Oded Tzur

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Isabela Review

by Thom Jurek

Isabela is the sophomore ECM album from New York-based saxophonist/composer Oded Tzur and his quartet. Here Be Dragons, his 2020 label debut, showcased a consummate ability to meld Eastern and Western traditions while exploring new connections between American jazz, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Israeli traditions. Here, the saxophonist constructs a self-fashioned raga in a 36-minute suite-like sequence. The music balances subtle, emotionally resonant meditation-like statements with powerful, authoritative assertions. The quartet's personnel -- pianist Nitai Hershkovits, bassist Petros Klampanis, and drummer Johnathan Blake -- have been working together for nearly five years; their communication is at the level of unguarded trust and intimacy.

The brief "Invocation" introduces the set with a brooding modal phrase from quietly rumbling piano, gently rolling tom-toms, and Tzur's subdued yet moaning tenor amid Klampanis' doleful pizzicato. "Noam" is a folk hymn with Tzur's horn. Hershkovits, with unhurried elegance, caresses those lines with shifting ostinatos as Blake brushes the backdrop, and Klampanis guides the circular motif. Tzur begins exchanging lines with his pianist. The rhythm section underscores their increasing tension until the grain in the saxophone transforms the tune in a prophetic voice expressed in blues. The work briefly moves afield as pianist, saxophonist, and bassist engage in contrapuntal call-and-response before returning to the mantra-like theme. "The Lion Turtle" offers an intricate, graceful melody; it is nearly elliptical. The dialogue between piano and drum kit is episodic and complementary as Klampanis assumes the role of conduit in their communication. Tzur begins his solo at the five-minute mark following a cascading crescendo from Hershkovits. The saxist whispers with flutters, trills, and sonorous notes before dialoguing with his pianist in forceful rounds. The title piece was inspired by the omniscient character from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Nearly 11 minutes long, it is a romantically expressive, dramatic journey. Hershkovits and Klampanis softly converse as the theme emerges. Tzur blows quietly articulated notes as a salvo in the articulation of a melody amid glistening cymbal washes. The band find the tune on the second pass as Tzur asserts its lyric before dropping out. Klampanis and Hershkovits jointly follow exigent harmonic ideas down a rabbit hole. The pianist then briefly converses with Blake before delivering a canny yet idiosyncratic solo. When Tzur reenters, the tempo and dynamic increase; he delivers an emotionally potent solo before recalling the lyric theme that carries it out. "Love Song for the Rainy Season" offers an Eastern-tinged overtone lyric before the quartet explores it with focus and physicality. Hershkovits frames modalism inside the language of athletic post-bop. His solo bumps and flows atop the rhythmic section. The pianist delivers sweeping chromatic chordal investigations, statements, and fleet single lines before framing an explosive solo from Blake. Tzur enters with intensity in the final third, trading frenetic blues lines with the pianist and drummer. While Isabela is brief and somewhat less strident than its predecessor, it is no less revelatory, artful, or musically expressive.

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