With a new album out and his UK live debut soon, the Israeli pianist Uriel Herman explains how a jazz vision that finds room for Bowie and Mozart has won him a following across continents.
It’s a safe bet that an album by Uriel Herman will be the only one this year in which Frédéric Chopin sits side by side with Kurt Cobain. As well as the Chopin homage and Polly by Nirvana, the pianist’s imagination is inspired by Antonio Carlos Jobim, a Hebrew lullaby and – closer to jazz’s home turf – an elegant take on Nature Boy.
Not yet a subscriber of our Wednesday Breakfast Headlines?
Join the mailing list for a weekly roundup of Jazz News.
Some people like to ring-fence the sound of jazz as the Great American Songbook, Satchmo and, well, little else. Not Uriel Herman. Different Eyes, his third album as leader, reflects a wider vision – with Middle Eastern textures, rock and classical music all contributing. Like other Israeli artists, this is jazz as bubbling melting pot. The sound of the Uriel Herman quartet is warm-blooded and melodic but with moments of daring and lots of space for spontaneity. Ten years of live work have brought success in Asia, Brazil and Europe. This hardened road warrior plays his first UK date at Ronnie Scott’s in September; then in one week in October he has gigs in Lithuania and Poland before starting a big Brazilian tour.
Uriel’s eclectic approach reflects his time at the Jerusalem Music Academy. “I was an odd figure in the classical world because I liked to improvise.” His composition teacher, though, was encouraging – believing that the player should become part of the piece. Uriel regrets the loss of improvisation in the classical tradition – “which is one reason why classical music is a sound more for museums. That’s sad because Mozart is still a god for me.”
Rock music loomed large from early days: “Jimi Hendrix, Radiohead – those figures have always been with me … On my first solo album we did this version of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit [a wild reimagining that takes Cobain to the souk and back]. I think that helped me get better offers for touring and festivals.” And like Nirvana, Uriel has also refashioned David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World.
With all the travelling from his Tel Aviv home, Uriel regularly finds new inspirations: “At the moment I’m really into Turkish music – a different and interesting way of looking at music. Or I have a project in Spain which made me go into flamenco.
“For me, music is a language and I’m always trying to add to my vocabulary.”
Conceiving an album is different from the commissions he sometimes receives: “With Different Eyes I was just going with my heart. What I realised when I finished is that in a way it was about my childhood. I became a parent three years ago and it made me reflect on my own childhood.”
The opening track is a tender duet with the trumpeter Itamar Borochov entitled Jerusalem. It’s the city where Uriel and his wife both grew up. “For me it’s one of the most magical – and hardest – places to live. I could never live there again because of the intensity – the holiness and the hate.”
Like the all the tunes, Jerusalem came together swiftly. “When you work on an album it can be hard but this was all done in one or two takes.” The track list takes some virtuoso turns: MJ, celebrating basketball legend Michael Jordan, a childhood hero, ducks and weaves in 23/8 time (Jordan’s jersey number in his prime was 23). The record bows out though, as it began, in gentle fashion with Yakinton, a pretty take on an ancient melody dedicated to his young son. “Words are limited but music is not. When you say ‘I love you’ to your wife or your son or someone else those words are trying to convey a feeling, but music does it much better.”
In concert – in true jazz spirit – the tunes begin to assume a life of their own. “In a good show 90 per cent is improvised; in a good show you forget about form. Maybe the first one or two shows of a tour are more structured but by the third night it could be 100 per cent improvised. I really love that.
“The reason music is special is because it is happening in real time – and then it’s gone.”
pp features are part of marketing packages