Animi, the title of the new Berthold records album from Israel-born, Paris-based saxophonist Shauli Einav, derives from a Latin word signifying what we might call soul, life force, mettle or heart. It’s an apt descriptor for Einav’s profoundly expressive music, which ranges from heartrending to exhilarating, and for the deeply empathetic rapport that defines his quintet.
But Animi could also refer to the courage required of so many gifted rising jazz musicians who must inevitably choose between two paths: the inspiring but often hardscrabble existence of a fulltime artist; or the cushier yet far less compelling environs of a working life in education. Einav faced that predicament in 2017, when a renowned institution in South Korea offered the saxophonist a comfortable long-term position. After receiving the offer, he contemplated it and then played a gig; between the thrill of performance and the warmth of musicianly camaraderie, Einav felt reborn as a player and composer. He picked the music and hasn’t looked back.
Upon hearing Animi, jazz fans will be thankful for his decision. Throughout, Einav’s improvising, writing and bandleading reveal a fresh voice working in jazz’s edgy, modern mainstream. His language is fiercely personal, built upon influences that demonstrate both exceptional taste and a willingness to look toward the margins of jazz’s well-trodden history. In his playing you’ll hear underrated heroes like Harold Land, Lucky Thompson, Charlie Rouse, Booker Ervin and Arnie Lawrence, the lattermost “an important, pivotal figure” Einav studied with in Jerusalem.
His signature approach to composing and arranging is culled from diverse sources, including the modal explorations of George Russell; the bracing close voicings that Jason Lindner employed in his powerful big band; and the polyrhythmic wizardry of bassist Avishai Cohen, or, as Einav puts it, “the illusion that he gives to rhythm. You can sing it and you can dance it, but you can never guess the meter.” But more than anything, Animi’s vocabulary seems to harken back to the inside/outside aesthetic of Blue Note Records during its heady mid-to-late-’60s period, evoking classic LPs like Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch!, Bobby Hutcherson’s Components, Grachan Moncur III’s Evolution and Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure — adventurous albums on which jazz tradition and innovation are held in perfect balance.
In addition to Einav on tenor and soprano saxophones, Animi features the leader’s longtime collaborator Andy Hunter, a trombonist whose credits include the Mingus Big Band and Snarky Puppy, and who is currently a staple of the acclaimed WDR Big Band; vibraphonist Tim Collins, whose own recordings have featured luminaries like Charlie Hunter, Ingrid Jensen and Aaron Parks; Israel’s Yoni Zelnik, the most trusted bassist on the Parisian scene and a go-to anchor for trumpeter Avishai Cohen; and the celebrated young rhythmist Guilhem Flouzat, the result of Einav’s quest to find “a French drummer that would sound like New York,” he says, chuckling.
It’s an ideal unit — nimble, versatile, responsive — to tackle such dynamic repertoire. Animi storms out the gate via the “alarm call”, to borrow Einav’s phrase, that is “Premonition.” With sax, vibes and trombone rollicking through the urgent theme, it’s easy to hear why Einav was attracted to this band format; he feels like he’s arranging for four or five horns — “a little big band,” he says — but with “a sonority that isn’t overwhelming and gives you a lot of options.” Dodo takes its changes from Lucky Thompson’s Slam’s Mishap, and its melody comes from an improvisation that Dodo Marmarosa recorded on Thompson’s tune in the 1940s.
Other highlights include Hasela Ha’adom, Einav’s gorgeously lyrical take on an Israeli pop standard of sorts; a story-song once deemed controversial, it fictionalizes an old rite of passage that saw young men risk their lives to journey from Israel to Petra, Jordan, and back. One Step Up spotlights a guest, the brilliant oud player Fayçal Salhi, and allows Einav to utilize a timbre that was ubiquitous throughout his upbringing in Israel. Kumzits too alludes to Einav’s youth, with a melody redolent of Israeli folk. Circadian Mishap, a tune rooted in a composition by Walt Weiskopf, Einav’s mentor at the Eastman School of Music, cleverly nods to the sleep deprivation that comes with parenthood. Healer Sue is the saxophonist’s heartfelt tribute to Susan Presberg-Greene, a friend and academic whose family looked after Einav during his time at Eastman in Rochester, N.Y. Her father held regular jam sessions that allowed Einav to learn the American Songbook from players who grew up with its gems. “They knew all the words,” Einav remembers, still impressed. “You would play a ballad and you would hear five guys singing along.”
“Shauli has put together a very interesting recording,” says the saxophonist, educator and NEA Jazz Master Dave Liebman. “[It’s] challenging but accessible, [and] performed by a wonderful band of young and talented artists.”