In the past decade or so, jazz critics have remarked widely on a recent spate of exceptional jazz musicians emanating from a place that might seem unlikely: Israel, a nation with no historical connection to the African diaspora, and a population of just 7.7 million people in an area smaller than Massachusetts.
One of those musicians is saxophonist, composer, and arranger Shauli Einav ’08 (MM), a native of Jerusalem who got hooked on jazz as a youth, during his family’s annual treks to the Red Sea Jazz Festival, a four-day event held since 1987 in the southern resort city of Eilat.
His debut release, Opus One (Plus Loin), has attracted the attention of critics writing in jazz media such as DownBeat and Jazz Times and news outlets such as National Public Radio and the Jerusalem Post. He’s been called “emerging” and “noteworthy.” “Découverte assurée” (“Discovery assured”), noted a Belgian critic.
Saxophonist and composer Walt Weiskopf ’80E initially drew Einav to Eastman, where he was teaching in the early 2000s. He calls Einav’s playing “authentic and rooted.”
“Shauli is extremely talented and has tremendous instinctive love for every aspect of jazz,” says Weiskopf. “He’s a singularly motivated and original jazz musician.”
Einav says his approach is to “play the truth.”
“It’s like when you talk to someone, and you sense they’re telling you something true, with integrity,” he says. “It’s the same thing in music. You can sense when a player is playing the truth versus just moving his fingers around, showing off. The music should have essence.”
One might also say kavanah. Kavanah is the title of the second track on Opus One and a Hebrew word describing a state of mind for prayer, and more broadly, the state of concentration and intention that infuses spoken words—or musical performance—with meaning and sincerity.
Einav also says that his work exudes “a feeling of urgency.”
The opening track, Jerusalem Theme, is an exploration of many dimensions of Jerusalem’s past and present, while Hayu Leilot (“Those Were the Nights”) is Einav’s interpretation of a 1940s Israeli standard. The Damelin is a tribute to his friend, David Damelin, who was killed by a Palestinian sniper in March 2002, when the two were both in the Gaza Strip, during the tour of military service that’s mandatory for young Israelis, men and women alike.
As a high school student, Einav was captivated by the late Arnie Lawrence, a jazz saxophonist who founded New York’s New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, then moved to Israel in 1997 on a mission to unite Jews and Arabs through music. It was Lawrence whom Einav credits with inspiring him to “play the truth.” He recalls walking two miles each day from school to Lawrence’s studio, where he took master classes. The walk was long and often hot, but as Einav says, “for a 16-year-old guy, it was great.”
Einav remembers distinctly his first encounter with Weiskopf, whom he says was “one of my favorite saxophonists growing up.”
“When I saw him perform at the Red Sea Jazz Festival, I went up to the stage afterwards, when he was putting away his instrument. I asked him if I could take some lessons with him. I asked him where he taught. He said he taught at the Eastman School.” From there, says Einav, going to Eastman was “my top priority.”
Einav calls the band he assembled on Opus One his “dream band,” crediting pianist Shai Maestro, trombonist Andy Hunter, bassist Joseph Lepore, and drummer Johnathan Blake, with much of the recording’s success.
But Einav is the first to note that starting out takes more than talent in a band and its leader. It also takes connections, since one of the first things people in the industry want to know are the names of your mentors.
“Four reasons the 29-year-old Einav garners attention in a crowded field are his mentors,” writes John Ephland in DownBeat, referring to Lawrence, Weiskopf, Harold Danko, the composer and pianist who chairs Eastman’s jazz and contemporary media department, and the saxophonist Dave Liebman.
Starting out also requires entrepreneurialism.
“Jazz is a very competitive field. You spent a lot of time promoting your band and your solo career. We have to do everything—the bookings, getting people to the gigs, everything. I spend many hours on the computer.”
“It’s a maze,” says Einav of New York’s jazz scene. “But I’m a big believer in opening up as many doors as I can.”