Rising to Mountaintops – Jazz Talk with Elon Turgeman

Elon Turgeman 1 IMG_7873

The twin opening chords of “It Plays By Itself” establishes the groove and funk that Israeli guitar master Elon Turgeman is known for. With vibrant color reminiscent of chimes and an uplifting, echo chamber-like quality, the song drives to his first sassy solo; and Elon is quite the technician. Brilliant drum work by Adam Nussbaum keeps the wheels turning, and then the sax’s entrance comes full-on and intense by Mark Rozen who is feeling it for sure.

This is one of the songs on the new CD “Climb Up” which has an array of tracks showcasing each musician’s tight, professional chops and their symbiosis that creates this dreamy music. The title track leads Elon chromatically up the guitar neck and is also inspired by his personal desire to climb to new heights in his career. This CD should definitely gain him a loftier vantage point as he progresses onward and upwards. (cont’d below)

Elon Turgeman CD cover

You grew up surrounded by music in your home and with family members. What kinds of things about music left the strongest impressions?

I was born in Jerusalem to a Jewish Moroccan family and I remember, as a kid, that our family meetings on weekends were surrounded with lots of music. The adults used to sit around the table and sing Moroccan folk music. Some of the songs were really positive and happy, but some of them were also deeply sad and emotional, to the point that they were crying during the songs. As a kid, I didn’t understand the language and the meaning of the words, but I was able to feel the atmosphere and the strong vibes that left me with a timeless memory and a deep understanding of the power of music.

When you heard your father as a cantor, did you start to improvise around it?

I was listening to my father’s prayers as a cantor and tried to memorize the melodies in my head.

When did you first pick up a guitar and how long to learn it?

I remember myself at a very young age, maybe three or four years old, playing with my older brother’s guitar. Of course, I didn’t really play the guitar, just fooled around with it while being amazed. For me, it was the most interesting toy at home.

I started to learn guitar at the age 12 and immediately fell in love with it. It was very clear that this is what I wanted to do with my life. At the beginning I was self-taught and at 14, I already played with a rock band and we even released some singles on the radio.

Your first band as a teenager, Creation, and then later, Lava, to today- what would you say have been the most significant ways you’ve grown as a musician?

Each one of the different steps in my journey as a musician was very enjoyable and significant for me and affected my playing in different ways.

As a teenager I was inspired by BB King, Jimi Hendrix and blues and rock guitar players. Then, around the age 16, I started to get into jazz and was inspired by Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall, and also Miles Davis, John Coltrane and the other jazz greats. When I got to Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1984, I got more deeply into contemporary jazz and fusion and I started to write more complex compositions that combined all my influences together. Since then, I’ve played with many great musicians who influenced me and my music in some ways, while trying to keep an open mind to create fresh and new music.

I would say the core ingredient that remains the same throughout one’s career is the personal inner voice of each musician, which affects his unique touch and interpretation.

What is your biggest source of inspiration – ideas and events, or feelings, or other music?

I would say all of them because I’m dealing with improvisation, and improvisation is affected by the reality of life.

Highlight of your education at Berklee?

When I got to Berklee it was a dream come true! One of the highlights was in one of my gigs at the Ryles Jazz Club in Boston, all of a sudden, Pat Metheny came in to listen, and I remember how nervous I was and almost couldn’t play. After the show we managed to talk and I realized that he really liked it.

Favorite guitar now/guitar of choice?

My main guitar is a 1972 Fender Stratocaster which I modified and replaced the neck pickup to an old Gibson PAF Humbucker pickup. This setup allows me to combine all my musical influences and guitar sounds that I need.

What genres of jazz are especially popular in Israel?

In Israel you can really find a variety of styles, but in my opinion the most popular ones at the moment are those combining Middle Eastern elements.

Talk about the experience of playing at the Red Sea Jazz Festival.  

Playing at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat is always a lot of fun! You get to meet and jam with great musicians from all over the world.

