On a Jewish prayer and an Arab melody

The Yedid Trio in action – ‘It’s a homage to both Arab and Jewish culture.’ A Jewish prayer and an Arab melody are not typically found in the same piece of music. But Yitzhak Yedid and his new trio are …

The Yedid Trio in action – ‘It’s a homage to both Arab and Jewish culture.’ A Jewish prayer and an Arab melody are not typically found in the same piece of music. But Yitzhak Yedid and his new trio are not exactly typical musicians.

In fact, Yedid, a 33-year-old Israeli, has been hailed as one of the most original composers on the international music scene today. And his new ensemble, The Yedid Trio – scheduled to perform in New York, Washington, Baltimore and Canada this month – reflects that assessment.

It features two Jews and an Arab playing a highly unusual combination of instruments: there is Yedid himself on piano, fellow Jerusalemite Ora Boasson on double bass and Mikhail Maroun on oud. Boasson is lead contrabassist of Jerusalem’s Israel Camerata Orchestra, while Maroun, an Arab from the Druse town of Ussifiya in northern Israel, is co-founder of the Oriental Music Department of the Hebrew University’s Rubin Academy of Music, where he also teaches the oud, a middle eastern lute considered to be the quintessential instrument of the Arab world.

The idea of forming a mixed Jewish-Arab ensemble came from a suggestion of a music critic. “At first, it sounded artificial to me,” recalls Yedid, “until I found Mikhail (Maroun) – and now this collaboration is the most natural thing in the world.”

The composition that Yedid has written – a five-part suite for piano, contrabass and oud to premiere this month – is the fruit of this new collaboration. “The piece expresses the idea of a mix of worlds in the most natural way. Arab culture finds expression through the oud, Jewish prayer is heard through the contrabass, and it is all expressed in the form of contemporary Western composition,” says Yedid, who grew up in a religious Jewish home of Middle Eastern origin.

“It’s a homage to both Arab and Jewish culture – not only through the piece itself, but through the players,” Yedid told ISRAEL21c.

Yedid, who studied with acclaimed Amercian pianists Paul Bley and Ran Blake at the New England Conservatory in Boston, has performed solo in major festivals across Europe and North America, and has numerous recordings including a duet with Bley. A review in the jazz bible Downbeat described Yedid as ‘the quintessential cross-genre artist. He is a wonderful storyteller, a composer and a musician of the highest caliber.’

Yedid is quick to deflect such praise, preferring to shine the limelight on his musical partners. In his case, it’s more than just words. It’s also an approach reflected in the freedom he gives musicians to not only improvise a piece, but compose parts of it.

“For me the musicians are a very central part of the creation,” he explains. “I believe a piece should sound different every time because of the mark of the musicians. This is a different approach than that of many fine composers who write their compositions down to the last detail and forbid the musicians from changing a thing. I often ask my musicians to write a part of the composition or develop an idea.”

Yedid’s compositions are also distinguished by what he calls a need to “bring worlds together.”

“I believe music should reflect all colors – classical, jazz, East and West because I’m tied to all of those. It’s not easy to find musicians who can do all that – they need to be able to read classical music, but also improvise, and be able to perform many different genres.”

Yedid has been peforming with 29-year-old Boasson for some seven years. The two met while studying at the New England Conservatory and have since recorded five CDs together.

The collaboration with Maroun, 36, started only this year. Most oud players can improvise, but can’t read music, notes Yedid. However, Maroun has a solid background in classical guitar, enabling him to perform both Western and Eastern music.

“Because Mikhail has such a wide range, I am able to write very ambitious pieces for the oud,” says Yedid, who feels connected to Arab music and culture since his father hails from Syria and his mother, from Iraq.

In fact it’s that mix of influences – from hassidic to Middle Eastern – that he relishes and finds in Jerusalem, where he was born – and lives today. At one point, Yedid had the chance to make his permanent home in Boston, where he was studying. Instead he chose to cut short his graduate studies and return to Jerusalem.

“This is where I find my inspiration,” he explains. Some of those feelings are given expression on his latest CD, recorded with Boasson, entitled: Homage to Jerusalem: Passion and Prayers.

New England Conservatory of Music critic Abby Rabinvotz wrote of Yedid’s music: ‘Deceptively simple, he reaches out to the listener and touches a place deep within. Drawing from his Israeli roots, Yedid creates haunting modal melodies which weave their way through rich, sometimes surprising, harmonic tapestries. Jazz Classical and Middle Eastern images are juxtaposed. There is a sense of shifting universes, a dreamlike state where one emotional landscape flows into another.’

The Yedid Trio performs in New York, Washington and Baltimore from September 18 through 25.