Oded Lev-Ari

“Putting lightning in a bottle is what Oded Lev-Ari specializes in,” said DownBeat magazine in a feature article on Lev-Ari as a producer of albums by the likes of hit band 3 Cohens, iconic clarinetist Anat Cohen and woodwind sage Marty Ehrlich, as well as rising-star singers Amy Cervini and Melissa Stylianou, and the hot new vocal trio Duchess, featuring Cervini, Stylianou and Hilary Gardner. Lev-Ari – born in Tel Aviv but a longtime resident of New York City – releases his debut album as a leader, Threading, in April 2015 via Anzic Records, the label he has owned and directed for the past decade alongside Anat Cohen. Showcasing his talents as a composer-arranger, Threading hints at diverse sonic worlds, from jazz sound painters Gil Evans and Maria Schneider to tango nuevo king Astor Piazzolla and contemporary classical composers. Ultimately, though, Lev-Ari has his own, individual soundprint, one of cinematic richness and open-hearted lyricism.

Lev-Ari, a student of the great composer-arranger Bob Brookmeyer at New England Conservatory, says what he appreciated most about his teacher was his intrepid musical sensibility. “I love Bob’s music, even if mine doesn’t really sound anything like his,” Lev-Ari says. “He was such an inspiring figure, particularly how courageous he was in the kind of music he let himself make. He was a keen admirer of contemporary classical, and he let that into his work, unafraid to incorporate new sounds into the big-band palette. That sort of open mind and ear is something to aspire to.”

“Space and personality” were bywords in the studio for Lev-Ari and his engineering partner, James Farber, while in the studio for Threading. “James and I had worked before on several albums together, and he really knows the studio we used, Sear Sound in Manhattan,” Lev-Ari explains. “We’re on the same page in terms of quality of sound, with space around the instruments being key. We also share a production credo, in that it’s not about perfection – it’s about expression, telling a story in music. The goal is capturing the essence of the music, especially in those moments where it builds organically to an emotional impact. We had a band of amazing musicians, who naturally invest personality into everything they play. That’s what makes music come alive, off the page and into the air.”

Born in 1975, Lev-Ari graduated from Israel’s Thelma Yelin High School for the Arts, where he became fast friends with Anat Cohen (and eventually her musical siblings and 3 Cohens band mates, trumpeter Avishai and saxophonist Yuval). Lev-Ari served in the Israeli Defense Force Orchestra and, from 1993 to 1996, he was house arranger for the Dan Shilon – Live! television talk show. Lev-Ari is a recipient of the America Israel Cultural Fund scholarship, and he graduated with honors from NEC. He has written more than 500 arrangements and compositions for chamber and wind ensembles, big band and symphony orchestra, as well as various jazz combos. Billboard magazine has said: “Lev-Ari’s arrangements are outstanding.”

One of Lev-Ari’s prime achievements as an arranger is his work on Anat Cohen’s 2007 Anzic album Noir, which saw her front a large ensemble – the all-star Anzic Orchestra – in numbers from vintage torch song “Cry Me a River” to a bossa-meets-blues medley of “Samba de Orfeu” / “Strutting with Some Barbecue” to the Sun Ra ballad “You Never Told Me That You Care.” In his liner notes for the album, the sage jazz historian Dan Morgenstern called Lev-Ari an arranger of “great skill and originality,” adding that “his settings for Anat always enhance the soloist, creating a gorgeous tapestry of sounds.” Lev-Ari told Morgenstern: “Anat and I have shared many musical moments over the years, and I couldn’t have asked for a more inspiring muse. Bringing the arrangements to life with this extraordinary group of musicians was thrilling… a joy.”

The reviews for Noir were glowing, with many effusively singling out Lev-Ari’s contribution. The Washington Post called the album “one of the finest jazz records of the year, thanks in large part to the arrangements by Oded Lev-Ari, which alternate from lush Gil Evans harmonies to hard-charging bebop to a laconic beauty that could accompany a moody European film.” NPR’s Morning Edition chimed in: “The Anzic Orchestra is uniquely orchestrated, with a large horn section, a guitar in place of a piano and trio of cellos. The arrangements on Noir are anything but black – they are life-affirming and intriguing.”

