Harmonica wizard Roni Eytan was excited about opening for one of his musical heroes, jazz trumpet virtuoso Avishai Cohen, at the Israeli Jazz Showcase in Toronto on Sunday night at the Rex.
Eytan was attending high school in Jerusalem and enrolled in an after-school music program held at a club called The Yellow Submarine when he first heard Cohen play in performance there. Tel Aviv-born Cohen is part of The Three Cohens, a jazz band he founded with his sister, tenor saxophonist/clarinetist, Anat, and his brother, soprano saxophonist, Yuval.
For the past six years, Cohen has played with the all-star jazz ensemble, the SFJAZZ Collective.
“I have all of his records and I’m a fan. For me and my peers, he’s someone to look up to,” said Eytan, who at 25 is about 13 years younger than Cohen. Eytan added that the trumpet player, whom he also studied with, is still one of his favourite musicians.
Eytan said he picked up the harmonica when he was 15, without any thought of ever playing professionally. “It started as a hobby. I did fall in love with the sound of it. After a few months, I was completely hooked.”
He was introduced to jazz at the after-school program. Although jazz bands do feature harmonica players, they are rare in jazz. “The harmonica has yet to be explored,” said Eytan, who plays chromatic harmonica. “In the past people didn’t take the instrument too seriously.”
Eytan’s current mentor is jazz harmonica star Gregoire Maret. Both in Israel and at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where Eytan is in his final year, he’s studied with musicians who play various instruments, including the Middle Eastern clarinet.
“That obviously also affected the way I play. I saw it as a privilege to study with saxophone players, trumpet players, piano players. I didn’t see it as an obstacle, I just saw it as an opportunity. I think you can make everything work on a different instrument,” Eytan said.
Citing a wide range of musical influences, from Herman Look, a Sephardi cantor, to Greek, Latin American and Turkish music, Eytan said that “all of this is coming out organically” in his playing.
At Berklee, he plays with musicians from around the world who have different musical backgrounds. “It has enabled me to play with people who I wouldn’t be able to play with in Israel, people coming from countries I can’t go to,” Eytan said. “I have a very good Iraqi friend, a violinist who’s a collaborator of mine. I play with musicians from all over the Middle East.”
Eytan said the accomplished musicians he’s studied and played with, among them pianist Danilo Perez, whose band he appeared with at Koerner Hall in Toronto last year, have influenced his playing and writing.
After being a sideman in various bands and being fortunate enough to play with incredible musicians, Eytan said it was time to form his own group. At the Israeli Jazz Showcase, the Roni Eytan Quartet was featured and the harmonica was most certainly up front and centre.
The band – including Lefteris Kordis on piano and keyboards, Tamir Shmerling on bass and Dor Herskovits on drums – played both Eytan’s and Kordis’ compositions.
The Israeli Jazz Showcase, featuring the Roni Eytan Quartet and the Avishai Cohen Quartet, was presented by Toronto Downtown Jazz and the Canada-Israel Cultural Foundation. With support from the Consulate General of Israel, the Israeli Jazz Showcase is part of the Spotlight on Israeli Culture.