Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of Oded Tzur's tenor saxophone playing is how much his phrasing resembles that of a flutist. He studied Hindustani classical music under the tutelage of Bansuri flute maestro Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, who had a profound influence on him. Tzur resides in New York City; he hails from Israel, and for some years was an integral part of his nation's fertile jazz scene. Before signing to ECM, he released two leader dates for Enja's Yellowbird: 2015's Like a Great River and 2017's Translator's Note. In different ways they explored new connections between American jazz, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Israeli classical and folk traditions. Here Be Dragons was recorded in Lugano, Switzerland with a new version of Tzur's quartet: Greek bassist Petros Klampanis remains, but drummer Ziv Ravitz has been replaced by American kit man Johnathan Blake, and pianist Shai Maestro by Nitai Hershkovits.
Tzur's sonorous abilities in melding East and West are much more subtly displayed on Here Be Dragons. Tone, timbre, and space hold the set's foreground in reflective, richly harmonic tunes that are melodically and texturally sumptuous. The title-track opener is introduced by a reflective melody in relatively few notes. But Tzur's musicians are provided both time and space to explore it and offer canny individual interpretations. Tzur's horn is at once vulnerable to the melody, yet tempered in its utterances. It sounds as if he resides between the tonal spheres inhabited by Ballads-era John Coltrane and the Ben Webster of Warm Moods. Hershkovits commits to each line with gently constructed, suggestive chord voicings. Blake's brushes shimmer under Klampanis' bassline that implies rather than states a pulse. While "To Hold Your Hand" commences similarly, it develops into swing while groove, tone and harmonics gel in savvy group interplay. Tzur' break combines Indian raga and 12-bar blues. "20 Years" is articulated as a restrained ballad, but it is unconstrained in its emotional utterances. There is lush and fluid improvisation between Tzur and Klampanis. "The Dream" is offered at a brisk tempo with syncopated rhythms that touch on African, Latin, and Israeli sources in a shapeshifting lyricism. The set closes with a reading of the 1961 Elvis Presley hit, "I Can’t Help Falling in Love" rendered in nearly glacial waltz time, with gorgeous African rhythms from Blake and a sparse bassline from Klampanis that frames both Hershkovits and Tzur, who play it nearly straight. As the album whispers to a resonant conclusion, the tune's emotional impact --due to Tzur's yearning tone and poignant understatement -- is clear. Here Be Dragons deliberately encourages its creators to join themselves to the music itself without ego or flash; that's a rarity in modern jazz.