At Omer Klein's concert Wednesday night, you'll hear the result of a life-long love affair with the piano.
The Israeli-born jazz pianist, who studied in the U.S. with Fred Hersch and Danilo Perez, was immediately transfixed when, as a child, he saw a piano being played for the first time.
“It wasn't so much that the specific music did anything to me, it was just the sound of the instrument, and also the look – the black and white keys. It became very, very clear to me that I must press these keys. I don't know a better way to put it. I just felt very strongly that I needed to do that.”
His concert at the NAC Fourth Stage is the start of an eight-date cross-country tour, from Ottawa to Victoria. It will be his Canadian debut, the first time he has played here despite being introduced to jazz by an Oscar Peterson CD.
The piano will be up-front throughout: on the stage will just be Klein on piano and his long-time musical collaborator, Haggai Cohen-Milo, on double bass. No effects, just the natural sound of the instruments.
“The piano, it's such an amazing instrument. It's so open. It's inviting the pianist to find his or her way to create nuance, to get colours out of the instrument. It's really capable of a wide area of colours and nuance, and I don't think that any effects are necessary.”
He and Cohen-Milo “use a very wide variety of textures when we play, so there is a lot of interplay going on and listening to each other and reacting to each other. The melody can jump around in any direction, harmonies are played by everyone. So it's creating rich textures.”
Klein, who now lives in Germany, has toured worldwide, and released five albums. The latest consists of all originals and features his trio, with Cohen-Milo and drummer Ziv Ravitz. He calls the compositions on the album “songs”, and emphasizes they could be sung, hummed, or even whistled. “They have this kind of lyrical quality.”
“I think my first inspirations as a musician were songs, the human voice singing a three-minute song. That's what I heard first. I discovered jazz later and I discovered the classical instrumental music later. I just think that really emotionally I'm based in that, in song.”
But at the same time he stresses that he and Cohen-Milo are jazz musicians, and how important improvisation is to their performances.
“It's not a coincidence that what I chose to do is not to be a singer-songwriter, but to be an improvising pianist. I do write these melodies, but as soon as the melody is done, which is after one minute, all I'm looking for is how to exploit this melody in order to create something completely new today. So the improvisation part is crucial. I would definitely not want to do a show where I just play my strong melodies and go home. It's the unexpected elements that are really attractive for me.”
I don't know any other form of creating music that is as close to life as improvisation. In life you always try to plan, but we all know how far that takes you. And jazz and improvisation are preparing you for that. Or if you want to think about it the other way around, life is preparing you to play jazz! – Omer Klein
The title of his latest album, To the Unknown [Plus Loins, 2013], is about unexpectedness and improvisation – in music and in life. “That's what you do when you improvise, and in a way, that's what you do when you're living as well. I don't know any other form of creating music that is as close to life as improvisation. In life you always try to plan, but we all know how far that takes you. I mean, you make your plans, but actually your life is really built by all the interesting and unexpected things that happen while you were trying to execute your plan. And jazz and improvisation are preparing you for that. Or if you want to think about it the other way around, life is preparing you to play jazz!”
He ended up living in Germany for personal reasons, he said, but he didn't plan that. “It was just something that happened. Again the unknown, I guess. ... Now I stay here because my career in Europe has been growing and growing. At this time I'm between my concerts in North America and my concerts in Japan. I'm performing so much in Europe that it makes sense to stay here and it's comfortable for me. But, no, I never planned it.”
One of the songs on To the Unknown has what might be termed an unexpectedly happy ending. “Le Papa de Simon” was inspired by a short story of the same name by the 19th century author Guy de Maupassant. “He wrote a beautiful story about a young boy that doesn't have a father but has a great mother. The kids in his village are picking on him, and at the end of the story he gets a new adoptive father. It's a very rare story in the sense that it has a happy ending. Most good literature doesn't end so well. But I enjoyed this story very much and it inspired the playfulness and the character of the tune.”
Finding jazz through Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald and realizing it was for him
Klein started piano lessons at age seven, “which was two years later than when I had wanted to learn the piano. When I was five, I asked my parents to get me a piano, and they were shocked because they didn't even know that I knew what it was. It took two years until it actually happened, but since I was seven, it's something that I do daily. Even without the performance element, and the composition element of it, it's simply a place to be for me. Just a place where I express myself.”
He was introduced to jazz in his mid-teens, when a teacher loaned him a CD: a duo of vocalist Ella Fitzgerald and pianist Oscar Peterson. “It just broke my heart completely.” Klein doesn't think he ever returned the CD.
He just hadn't connected with the classical material he'd been learning until then: “it was clear to me that's not what I was meant to do.” But when he heard Peterson, and then records by jazz musicians like John Coltrane and Chick Corea, “I realized that that must be something that I can do. Because, in this music, you're supposed to play the piano very well, you're supposed to play in a personal way, you're supposed to improvise, to be in the moment. It was just everything that I wanted to do.”
He met Cohen-Milo (who now lives in New York City) when they studied at the same high school for the arts in Israel. They played together in Klein's trio in Israel, and then they both moved to Boston to study at the New England Conservatory of Music. They shared an apartment, and “basically played together every day. Those years really developed a very keen way of playing together.”
The two have released a duo album, and played together for a decade. Probably “close to 90% of every performance of every song” they perform is improvised, Klein said, “and in this kind of music, you're searching for the unknown. You're searching for surprise. You're looking to break away from something. You're trying not to play like you played yesterday.”
And having a partner like Cohen-Milo, “the right partner who can listen to you well and can get you and understand where you're going is a crucial element because then really the music can go more places. It's much less limited.”
[In jazz] you're supposed to play the piano very well, you're supposed to play in a personal way, you're supposed to improvise, to be in the moment. It was just everything that I wanted to do.
– Omer Klein
Klein has also collaborated with well-known jazz musicians such as Omer Avital, John Zorn, Lee Konitz, Jeff Ballard, and Joel Frahm, as well as Israeli popular music icons like Yehudit Ravitz, Eviatar Banai and Rona Kenan.
In 2009-10, he studied in New York under pianist Fred Hersch. “The main thing that we worked on, was to open more and more new directions in my playing – to basically think of the piano as an orchestra and to make sure that you're using the great colours and the great options that the piano provides. And that was a great learning experience with Fred.”
But even more pivotal were his studies with pianist Danilo Perez in Boston.
“The first lesson with Danilo was really incredible because I was all shaking and shy. I admired him so much for his work as a bandleader and for his work with Wayne Shorter. Still, I think I somehow gathered the courage not to play something that I thought would please him, not to play something that resembled his playing in any way. But rather I just played something that I felt very very close to, tried to be myself. I think I also played something that sounded very Israeli.
“And I'll never forget that when I finished, Danilo said, 'OK, we have things to work on, we have things that we can improve, but basically what I heard in what you played was an individual personality and I want to make sure that this would be the first thing I tell you – that whatever we will work on and whatever you will work on later in your life as a musician, don't ever lose that touch. Don't ever lose what I heard today. That's a special flavour, that's a personal touch that you've got, and I really want to encourage you to keep that, whatever else you're learning, and whatever else you want to add to that.'"
"And to hear that from a master, it was just what I needed.”
– Alayne McGregor
The Omer Klein and Haggai Cohen-Milo Canadian tour: