Music Is the Highest
For Daniel Zamir, making music is the ultimate spiritual experience.
According to Daniel Zamir, the pioneering Jerusalem-based saxophonist, improviser, and composer, music is spiritual.
“Music is the most spiritual thing in the physical world,” Zamir says in our interview below. “On the one hand, music is physical, and on the other hand… you can’t explain it. Music is just frequencies of sound, noises, and yet it makes you happy, it makes you sad, it makes you this or that. It’s unexplainable, which, to me, means that it’s really spiritual. I think it’s unlike any other form of art in that’s it’s so spiritual. It’s intangible.”
Zamir’s spiritual quest is inseparable from his music, which he’s been documenting since 2000 when his trio, Satlah, released their self-titled debut for John Zorn’s Tzadik Records in New York. His 13 albums, not to mention numerous tours and festival appearances, parallel his embrace of Jewish observance, and reflect his evolving interests as an artist. He experiments with multiple styles and compositional devices, although it’s safe to say that his default is Jewish-flavored, high energy, hardcore jazz. Jewish music is a big part of what he does, and he draws that from familiar sources like wordless Hasidic melodies (nigunim), liturgical melodies (piyutim), and the local Israeli and Mediterranean sounds, which – when you walk the streets of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv – are seemingly everywhere.
“I think the main virtue or advantage Israeli musicians have over other musicians is we fuse together Israeli, Middle Eastern, and similar types of sounds with jazz,” he says. “We have our own unique sound and style, and people love that. Also the level of musicianship is very high. There are very good musicians, because you make a certain standard, and then everybody has to work harder to get to that standard.”
Zamir’s influence and ubiquity – his list of collaborators includes everyone from Israeli musical icons and underground heroes, to up-and-coming, must-watch talent – has played a major role in raising that bar, and is a big part of Israel’s recent musical renaissance. The current pandemic may have slowed him – along with everyone else – down somewhat, but he’s still at the top of his game and creating new music.
I spoke with Zamir from his home in Jerusalem. Among other things, we talked about his eventual acceptance of the label, “Jewish jazz,” the spiritual process of making music, and the story behind his incredible reworking of “Hatikva,” Israel’s national anthem.
When did you start playing the saxophone?
I was about 11 or 12. I played the violin before that, and the piano. I even took one drum lesson, but my mom wouldn’t let it in the house, so I had to give it up. Then I discovered the saxophone. I started on alto.
How did you get into jazz?
When I started to study saxophone, my teacher would tape me tapes – we used to have tapes back then – and he made me tapes of different saxophone players. He made me a tape of Charlie Parker, and I loved it. It was so crazy and unexpected and different than what I was used to hearing back then. I was blown away, and slowly I got more and more into it. I moved to New York when I was about 19, and I went to the New School.
Were you able to make a living in New York playing original music, or were you gigging and doing the Jewish wedding scene, too?
Nobody was able to make it in New York playing original music. There was a company called Neginah Orchestra, and they had tons of weddings. They would have like five or six events a day. They had different teams, different bands, and I was very popular with them. That gig gave me a lot of work, thank God, and also I did my original music. But to make money I had to do the weddings.
Where were you playing your original music?
The Knitting Factory was the place. They had three different spaces. Zorn would usually play on the main stage, which was called the “main space.” We would play in the smaller spaces, but that’s how we used to schmooze Zorn. We’d play the same venue, and I’d go upstairs, pop in, give him a CD, and say hello.
Was jazz a way to express your identity? As in, “I am a Jew and this is my music.”
Not at all. I was actually totally denying that it was Jewish. I used to call it world music, or ethnic music. I had no idea why it was coming out, or where it was coming from. I was totally secular back then, and totally denying my heritage and my tradition. I denied it being Jewish music. I wasn’t the one calling it Jewish jazz. I called it whatever, world music, ethnic music, but people started calling it Jewish jazz, and I figured out, “I guess it is Jewish, what can I do?”
How did you get over the hump and start calling it Jewish jazz yourself?
The truth is, I didn’t call it Jewish jazz. Someone on a radio interview that I did, he asked me about Jewish jazz, “How did you come up with that?” I said, “That’s the first time I ever heard it called Jewish jazz. I don’t know how I came up with it. Sorry. Next question.”
Did you embrace the name as you became more observant?
Not even. I started to embrace it when everybody started to label me as Jewish jazz. In Israel, mainly in Israel, it was more significant, because I was really the only one playing it. For Israeli listeners, I got people who were not at all typical jazz listeners – who were not into jazz at all, and who knew nothing about jazz – but for some reason, because of that Jewish vibe, they really connected, and got really connected to the music. That made a little bit of a revolution in people’s listening habits in Israel. People you would never imagine getting anywhere close to jazz, because of that, they started to get more into it.
Who was that audience? Was it mainly secular Israelis or was it different demographics?
Mainly, but the novelty was religious Israelis. Secular Israelis, some of them do listen to jazz, but with religious Israelis, there’s no such thing as someone who listens to jazz. No such thing. I was like their first window into jazz. I was their first connection, or linkage, to jazz. Otherwise, these were people who had no connection to jazz whatsoever.
Do you think jazz has a spiritual essence or energy to it?
#The melody is not written – you have to make it up – and if you’re not connected to the Creator, it’s not going to happen.
