Stephen Horenstein
Music, Arts and Society

Musical bridges across the great divide

Photo by Peter Gannushkin

His sound is as big as a football field. He splays his ideas, one after another, as a action painter with reins. He calls it “free jazz”, but many of us know it as “the music”, the heart of the Black American experience, which is, ultimately, a universal expression of the contemporary human dilemma. This dilemma was articulated by Albert Camus in his essay “Create Dangerously”: the creative artist is ultimately in danger; he/she must navigate the chasm between a personal artistic vision (including the solitude necessary to create) and his/her responsibility to the parent society (with the obligation to “cry out” against human injustice).

Yoni Kretzmer is such an artist. He was the product of a musical family that gathered him around the classics in his early age. Soon, however, he was drawn to the saxophone and found a local Klezmer musician David Perkins who gifted Yoni the love of music. After those early days, with all his ups and downs, Yoni “never looked back”. At age 37 Yoni Kretzmer has become one of the most promising creative saxophonists in both the Tel Aviv and New York scenes.  He is also an aspiring composer.  Now living in his Brooklyn base, Kretzmer not only has built his own “scene”, (a well-attended series of cutting-edge music concerts), but also a recording label featuring many of the improvising “greats”, primarily from New York and Tel Aviv.  Through his projects, he has brought artists together “across the great divide”.  Yoni now envisions a future when like-minded creative musicians can share with each other, cross-fertilizing from city to city, especially throughout Europe, USA, and beyond.  What Yoni Kretzmer has done for Tel Aviv’s creative music scene has yet to be fully appreciated. He is both a visionary and a source of boundless energy. By navigating his own destiny he is inspiring others to do the same.

Photo by Peter Gannushkin

When Kretzmer arrived in New York over a decade ago, he accurately assessed the local New York creative music scene: “I created what I did out of necessity.  I saw that here (NY),  there were a hundred avant-garde players who were fighting over a few “gigs” AND the gigs they were fighting over were not that great!  It seemed easier to me to find my own place, rather than sending fifty emails to promote myself just to get a performance I really didn’t want all that much.   I saw that the only way to generate an audience was to put together an interesting series, and through this first step I could create something bigger.  I actually had done this before when I was in Tel Aviv.  I used to run the “Hagadah Hasmalit” (a small cultural space in Tel Aviv which prided on experimentation).  I loved doing that! I loved accumulating people and building an evening that I would want to hear, and then to find other people who would want to hear it too!  So I decided to do something similar in New York by creating the “OUTNOW Music Series.”

At the same time, Kretzmer also created a label, “OUTNOW Recordings” with a similar artistic vision: “It was the same with the Outnow label!  It was my only real option. Instead of writing 100 emails and trying to find someone who would put out my stuff (i.e. a label that probably would not give any money and might even take my music rights away), I took another route.  I asked myself,  ‘Why not just put it out myself and while I’m doing that, create a frame that other people might want to join’.” …. Indeed Yoni did precisely THAT!  OUTNOW Recordings now boasts forty releases! The annual OUTNOW Concert Series has become an important fixture in the Brooklyn/NY new music scene.

Kretzmer adds: “I  ask myself, was it worth it?  I sometimes imagine that I might have been doing something else like practicing or writing music, but in the end the truth is that I enjoy that side of things too!”

How does Kretzmer envision his connection with Tel Aviv and “newfoundland” New York?  “Part of my vision was to creative a cultural interchange between New York City and Tel Aviv, featuring people from both scenes, similar to what the Clean Feed label, based in Portugal, did.  They built on local artists, but also expanded outwards worldwide.  They released music from all around the world but still with a strong emphasis on what was going on in their ‘backyard’ “.

Indeed, Yoni’s project has succeeded in building bridges and creating volumes of exciting music.  He imagines the future: “I hope that the scene here in Tel Aviv will grow as much as possible because I think “free jazz”, or whatever we call it, has developed into an important musical phenomenon.  It’s similar all over Europe and beyond.  So when you look at any current scenes (with the exception of maybe New York and Berlin), they are very small and so to survive they must interconnect with each other.”

According to Kretzmer, this inter-connectivity has already started!  “I think of what Tel Aviv has to do, and it isn’t that far from fully connecting.  Once they connect to the whole interlinked European new music scene–the Brussels scene together with the Paris scene together with the Antwerp scene–once they connect and start the interchange, then our isolation as Tel Aviv artists will diminish.”

Brooklyn-based, Kretzmer visits Israel once a year.  Indeed, he is now in the last week of his latest visit.  Yoni will be giving a rare concert this Tuesday, July 9 at 20:00 at the Hansen House Cultural Center , Jerusalem, hosted by Mamuta Art Research Center in coordination with “Hofshi Basalon”(suggested donation 30 IS and up).  Joining him will be Tel Aviv-based saxophonist Assif Tsahar (who Yoni describes as one of his teachers).  They will be presenting what Yoni describes as a one-time only composition, created from basic sketch material.  “This leaves us open to play!”  “I have a substantial relationship with Assif.  At the beginning I met him as a kind of teacher and quickly we became friends.  Most of our playing has been ‘open’.  But last time we played, we said, ‘Ok, let’s each bring something, some sketch material, and with that we can still be open’.  And so that’s what we will do this Tuesday night in Jerusalem. It will be a composition that will never be repeated.”

On Tuesday night, Yoni Kretzmer and Assif Tsahar  will be joined by bassist Shai Hazan and drummer Haggai Ferstman.  The concert should prove to be mesmerizing.  In the vernacular of John Dewey:  “It should be an experience!”

About the Author
Stephen Horenstein is a composer, researcher and educator. His repertoire of musical works has been performed and recorded worldwide. He has been a recipient of the Israel Prime Minister's Prize for Composers and the National Endowment of the Arts (USA). His teaching has included Bennington College, Brandeis University, Tel Aviv University, Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance; residencies at Stanford University, York University, California Institute of the Arts, and others. He is Founder and Director of the Jerusalem Institute of Contemporary Music, established in 1988 to bring the music of our time to a wider audience.
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