Gur Liraz (debut album as leader, ‘Squiggles’ – Ubuntu Music – release 19 May)

In his debut album as leader, “Squiggles”, Tel Aviv-born, Berlin-based guitarist Gur Liraz celebrates the classic organ trio with Tal Balshai (organ) and Omri Gondor (drums). Feature by John Bungey.

Gur Liraz. Photo credit: Andreas Etter

As a promising young guitarist growing up in Tel Aviv, Gur Liraz heard a sound that he loved but couldn’t emulate. The classic American organ trio – Hammond B3, drums and a guitarist swinging between blues and bop – was out of reach.

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“I always wanted to play in an organ trio,” says Gur. “I grew up listening to those guitarists – Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Kenny Burrell – but in Israel not that many people even played the organ. To find an original B3 in Israel was difficult. So it just never happened.”

It would be almost a couple of decades later, and nearly 2,000 miles away, before Gur could finally make his organ trio debut. Gur’s album, Squiggles, released by Ubuntu in May, features nine tunes, seven by the guitarist and two by his newfound organist Tal Bashai. From melodic and reflective to hard-grooving, Squiggles stylishly celebrates a genre that was once the most popular in jazz.

It was during lockdown that Gur, now based in Berlin, finally met his Hammond player and found the hours to work up his composing skills. (Time to think turns out to have been the silver lining for a good number of creative artists faced with a Covid-decimated diary.)

“When I met Tal it was a question of learning to play alongside the organ. Because it’s a different experience from other instruments – when you play with an organ it shines a spotlight on every note you choose.

“I find I play more carefully when I play with the organ. The harmonic experience is totally different, there’s so much going on behind you – and it can sound incredible.”

Gur’s musical journey began when he started on guitar aged nine. He majored in jazz at the Thelma Yellin High School – renowned for the players it has nurtured – and studied for four years with a “wonderful” guitarist,  Ofer Ganor. From high school he was busy on the Tel Aviv jazz scene. “I was playing cafes and restaurants and making OK money. It was fun and I just never stopped.”  But eventually Gur decided he should sample jazz in its country of origin and during an eight-month stay in New York took lessons from guitarist Peter Bernstein, a fixture on the scene whose easy fluency Gur admired. “He’s a big advocate of tradition and checking out the masters. He’ll always tell you to transcribe Bird and Coltrane and Wes Montgomery – and go to the fathers of the music, not the sons.

“I listen to everybody but I’m very old school in my tastes. I like the clean guitar sound. Today that’s pretty rare to find.” There was a time growing up when he listened almost exclusively to Wes Montgomery, he says.

Gur’s next move, in 2013, was to Berlin – initially to study literature at the Free University. “I wasn’t entirely sure if I was going to keep being a jazz musician at the time. But when I finished my degree and started to do more music it proved an interesting place to be. It wasn’t New York, but with the jazz institute there, it was coming up and there were enough musicians I could play with and be inspired by.”

During lockdown Gur became interested in investigating the links between Jewish music and jazz – as have done players from Avishai Cohen, the bassist, to John Zorn in different ways. “With ‘Squiggles’ I’m not sure if that came out in the final album. A lot of the ‘falafel jazz’ didn’t make it into the recording.” (Falafel jazz being a term Israeli musicians use for jazz with a strong Middle Eastern feel and flavour.)

Gur has also recorded and gigged with German singer Amanda Becker; his twin brother, Gal, is a saxophonist who also lives in Berlin and they have played together. But it’s as a guitarist-bandleader that Gur’s ambitions currently lie. While German dates to promote the album are planned, the hope is to bring the organ trio to London sometime. “On stage the music follows the classic jazz form. We play a chorus of the melody, which sometimes I play more fluidly, sometimes I stick to exactly how I wrote it. That is followed by choruses of improvisation and every night is completely different. It can be good, it can be amazing!”

Squiggles is released by Ubuntu Music on May 19

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LINKS: Artist page at Ubuntu music

Artist website

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