Yes. In order to play jazz, you have to be very deep. It is a very religious situation. You’re really by yourself. At the moment, there’s nowhere to go or nowhere to escape. It’s you and the Creator. The melody is not written – you have to make it up – and if you’re not connected to the Creator, it’s not going to happen. It’s not going to sound nice. Standing on the stage and improvising and getting the melody, in a way, is a very religious experience.
Are you like a conduit for the music?
I try to not feel myself when I play. I try to eliminate myself when I play. I try not to be, or to be the least that I can. The music, the melody, exists already and it is divine. I can only interfere. I can only destroy. So I try to be the least that I can, and to be as little involved as possible.
What’s the role of practice? Is it to get your chops to a level where the music can flow through you and you’re able to stay out of the way?
Exactly. It’s not my music. It goes through me, but it’s not mine. If it’s my music, it’s ok. But the real good stuff is not my music.
Through music, are you able to reach spiritual levels you wouldn’t reach otherwise, say, through prayer?
For me, it’s much higher than prayer. It’s the highest.
Does it make a difference if you’re in front of an audience or not?
It makes a big difference. I mean, it doesn’t make a difference as far as – I can play in front of four people or zero people and play great, but I feel different. There is a lot of excitement and buzz in the air, and tension, and it is much more stressful.
Do your bandmates impact that feeling as well?
Of course, because we create the music together. Jazz isn’t a soloist-type of music, you create the music together. We improvise. If I do something in an improvisation and the drummer does something that doesn’t fit, or isn’t musically sensitive enough, it could sound stupid. I have to have him go with me. To hear what I am doing, to interpret it correctly, and to understand my inner meaning, so he can complement it and accompany it in the right way. Otherwise, it doesn’t sound connected.
When you were becoming religious, was there a period where you thought maybe you’d stop playing music and devote yourself full time to study?
No, because from the beginning, I was introduced to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s approach to being talented or skilled in something. He claims that your talents are a gift that you received from God. Since it’s like that, it’s your shlichut [your mission] to use it. You are an emissary, and you have to utilize your talents for worshiping God. If you have that skill and you’re not using it, you’re not showing appreciation towards the gifts that God gave you.
If you stopped playing music, you’d be wasting your gift.
Exactly, and moreover, I feel that my main mission in life is to play music. Basically, that’s the main thing that God is expecting me to do. Or put it this way, I can learn Torah and I can pray, but there are people who learn and pray much better than me. I think that the way I play, that’s unique. For me to play well, to be practiced, to be in good shape, that is like a Godly commandment. That’s what He wants me to do, and when I do it well, it’s like a mitzvah.
A lot of Israeli artists have been exploring the music from the Jewish diaspora recently, particularly amongst Jews of Sephardic descent. Why do you think that is happening?
That’s something, which is very unique, and that’s happened in Israeli music. At the beginning of the millennium, I think Israeli audiences were a little fed up with the material, and with the lyrics that were used back then. Everything was very similar and about the same subjects. But then, there was a big concert in 2004. I participated in that as well. It was called “The Corner of Yehuda Ha-Levi and Ibn Gabirol,” which are two very big streets in Tel Aviv that are named after two big poets from the 13th century. There were a bunch of artists, and each performed a certain piyut, which is a traditional song [or liturgical poem or melody]. It was a huge success, and then it became a trend.
Does music break down misconceptions people have about other, or different, communities?
Music is the best scene to bridge all these gaps. It is the easiest way to connect people who have totally different opinions, totally different points of view, and totally different political views and positions. Music connects everybody. Music bridges all of that, and it brings people together. That sense of one person being against another, music can heal that.
Why is that? Is it because music is a language that transcends spoken language?
It’s more than that. Music is a spiritual thing. It is the most spiritual thing in the physical world. On the one hand, music is physical, and on the other hand… you can’t explain it. Music is just frequencies of sound, noises, and yet it makes you happy, it makes you sad, it makes you this or that. It’s unexplainable, which, to me, means that it’s really spiritual. I think it’s unlike any other form of art in that’s it’s so spiritual. It’s intangible.
Has singing always been a big part of what you do as well, or did you start doing that later on?
I’ve been singing since I was a kid. After I started to play, the focus went to playing, and I completely quit singing, but somehow it came back. I don’t judge these things. I don’t plan ahead or think to myself that I am going to start singing. It just happens. Just like it happened that I started to play Jewish jazz, which I didn’t plan to do, so to it happened that I started to sing. It felt good, so why not?
What’s the story behind your version of “Hatikvah?”
It was not my idea at all actually. There’s a news website, the biggest in Israel, called Ynet, and they had a project for Israel’s Independence Day. I think it was in 2007. They selected five artists, and had each one perform the national anthem. I was one of the five. They asked me if I wanted to do my rendition of the national anthem. I thought to myself, “What a great opportunity. I can change the anthem so it'll be a bit more to my taste.” I changed the lyrics, the melody, the harmony, and the time signature. Now it sounds great.
What are you saying in the rap section, are you making that up?
No, it’s actual words. It’s written. I play that song almost every show. It speaks about the end of time, anticipating moshiach [the messianic era], and what else is missing. Stuff like that.
This article originally appeared in the Ingathering and was lightly edited for length.
Photo by Sherban Lupo שר