Nine years ago, when saxophonist Tevet Sela moved to Montreal from Israel, one of the first local musicians he met was Jason Rosenblatt, the leader of the band Shtreiml.
They started jamming, with Rosenblatt on piano, and found they had a lot in common musically. They’re both jazz players whose palettes include klezmer, North African and cantorial music, as well as blues.
Sela and Rosenblatt formed a quartet, with Joel Kerr on electric bass and Martin Auguste on drums, and began performing around town. Sela originally planned to move to Toronto, but he found Montreal’s jazz community very warm and welcoming. “Immediately I had gigs. I started learning French and now I call Montreal home,” he said.
Sela and Rosenblatt’s collaboration has given birth to a new release, Mizmor, an exhilarating album inspired by the ancient cantillations of old Morocco and klezmer music. It’s also influenced by 1960s jazz, especially the improvisations of John Coltrane. The Hebrew word mizmor can refer to a song with a spiritual meaning.
The interplay between Sela’s saxophone and Rosenblatt’s piano on the recording makes for exciting listening. “We both come from the jazz tradition, but as well from the klezmer tradition which [has a] different scale, different harmonic structure. We come from the same places so it’s really easy for us to comment musically on each other’s phrase. Of course when you improvise, you never know what’s going to happen, composing it in real time on the spot,” Sela said.
“Music is really like a language and improvised music is very social, especially jazz, and klezmer music as well. When I hear Jason or he hears me play a phrase, we know exactly where it’s coming from and we could comment on it musically or continue the phrase or take it to another place.”
Sela also plays bass in Rosenblatt’s band Shtreiml, which recently toured the United States. They performed material from Mizmor and mixed it up with blues and the Shtreiml repertoire of klezmer and Turkish music.
“Thanks to my upbringing in Israel I soaked up a lot of different kinds of music that became part of my voice,” Sela said.
He picked up the alto saxophone when he was 12, taking lessons at a conservatory close to his home in Ramat Gan. He chose the instrument because, like the human voice, it can wail, scream, weep and whisper. “It’s one of the instruments that’s closest to a vocalist. It’s very emotional,” Sela said. What appealed to him about jazz was the freedom it gave him to improvise.
A graduate of the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Givatayim, Israel, he’s performed in house bands of popular Israeli TV shows, including Yair Lapid, Ma Kashur and Reiach Menta. He’s played on TV and movie soundtracks and worked as a session musician, including on the multi-platinum Idan Raichel Project album.
Before he became well-known, Raichel played piano in Sela’s band, and Sela played in Raichel’s band. But the two parted ways musically. “His music changed and I went in a more jazz direction,” Sela said.
He said he made a good living as a professional musician in Israel, “someone who is being called on to do a job, to play whatever is required.”
But it’s easier to make a living as an artist in Canada, he added. Canadians are open-minded musically, he said. “In Montreal, they are very hungry for and intrigued to hear new sounds.”
Also, because of Canada’s size, musicians can tour the country to promote their artistic visions. “You can travel within Canada,” he said. “If you want to take your band outside of Israel, you have to take a plane and travel to Europe.”
Mizmor will be launched at the Upstairs Jazz Club in Montreal on Feb. 16 at 8 p.m. The Tevet Sela Trio plays at the House Of Jazz in Montreal on Feb. 23 and the Tevet Sela & John Roney Duo perform at Gigspace in Ottawa on March 30. For more information, visit tevetsela.com.