Oded Tzur-Here Be Dragons.

Label: ECM.

Format: CD.

In 2015, thirty-one year old Israeli tenor saxophonist Oded Tzur released his much-anticipated debut solo album Like A Great River on Enja Records. It was released to plaudits and praise with critics heaping praise on a pioneering musician who had developed his own saxophone technique which he called Middle Path. It was truly groundbreaking technique that transformed the sound of the saxophone.

On hearing Oded Tzur play, his onetime musical mentor Hariprasad Chaurasia said: “If a curtain were to be drawn in front of him, no one could tell which instrument was being played.” Oded Tzur would use and continue to develop his new technique on his sophomore album.

Two years later, in 2017, he released Translator’s Note on  Enja Records, and just like his debut album it won over critics. Oded Tzur was two for two having just released another critically acclaimed album. Great things were forecast for one of jazz’s rising stars. Oded Tzur had come a long way since he started studying the saxophone.

Oded Tzur was born in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1984, and studied jazz and classical music in the Thelma Yellin High School For The Arts and then at Jerusalem Academy. Then in 2007, he enrolled at what is regarded as one of Holland’s most prestigious musical institutions.

This was the Rotterdam World Music Academy, where Oded Tzur was accepted as a disciple of Indian musical director and classical flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia. He plays the Bansuri, a side blown Indian flute, which is played in the Hindustani classical tradition. The time Oded Tzur spent studying Indian classical music was a crucial period and one that shaped him as a musician.

During this period Oded Tzur developed a new technique that extended the saxophone’s microtonal capacity. This was inspired by the way Hariprasad Chaurasia played the Bansuri and various other Indian instruments. The new technique Oded Tzur called Middle Path.

The newly named Middle Path technique allowed the saxophone to move between the notes and highlight specific microtones. It’s very different to the traditional method of saxophone playing. Oded Tzur’s mentor Hariprasad Chaurasia described the Middle Path technique: “If a curtain were to be drawn in front of him, no one could tell which instrument was being played.” This offered up all sorts of possibilities for Oded Tzur.

In 2011, Oded Tzur presented the Middle Path concept at the 2011 British Saxophone Congress which was being held at Trinity College of Music. He then made presentations at the Amsterdam Conservatory, Copenhagen Conservatory and the Juilliard School. This introduced this new gamechanger of a technique to a wider audience. 

Having established himself on the Israeli jazz scene, Oded Tzur moved to New York in 2011 and founded his first quartet with Shai Maestro, Petros Klampanis and Ziv Ravitz. It was soon attracting the attention of crisis and the Japanese jazz magazine CD Journal went as far as to call it The Coltrane Quartet Of The ‘21st’ Century. It was official, Oded Tzur was one of jazz’s rising stars.

By 2015, Oded Tzur had signed to Enja Records and later that year released the first of two critically acclaimed albums for the label. Both featured his original quartet which he founded when he arrived in New York in 2011. This included his debut album Like A Great River which launched his solo career. 

Two years later, came Translator’s Note in 2017 which was another groundbreaking album of jazz. By then, Oded Tzur had established a fanbase worldwide who had been won over by his very personal music. This also included the owner of one of jazz’s premier labels.

This was Manfred Eicher’s ECM Records who signed Oded Tzur to his label. By then, he had formed a new band which featured American drummer Johnathan Blake, Greek double bassist Petros Klampanis, Israeli pianist Nitai Hershkovitz and bandleader, composer and tenor saxophonist Oded Tzur. They began recording his third album and first for ECM, Here Be Dragons.

It was recently released by ECM and showcases the unique and inimitable sound that Oded Tzur developed after studying in Rotterdam with Hariprasad Chaurasia who had previously worked with John McLaughlin, saxophonist Jan Garbarek, percussionist Zakir Hussain and even a pop combo called The Beatles. The flautist influenced Oded Tzur and helped him develop his own sound.

“Growing up in Israel as a jazz musician I was looking for something that could be my native language, as it were. It was a tough thing to figure out at first, looking across this world of many traditions for the music that spoke to me more than anything else. What I found in Indian classical music is a laboratory of sounds. A methodical, scientific approach to pitches and notes. While it is, on the one hand, a local music, full of ornaments and elements specifically tied to its geographical and cultural point of origin, there is also something that is very universal in the ways it speaks to sound and colour and melody and rhythm.”

Oded Tzur remembers Hariprasad Chaurasia encouraging him to use a similar approach on the tenor saxophone as he did on the Bansuri. This meant deploying slurs, slides and microtonal shadings to transform the sound of the tenor saxophone. It was revolutionary, and soon Oded Tzur was able to play melodic phrases. It took time to develop what was akin to a new vocabulary for his tenor saxophone and this he called the Middle Path. It’s resulted in comparisons with John Coltrane’s innovative spiritual jazz of the sixties transformed Oded Tzur’s life.

Since then, Oded Tzur has written and lectured on the subject of the Middle Path. The thirty-six year old tenor saxophonist has written his name into jazz history and showcases his unique sound on Here Be Dragons. However, he continues to hone the Middle Path on Here Be Dragons and still sees this innovative sound as work in progress. 

While the Middle Path was influenced by Indian classical music, so are the four major original compositions on Here Be Dragons. They all try to develop what are essentially miniature ragas. Three were composed by Oded Tzur, while Charukesi is based upon the traditional Indian scale. These four tracks are part of an album that has been influenced by various cultures and musical genres. And just like his 2017 sophomore album Translator’s Note, the music is very personal and features Oded Tzur’s inimitable sound.

The album opener Here Be Dragons has an understated, calming and melodic sound with space left in the arrangement. Later, Nitai Hershkovits’ twinkling, shimmering piano adds some urgency before leaving space for the beautiful, wistful sound of Oded Tzur’s tenor saxophone. It plays a starring role and in this eight minute epic that whets the appetite for the rest of the album.

To Hold Your Hand is based on the Charukesi scale and reveals a meditative sound that encourages reflection. Drummer Johnathon Blake adds some swing and is responsible for a a much more traditional sound while Oded Tzur’s tenor saxophone sounds more like a soprano. This is a perfect example of his innovative Middle Path technique which he continues to hone.

20 Years is incredibly personal track which Oded Tzur wrote on the twentieth anniversary of his father’s death. His band reserve one of their of finest performances on this raga, which has a spiritual homage and is a beautiful tribute to his father.

The three Miniatures allow the rest of the quartet to take centrestage. Miniature 1 features just a lone piano and encourages the listener to reflect and ruminate on a composition that sounds as if it’s been inspired by Debussy. Then double bassist Petros Klampanis takes centrestage on Miniature 2. He plays slowly and carefully leaving space as if encouraging the listener to continue reflecting. When it comes to Miniature 3,  Oded Tzur’s tenor saxophone sounds like a flute as he deploys different and innovative techniques to create a series of distinctive sounds. His playing is slow, deliberate and understated and the raga wistful and ruminative. It’s quite the best of three Miniatures

It’s all change on the uptempo and joyous sounding The Dream. The quartet sound as if they’re enjoying themselves and play with a mixture of energy and enthusiasm.

To close Here Be Dragons Oded Tzur and the band don white jumpsuits as they cover Elvis Presley’s Can’t Help Falling In Love. It’s not the most obvious choice for a cover versions and they slow the song down and pare the arrangement back. Despite the  understated sound that familiar melody shines through as the quartet reinvent a classic track.

For anyone yet to discover Oded Tzur’s music, his recently released third album Here Be Dragons is the perfect starting place. He’s accompanied by a new band as he continues to hone his innovative and trademark Middle Path sound. 

Sometimes, nothing is as it seems as Oded Tzur uses musical sleight of hand to make his tenor saxophone sound like a soprano saxophone or a flute. To do this, takes years of practice and dedication as Oded Tzur has discovered. He’s the founding father of the revolutionary Middle Path sound and writes and lectures about it. It also transformed his music and makes  standout from the crowd.

That has been the case on the three albums he’s released between 2015 and 2020.  Oded Tzur’s  most recent is Here Be Dragons which is his debut for ECM. Here Be Dragons is a future jazz classic which was recorded in Italy by the Israeli tenor saxophonist Oded Tzur who studied Indian classical music in Rotterdam and nowadays, calls New York his home.

Oded Tzur-Here Be Dragons.

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