Ohad Talmor seems to have lived everywhere, studied with everyone, and continues to sustain what appear to be multiple full-time careers. Talmor acknowledges any potential incredulity in a recent interview: “My narrative is confusing for a lot of people,” he admits. “I make sense to myself in my own universe, but it’s difficult to translate my life into a clear narrative on the outside.”
In short, Talmor is a musician and composer. Born in Switzerland to Israeli parents, Talmor was raised in France and is now a longtime resident of New York. Having toured and collaborated with Lee Konitz and Steve Swallow, some of Talmor’s current projects include a quintet featuring Miles Okazaki and Dan Weiss, a trio with Adam Nussbaum, and a nonet with string quartet plus Miles, Dan, Shane Endsley, Mark Ferber, and Matt Pavolka. He arranges for other large ensembles, composes fluently in classical and jazz idioms, and has appeared as a saxophonist on several dozen records. On top of it all, Talmor runs SEEDS, a multipurpose venue that serves Brooklyn’s vibrant jazz community.
For his upcoming show at The Jazz Gallery, Talmor presents “Diokan Suite,” a multimedia celebration simultaneously exploring his late father’s poetry and Talmor’s own musical growth in New York. Ambitious in its scope and glistening in detail, this “portrait” suite enlists young musicians from across Europe under the banner of an orchestra assembled by the European Broadcasting Union. We spoke with Talmor over the phone, discussing his compositional techniques, relentless discipline, and upcoming releases for the new year.
The Jazz Gallery: What is the “Diokan Suite”?
Ohad Talmor: “Diokan” is a Hebrew word meaning “portrait.” It’s the title of a poem by my late father. This is poetry that my father wrote very late in his life. He had already been quite sick with cancer, and this suite is, if you will, the end of my grieving process. He died in 2001, so this is how my homage and grieving comes full circle, by addressing the most painful part of his life and translating it into my own world.
The suite is in eight movements, alternating between solely orchestra and orchestra with pre-recorded sound design, which consists of electronically arranged readings of the poetry though Ableton Live. Four movements are based on my father’s poems, originally written in Hebrew, then translated into French, Portuguese, German, and English. All these voices go through Ableton. It’s highly scripted and the band plays along with the recordings. The purely orchestral movements are an homage to my musical environment here in New York. Each one addresses a different musician or style that has influenced me. The multimedia movements are completely integrated, with the speakers behind the orchestra and playing through the ensemble. It’s not a “literal” reading at all: I’ve been chopping these poems up, moving parts around, re-structuring and re-rendering the works with different sets of music.
TJG: How did it happen that “Diokan Suite” would be played by the European Jazz Orchestra?
OT: In 2015, I was the recipient of the award for “European Jazz Composer of the Year.” It is given by the EBU, the European Broadcasting Union. The award gives the recipient the opportunity to put together any orchestra of any size, drawing on all countries belonging to the EBU. It includes all of Europe as well as England and Russia. The recipient then writes a piece that the EBU commissions. I received the award in early 2015; the work was written and premiered by October of the same year.
TJG: That’s quite a condensed timeline.
OT: [Laughs] It’s a disciplined way of writing. It took me six months to complete the repertoire. I have a dual career as a saxophonist and a composer, so the “composer: side of me was fully occupied with this project during most of 2015. I have a routine, and the “Diokan Suite” fit nicely into that routine.
TJG: What does your routine look like?
OT: It depends on the project. For “Diokan Suite,” there were three parameters I was juggling: The words—a challenge for me—Ableton Live, and the orchestra. It’s a mixed orchestra, with french horn, two double basses; it’s unconventional. The band is made up of musicians under thirty from around EBU. I didn’t know many of them, they were fielded by the French Radio, Croatian Radio, Slovenian Radio, and so on. The musicians come from Portugal, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Norway, Finland, France, England, Austria, Sweden, Germany, Croatia, as well as New York City for the Gallery show. We have four local musicians joining us because not everyone from Europe could make it. Christof Knoche, a German clarinetist in New York, as well as Max Seidel and Brian Drye on trombone, and Justin Mullens on trumpet. All these guys are part of my regular large ensemble and are stepping up to the plate to help out.
For the electronic pieces, I began by framing the piece on Ableton Live, and then orchestrating around it, coming up with a viable dialogue between the orchestra, the poetry, and the sound design. That was fun. For the purely orchestral pieces which intersect the poetry, those come from my notes and compositional scraps. When I move through the city, I always have notebooks with me. I’m often in the process of diligently committing to paper the things that go through my head. So I was able to draw on that material for elements of the piece. Throughout the eight pieces, there is a melodic thread—a six-note sequence that holds the piece together. I used it for the poetic parts and the orchestral parts. You need to project a structure for a piece this size.
TJG: What’s the six note melody?
OT: It’s very simple. This melody is linked to my studies of Danish composer Per Nørgård, from an algorithm called the Infinite Series. It feeds a continuous uninterrupted melodic sequence of melodies. The short melody I found generates all kinds of rules which I could build on. It has implied harmonies, different colors. The melody is more prevalent in the orchestral movements, but it’s present throughout. The first movement is called “Opening,” and it’s a tribute to Dan Weiss and Miles Okazaki, my friends of twenty years. We’ve toured together, done records together. They’re great ‘rhythmicians’ and positive influences on me. Another movement, “Guajiro Abakua,” is for my friend David Virelles, who lived near me for years. He’s into the Abakua tradition, taught me and showed me many things. A third movement, “Isorhythmic,” is a study on a medieval way of dealing with rhythm and motivic development. The fourth orchestral movement is called “Wayne,” for Wayne Shorter. I model so much of my sound and approach on his musicality. He’s a great composer and saxophonist. I aspire to have both worlds interact symbiotically, to embrace the way they embody the universality of our music.
TJG: In the suite, there are so many different parts to juggle in your head. What was the most unexpected challenge when you were assembling the piece?
OT: Great question, and I have two answers. The first is that I wanted the orchestra, Ableton, spoken word, and electronics to all be seamlessly integrated. It had to be as if the stuff coming through the speakers was orchestral as well. That was mechanical, but it was tricky. From a musical perspective, the hardest thing was to explain and convey to the musicians how to integrate such varied repertoire. It is very varied, stylistically. It goes from swinging and tonal and beautiful to complex, contrapuntal, rhythmic, unconventional, screaming free sound design, hyper pianissimo, classically challenging instrumental things. There’s funk, in the piece called “Diokan.” The two bass players alternate. It’s all challenging. The suite, by virtue of its diversity, is challenging.
TJG: So now that the suite is finished and the new year is here, what’s next?
OT: The WDR Orchestra is doing a retrospective of my music for a week in April, called “Story of a Cosmopolitan.” I owe them some music, written for regular big band. From a more local standpoint, I have four distinct records in the can, waiting to be released. I’m in the process of finishing and releasing them all. I have my group “NewsReel,” a sextet with Dan Weiss, Jacob Sacks, Miles Okazaki, Shane Endsley and Matt Pavolka. We have a studio album that needs to come out soon. I have a sextet called “L’histoire do Clochard” (“The Bum’s Tale”), a group that I co-lead with Steve Swallow, a sextet based on Stravinsky’s “Soldier’s Tale.” We did a live recording at The Jazz Standard almost ten years ago, and I just got the tape. That’s coming out on Sunnyside soon. I have another project called “Mass Transformation,” a quintet with Mark Ferber, Pete McCann, Shane Endsley, Matt Pavolka, and a string quartet from Austria, plus electronics. It’s an hour-and-a-half piece solely based on Bruckner’s 8th Symphony, completely rewritten for the new instrumentation. It was commissioned by the Bruckner House, a part of the Symphony Orchestra in Lent, Austria, so I rewrote the symphony from A to Z for this new nonet. We’ve done one project on Bruckner’s 3rd Mass, but this one is more advanced, more fun, and brings in the Ableton Live with live band, improvisation, blowing… This shit is crazy. It’s all over the map, and it’s played by these virtuosos. It’s fun. So, all of these projects are in the can, just waiting to come out soon. Once these come out, which is soon, they’ll be played and all of that. It’ll get busy.
TJG: As if you don’t have enough on your plate already, tell us a little bit about playing the Bansuri flute.
OT: That’s simply an ongoing practice. I humbly sit, go through daily exercises, and integrate myself into the traditional material. I’m fortunate because Dan Weiss is my neighbor, so I get to work with him sometimes. It’s ever-present in my life. I listen to a lot of the music, and I play it daily. It’s part of my routine, and if I get a good half an hour in, I’m happy.
TJG: Have you always been able to find such discipline in your practice?
OT: Nope! [Laughs]. Yes, I’m prolific, and I do a lot of different things. I’ve even had the Brooklyn performance space for five years. But it comes with a price, and I’m paying it now. The truth is, we all have enough time. We spend so much time procrastinating and being non-centered. I’m really a Jack-of-all-trades, which sometimes plays against me, which is definitely confusing for people on the outside. They don’t know what I’m about. Am I a composer? Arranger? Conductor? My narrative is confusing for a lot of people. It’s becoming detrimental, I think. The people who do well are often focused on one aspect of their craft. Look at Darcy. He’s totally dedicated. Look at Maria Schneider. But I love Miles Okazaki, I love Dan Weiss, these guys are doing so much different stuff. I think that’s the way to do it. You have to embody the musical scene of the day. The drawback is that it’s hard, and it’s confusing. I make sense to myself in my own universe, but it’s difficult to translate my life into a clear narrative on the outside.
Ohad Talmor and the Euro Radio Jazz Orchestra present the Diokan Suite at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, January 13th, and Saturday, January 14th, 2017. The ensemble will be joined by special guest Gregoire Maret on harmonic. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.