As an arranger, Lev-Ari has always been drawn to chamber-jazz sounds over the swing-era big band palette. Growing up in Israel, he listened to the Miles Davis/Gil Evans albums with wonder, as well as such Evans-led albums as New Bottle, Old Wine. “The subtlety and color of those arrangements were a huge inspiration for me,” he says. “I always tried to figure out how he achieved those sounds and never could. What Gil Evans did was like magic, like conjuring.” Later, Evans protégé Maria Schneider would be an influence. “I first heard her music when I was a student in Boston. I thought the sounds she created were beautiful, but it was the emotional content that got me, sensitive but expansive.”

Classically trained at the piano, Lev-Ari’s influences in that area range from the medieval Flemish polyphony of Ockeghem (“the way he handled the individual line – you can tell he was a singer himself”); the classic Romanticism of Brahms (“an ideal blend of intellectual and emotional, so erudite but in touch with the music’s folk roots”); and the sounds of such contemporary composers as Latvian composer Peteris Vasks (“the sense of space and blurred bar lines, with voices moving independently in an improvisational way”). From the likes of Piazzolla and Nino Rota, Lev-Ari has gleaned a sense of theater in music (“the telling of a story – I’m always aware of that being the goal”). Then there’s the Eastern European tinge in Israeli folk music that’s bred in his bones, not to mention the influence of his peers: “The way the 3 Cohens perform together – that way their instrumental voices move through time – has been always been an inspiration for me. I’ve heard them play so much that the way they play is the way I hear.”

As a record producer, the list of Lev-Ari’s credits includes: Anat Cohen’s Luminosa (2015) and Noir (2007); the Duchess vocal trio’s eponymous debut, Duchess (2015); drummer Ernesto Cervini’s sextet album Turboprop (2015); singer Melissa Stylianou’s No Regrets (2014) and Silent Movie (2012); singer Amy Cervini’s Jazz Country (2014), Digging Me, Digging You (2012), Lovefool (2009) and Famous Blue (2007); the 3 Cohens’ Tightrope (2013); the Marty Erhlich Large Ensemble’s A Trumpet in the Morning (2013); Klezmer vocalist/instrumentalist Basya Schechter’s Songs of Wonder (2013); and vocal ensemble Monday Off’s self-titled debut, Monday Off (2006).

Onstage, Lev-Ari was musical director for a Billie Holiday tribute concert as part of Brazil’s Tudo e Jazz festival that starred Madeleine Peyroux, Bucky Pizzarelli, Mulgrew Miller, Ron Carter, Antonio Sanchez, Marcus Strickland, Anat Cohen, Ingrid Jensen and Brazilian singer Mart’nália. Lev-Ari has also collaborated with Emmy Award-winning performer Theodore Bikel on various live performance and recording projects. At the piano, Lev-Ari has performed far and wide – at such New York jazz clubs as Cornelia Street Café and the Stone, as well as at Boston’s Jordan Hall, Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium and venues in Canada, Mexico, Russia, France and the Netherlands.

About Lev-Ari, Anat Cohen says: “I’ve been fortunate to work with Oded in so many musical settings over the past 25 years. Whether he’s arranging for a small combo or big band, orchestra or a vocal group, his choices for each instrument or voice, the lines for each performer, the atmosphere, dynamics and articulation – they all blend together to natural, beautiful, seemingly inevitable effect. He has a similar process as a producer, one that’s thoughtful and knowledgeable, an approach that’s calm and gentle yet on point and assertive. It takes a special producer to be able to envision the music, take care of the sonic details and, at the same time, pay attention to the human element. And it’s the same when he’s conducting an ensemble or running a record label – Oded knows how to bring out the best not only in music but in people.”

Reflecting on the title of his album Threading, Lev-Ari says that he sought to evoke the sense of craftsmanship that goes into making music. “A work of art really is a magical thing, and people don’t always want to know how the trick is done. But writing, arranging and recording can be exacting, almost physical work, like sewing or weaving. That’s something that always comes to mind when I’m writing, particularly for a larger ensemble. I wanted to hint at the tradesman-like craft of the work, those aspects of loving, hard-won detail that you hope add up to something beautiful.”

— Bradley Bambarger


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