What was the gig like in Ramallah and how was your music received?

This gig was very special. I played there with the late Arnie Lawrence. He was a great saxophone player from New York, and one of the famous New School founders. He came to Israel with a vision to open a music school for all religions.

He believed that music can bring people together and provide peace. We played in Ramallah for almost three years on a weekly basis. The music was great; we combined jazz improvisations with Arab musicians and it was always well accepted. I can only say that I miss those days.

Drastically different political ideologies: can jazz join people, really?

Based on my experience in Ramallah I really believe that music can join people together because it speaks directly to their feelings. It’s a multinational language.

What effects do you favor on guitar (reverb, etc.)?

I like my guitar sound with a little bit of over-drive. I’ve been using for years the RAT Company overdrive, but lately I started to use the OCD and I like it too. I’m using just a little bit of reverb and delay, and sometimes a stereo chorus and harmonizer.

How did you meet Adam Nussbaum?

Adam is a very well-known jazz drummer whom I really like, so I decided to contact him via Facebook. I shared with him some of my previous recordings and he liked them. After a while we decided to set up for recording.

…and the other members of the band?

Avi Adrian is a good friend of mine since age 14. We’ve been playing a lot together during the years and he is one of my favorite piano players.

Yorai Oron is also a very good friend since we were teenagers in Jerusalem. We also went to Berklee together, and he is a wonderful bass player.

Mark Rozen is a great saxophone player I met during the 90’s here in Israel.

When you trade solos, are you composing your next improv in your head or listening to your band mates?

I would say that I mostly listen to my band and am reacting according to the situation. For me, jazz is interacting with the band and feeling each other’s harmonic, rhythmic and musical spirit.

Was there a moment when you knew that your personnel was truly coordinating together?

When you play jazz or any improvising form of music, you always take chances! It can happen to each one of the band members, but we have to support each other and let the music speak by itself. That’s the beauty.

Since you don’t have a vocalist, do you ever write your own lyrics in your head?

I wrote some lyrics in Hebrew in the past when I was a teenager, but these days I mainly write compositions with no lyrics.

What specific elements of both Israeli folk and Moroccan music appeal to you?

When I’m composing a new tune, I try to follow my heart and to go with my natural feeling at the moment. I never force myself to write a tune in a specific style or color. Even though I’m more related to the jazz genre, I think that my influences from Israeli folk and Moroccan music are there.

When did you start writing for what would become “Climb Up”?

Most of the material on “Climb Up” I wrote in 2016, a few months before the recording in September. Some of the tunes are older and I wanted to record them again with Adam Nussbaum.

What does the title refer to?

When I wrote the tune “Climb Up” I didn’t know how to name it yet. Then I figured out that the melody is going up in pitch and the bass goes down, like a contrary motion. Also, the guitar improvisation sections go up in half-steps. In addition, the energy of the tune is building up along the track.

Another meaning for the title “Climb Up” is the personal aspect. After a long period of teaching and being a family guy, I decided that this is the time to invest more in myself, so this is my time to Climb Up!

Where do you hope this journey will take audiences when they hear the CD?

I can’t come up with a specific journey for my audience. This is a unique experience for every individual person based on his/her interpretation. I only hope that the music will inspire them and encourage them to listen more and more.

What prompted the title “Swim You Have No Choice”?

This is a very long composition, and always when we start playing it we feel like we have to keep swimming, ’cause we don’t have any other choice.

The best part of the production/recording?

I love working at the studio, doing sound, editing, mixing etc. but always the best part is just playing.

How did you launch it?

The CD release concert was held at the Jerusalem Jazz Festival at the end of November 2017.

Touring and performing highlights for this year?

We are currently working on our first tour in Europe. We’ll be playing at Sala Clamores, Spain in April.

Thank you so much.

For more information, visit www.elonturgeman.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Elon Turgeman and Maggie Sankova.

(c) Debbie Burke 2018

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