When we first launched our humble little website, way back in 2009, a shortlist of artists served as our main inspiration to bring jazz music to the masses, notably to the younger generation to which we belonged. Prominent among them was the Israeli pianist Yaron Herman, whose 2007 album, A Time for Everything, featuring Matt Brewer on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums, was played ad nauseam by co-founders Justin Wee and I, as we masterminded the creation of Nextbop. The album filled with pop covers, including notable versions of Björk’s “Army of Me,” The Police’s “Message in a Bottle,” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” but most importantly a rendition of Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” a baffling and provocative election by the young pianist, propelled Herman to fame among a select few inner circles of jazz progressists.
Herman continued gaining momentum in 2009, as he reassembled his trio for its next outing, Muse, released a few months before we launched our website. The album marked a significant leap in maturity for the pianist, who was only 27 years old at the time, showcasing elaborate and passionate string quartet arrangements on several of his new and stunning original compositions, devoid of catchy pop covers, but always remaining modernistic, inspired and innovative.
Muse managed to catch the ear of Siegfried Loch, over at German label ACT, who gave Herman his first big break, resulting in 2010’s Follow the White Rabbit. The album, featuring a new trio comprised of bassist Chris Tordini and drummer Tommy Crane, was exemplary and established Herman as a commanding member of a new school of progressive piano players alongside contemporaries Vijay Iyer, Aaron Parks and Tigran Hamasyan to name a few. The music was fresh, novel and exciting, notably the original banger “Saturn Returns” and a heartfelt cover of Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” (pun intended).
Afterward, although the pianist’s career continued to blossom impressively, his notoriety somewhat remained contained to the European continent where he resides, making it inexplicably laborious to obtain his new releases this side of the Atlantic Ocean. As our inboxes are flooded with new music daily, we have made it a policy not to chase after artists, no matter how much we may be fond of them, therefore, and sadly if we may add, Herman fell off our radar.
But Herman never stopped recording. He continued his stint with ACT releasing Alter Ego in 2012 with Emile Parisien and Logan Richardson on saxophones, Stephane Kerecki on bass and Ziv Ravitz on drums, followed by a duo album with Polish violinist Adam Baldych, in 2014, entitled “The New Tradition.” Herman then made his Blue Note France debut in 2015 with Everyday, electing once again for co-conspirator Ziv Ravitz to join in, followed up with Y in 2017 adding bassist Bastien Burger to the cast and featuring distinguished guest appearances by French rockstar -M- (Matthieu Chedid), British singer Hugh Coltman and electronic artist Dream Koala (Yndi Ferreira).
Last February, Herman released his third opus for Blue Note France, entitled Songs of the Degrees, featuring the trio of Sam Minaie on bass and again Ravitz on drums, which he came to present at this year’s Montreal International Jazz Festival, with veteran Joe Martin subbing for Minaie.
Herman and company performed two very distinct concerts beginning with a short 30-minute set on June 28 at the prestigious Théâtre Maisonneuve of Montreal’s Place des Arts, opening for American vocalist Madeleine Peyroux, the pairing striking us as somewhat peculiar. The immaculate venue welcomed for the evening an older and slightly frigid crowd which seemed taken aback and caught off guard by the modernity and fervidness of Herman’s compositions. The trio graced the stage in casual attire, black jeans and t-shirts for Herman and Ravitz, and an untucked shirt with the top button undone for Martin, exhibiting both confidence and nonchalance.
The group began with the title track from the performer’s latest release, “Songs of the Degrees,” a contemporary piece subtly hinting at Herman’s Israeli background. Hunched over the keys in a state of deep focus, the pianist unleashed technical and complex right-hand runs amidst his solo, driven by the refined polyrhythms of Ravitz’ kit, notes flowing effortlessly from his fingers.
“Kinship” followed with its spellbinding bass vamp and its militaristic drum riff, with Herman, in trademark fashion, moaning and contorting over the piano as the energy shifted back and forth between quiet recesses and acute climaxes.
Next came the album opener, “Our Love,” a powerful and majestic ballad followed by “Shadow Walk,” a contemplative and solemn piece which slowly builds in intensity, propelled by Ravitz’ assertive drumming as he grinned from ear to ear in pure bliss, plowing along like a freight train.
The trio managed, in the end, to warm up the crowd to their novel ideas, receiving enthusiastic acclamations as they exited the stage, but the short set left both the musicians and several avid listeners yearning for more.
On the following day, Herman, Ravitz, and Martin reconvened on the Loto-Quebec Scene, at the new Verdun satellite site of the Montreal Jazz Festival, to perform a free one-hour outdoor show for the general public. Menacing clouds overshadowed the skies, the crew hastily removing blue tarps protecting the instruments and equipment from the inevitable storm as a small crowd amassed avidly in front of the stage.
With the distinct sound of thunder slowly creeping in the distance, the musicians took up to their instruments and began playing. “Songs of the Degrees” was reprised as the set opener as raindrops slowly started trickling down onto the audience. The music, which seemed to intensify in tandem with the precipitations, was received eagerly by the growing crowd as a sea of umbrellas opened up.
Next up came “Traveling Light,” a slower and introspective lament during which heavy rain began pouring down, dispersing some of the listeners amidst disruptive chatter. Nevertheless, the remaining audience cheered loudly as the musicians ended the piece, wildly enthused by the performance.
“Kinship” followed this time featuring an extended bass intro by Martin. At this point, the rain picked up so intensely, that the trio stopped right in their tracks, unsure whether they should end the performance or keep playing, finally opting for the latter.
They proceeded once again with “Shadow Walk,” following with “From the Sun,” a beautiful and gracious ballad which reveled all those in attendance, several of which pulled out cell phones to immortalize the moment.
As the musicians took their final bow, thunder erupted loudly but wasn’t enough to dissuade the trio from performing an encore. A standard was queued up, complete with fiery walking bass lines and feverishly swinging drums, enabling Herman to flex his bebop chops as the crowd bobbed their heads in approval. Warm applause and loud cheers ensued.
Yaron Herman gave the Montreal International Jazz Festival two masterful performances solidifying his reputation as one of the figureheads of modern jazz piano. His new project, Songs of the Degrees, exudes real maturity with its aesthetically mesmerizing compositions and provides a brilliant canvas for the pianist’s riveting technical prowess. What a genuine pleasure it was to see him perform once again in a live setting accompanied by musicians nothing short of exceptional.
Songs of the Degrees, the new album by pianist Yaron Herman, is out now on Blue Note France.