Avital does well to rectify this. It’s striking how well this ensemble, recording for the first time, mines these compositions for their musical qualities rather than focus on style over substance. All nine tracks on this record sound like reflections on both the introspective nature of folk simplicity as well as the inherent dance in its rhythms. Avital Meets Avital is not an album that languishes in obvious and painful pastiche for the sake of commercial potential. While Avi takes most of the melodies, the rest of the group deserves laude for keeping the musical landscape clear and effective, free of any modernist showboating or needless dissonance.

Avi and Omer perform as a duo on the closing track, “The Source and the Sea” by Moshe Vilenski, the album’s only non-original composition. After the explorations and energy from the preceding eight works, this feels like a satisfying conclusion to the record, a solemn reading of a humble song that needs no added complications. Free from any obligatory solos or mindless elaboration, Avital Meets Avital is a brilliant meeting of two musicians with divergent background but unified musical goals.

RATING 8 / 10