Singer-songwriter Yoel Shemesh wants to “put the piano in a groovy place,” and that’s what he’s been doing for the past three years with his musical project, performing with Evyatar Hermesh on bass and Regev Baruch on drums. I first heard him perform in the Hoodna Bar at the Tel Aviv Blues Festival last winter, and I was dazzled by the way he made the piano dance, in sweet swing and ragtime rhythms, while singing lyrics that span the range from traffic jams in Jerusalem, to love and heart-ache, from protest songs to Bach.
Looking forward to the upcoming performance at the 5th Tel Aviv Blues Festival, at the Hoodna Bar, on November 23rd, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a rehearsal for the performance. A year has passed, and the songs are tighter, the flow mesmerizing. There are new songs, and the sound mixes it up between blues, swing, funk, with a trace of hip hop. The connection between the three musicians is intense and surging with good vibes, the drums and bass giving the piano a very different feel, something unexpected, something wild. All of it with amazing energy, technical wizardry and groove, lots of groove.
After the rehearsal, I sat with Yoel and Regev in the November sunshine (Evyatar had to rush off) and talked about the music.
“I feel that the piano in Israel has become very melancholy,” Yoel said, “when you say piano, you always think of…”
“Ballads,” Regev said. The two have known one another since their school days at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, along with Evyatar, so it’s very natural to finish each other’s sentences.
“Ballads, sad songs, that’s the way people think of the piano,” Yoel continued, “And without noticing, our show, which began as something relatively quiet, now most are songs you can dance to. We hope. We haven’t tried it out yet.”
“We aspire to that,” Regev said.
“The aspiration is to put the piano in a groovy place. It’s not our invention, it’s happening everywhere, mostly in the US,” Yoel said, mentioning Dr. John, Jon Cleary, “and even Cory Henry (who was in Israel). He’s not a pianist, he plays a Hammond but…”
Talking about the lyrics, Yoel said, “The goal is to bring a measure of solace, some self-humor and humor in general, but I really hope that people leave the show with a smile on their face. That’s the goal. Solace – because the texts don’t always deal with light subjects. They deal with corruption, inequality, and broken hearts of course. But when you take the sting out and see the humor in these subjects, kind of like Chaplin’s approach.
Yoel began playing classical piano at age six, and began writing songs at age 10.
“But I was always afraid to play them for people,” he recounted, “because classical music is a world in which everything has to be very precise. I remember one day I played them for my music teacher and she was very angry.”
“The first time I began to do something with them was when I was 24… It was 14 years of writing songs and Evyatar and Regev were with me from the beginning.”
Yoel recalled the first time he went public with his original songs: “I set a date to play solo at a club Pubella and then I didn’t have a choice. I did it alone. A solo performance. The place that raised me, Pubella, in Manof. I felt that I could no longer sit on the sidelines, be the pianist. That was not enough. I also needed to brings texts, to deliver messages that are… that the presence of the Hebrew word is also very important. And along with classical music, I grew up on Meir Ariel, with the pianists Shlomo Gronich, Yoni Rechter.”
“I had performed in classical concerts, and jazz ensembles – we even toured…But I was never all the way there. Something in me felt that I wasn’t realizing the real dream.”
Yoel was one of the founding members of the Betty Bears, and still maintains a good relationship with that ensemble (where Evyatar still plays), leaving he says, was a “decision to be focused and fulfill my dream, which is to make my music and my songs. And actually the thing that most bothers me today is that we don’t have an album yet, but this is the goal, recording an album…It will happen, it’s the next step after this tour.”
While the musical influences Yoel draws on – Jazz, Swing, Hip Hop, and Funk, are mainly associated with African-American roots and the English language, the songs are very emphatically in Hebrew, clever, precise, poetic and funny.
As Regev noted, “like the line in the song Pakuk BeRehavia (traffic jam in Rehavia, referring to the closing of streets every time a government official is on the move) says, it’s swing in Hebrew.”
“The piano is very much of this place,” Yoel said, “part of the Israeli experience in all the saddest songs.”
“Memorial days,” Regev added.
“The sound of the piano is not foreign to us, it just always connects to Memorial Days. It’s about time that the piano becomes Rock ‘N Roll,” Yoel said.
“Groove,” said Regev.
“A big celebration,” said Yoel, “let’s make this party begin – a big party of piano groove that’s what we’re trying to do to make this party begin.”
Regev noted, “We haven’t had many chances to perform with a piano, I’m really waiting for performances with a piano (as opposed to keyboard) or recordings with a piano.”
“It’s still not the real thing for me,” Yoel said, when asked how he feels about keyboards, “a piano doesn’t have to be a grand piano… it can be an old upright, a little broken, a little out of tune…those are the pianos I love best… it can be a little dirty that’s OK.”
“But in this new incarnation,” Regev said, referring to the band’s expanded sound, opening up to more blues rock and funk, “maybe we need a Steinway.”
On the different feel to the sound, Yoel said, “I decided that I need to understand what Yoel really needs to be. Not just a Ragtime and Swing caricature… that won’t work. It’s 2017 and I need to understand: how do you make the piano sound like 2017? I can draw on Blues, Ragtime, and Swing but it can’t stay there. We’re still searching for the sound of 2017, with all the love and respect for the past. We’re still searching.”
Yoel Shemesh – Tel Aviv Blues Festival performance on Thursday, November 23, 2017, at Hoodna Bar (13 Abarbanel). Show starts at 21:30, tickets are 30 NIS. Link to the facebook event.
Additional performance dates: November 22 – Nocturno, Jerusalem; December 2 – Jacob’s Ladder; December 14 – Pubella. Check the Yoel Shemesh facebook page for details.