Oded Tzur: Isabela (ECM 2739)

Oded Tzur

Oded Tzur tenor saxophone
Nitai Hershkotivs piano
Petros Klampanis double bass
Johnathan Blake drums
Recorded September 2021
Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover photo: Sebastião Salgado
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 13, 2022

Saxophonist and composer Oded Tzur resurfaces in ECM waters for his follow-up to 2020’s Here Be Dragons, a maiden voyage that, like this spiritual twin, was a musical parable. Rejoined by pianist Nitai Hershkovits, bassist Petros Klampanis, and drummer Jonathan Blake, he examines the fluidity of structural principles and the materials involved in their making.

From the threads of “Invocation,” the quartet sews the binding of its thematic pages in “Noam,” which speaks through melodies that roll off the soul’s tongue. In “The Lion Turtle,” Blake taps the edges of his kit like someone testing the shell of an egg for vulnerabilities (and finding none). Klampanis’s solo feels like an extension of Hershkovits’s (and vice versa). Suggestions of alternate realities fade as quickly as they appear. Tzur’s unraveling is profundity incarnate, gracing the inner circle of every chord change as the tongue might move a morsel around the mouth for proper chewing. The result is more than a conversation; it’s an interactive prayer.

The title track awakens suddenly yet quietly. Love is the universal whisper here, as supple as skin. A near-stillness shifts midway into a locomotive dream before allowing the dawn to have its way. “Love Song For The Rainy Season” whips up the most energetic passages of the album, ending it on a cymbal crash that dissipates in breath.

At 36 minutes, Isabela is quintessentially about quality over quantity. The depth of interpretation promised by repeat listening far outweighs the expectation that a mere profession of duration may court from the skeptical heart. Tzur plays as if shielding his eyes from the sun, seeing in the distance a vessel he might have known as a child yet which is now haggard and without a sail, going only where the water and waves will permit it. He swings and whispers, meditates and shouts, holding each dichotomy as a eulogy.

(This review originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Oded Tzur: Here Be Dragons (ECM 2676)

2676 X

Oded Tzur
Here Be Dragons

Oded Tzur tenor saxophone
Nitai Hershkovits piano
Petros Klampanis double bass
Johnathan Blake drums
Recorded June 2019, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover photo: Jean-Guy Lathuilière
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 14, 2020

Born in Tel Aviv and based in New York, tenor saxophonist Oded Tzur could not have found a more suitable home than ECM for his gentle brand of jazz. His uniquely tonal approach to the instrument, channeled through a rare melodic purity, make for a powerful combination. Heavily schooled in Indian classical music, he treats each tune as a raga in and of itself, and uses likeminded structures in distinctly jazz-oriented parallels to unleash the inner life of every motif. Ensuring that nothing goes to waste are his trusted crew of pianist Nitai Hershkovits, bassist Petros Klampanis, and drummer Johnathan Blake.

After a tender yet angular introduction, “To Hold Your Hand” ushers in a dimly lit performance that relies more on the contour of sound than on the sound of contour. Tzur lends an ear to both internal and external travels, and gives the listener over to possibilities of metaphysical experience. His saxophone, despite being rooted in the body, seems without one, taking on instead the skin of a cosmic animal stealth-walking through constellations—bending but never breaking the shapes we’ve come to interpret.

The emotional beauty of Tzur’s playing reaches its zenith in “20 Years,” which marks the period of time since his father’s death. As Tzur notes in the CD booklet, “I could feel that my father was somehow present in the room, and it was as if I was having a conversation with him.” In this respect, he converses not only with the dead but also with the living. Blake’s brushwork is exquisite in the trio section. Klampanis and Hershkovits intertwine as equal partners while Tzur drops into Child’s Pose for a spell. By the time he resurfaces, his solo is so attuned that every inhalation and exhalation is matched to the contractions and expansions of its surroundings.

The band shifts with barely a forethought between three solo “Miniatures.” The first, played by Hershkovits, is a balance of sparkle and shadow. The second, by Klampanis, is contemplative and touched by grace. The third, from the bandleader, sings like a flute carved from an ancient tree. This leads us to the masterstroke of “The Dream.” Despite being upbeat, a certain embrace of shadow prevents it from being a dance. Hershkovits is particularly ebullient and gives voice to love, while Blake adds a traction so tactile it makes one want to hold on to it. Just as the preceding tunes give robustness to gentility, so does this one give airiness to strength, as embodied in the continuous energy linking every note from Tzur’s lips. At last, we touch down in a surprising landing strip called “Can’t Help Falling In Love.” Made famous by Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii, it brims with nostalgia. Though undoubtedly familiar, it takes on a life of its own, divorced from popular association and remarried to the listener in real-time ceremony.

It is worth noting that the album’s title refers to HIC SVNT DRACONES, a Latin phrase that once marked uncharted territory on medieval maps. Tzur has indeed set out on a voyage into dangerous waters, understanding the risks of never seeing that which is confirmed only in myth. Such spirit is evoked with gentility in the eponymous track that opens the set, working its way into the center of our humbled attention. Even when the waves pick up, bringing with them hints of the unknown, Tzur relies on his bandmates to keep the sails hoisted and the deck free of debris, so that only they and their integrity may set foot upon shifting sands at landfall.