By Jordan Reisman
Photo courtesy of Emra Islek.
Yotam Silberstein is looking inward these days. The Israeli-born, New York-trained jazz guitarist recently came back from a trip to his home city of Tel Aviv, where he spent some time with family. Part of the trip was spent “celebrating” the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. It’s not the raucous party time of Purim, but a period of atoning for your sins and deciding how you’ll do the next year better.
Like many other Israelis, Silberstein recognizes his Judaism in his own way and not in the sense of a strict denomination (reform, conservative, Orthodox). However, this article will not be about Silberstein’s religion, but about something he says pertains to it, which really highlights many more parts of him than he probably realizes. He says, “Me and God have our own thing going.”
Let that sink in for a moment because it’s the kind of statement that can severely improve your listening experience with Silberstein’s brand of jazz. He released his solo album Brasil in 2011 and with his recent time of self reflection, he’ll be sure to produce “the next great thing” for us soon. BTR spoke with Silberstein as he was just coming off of his trip, relaxing at his New York apartment.
One point that Silberstein touched upon was the life of a musician: how people think leaving home to play gigs is all one big vacation. This is not so much the case for Silberstein. He comments about his vacation back home: “the line is very blurred” when it comes to “business” and “pleasure” trips. He says that friends who run a venue in Tel Aviv asked him to come and play, but he was “not trying to book anything” while he was there because he needed to get in that necessary family time.
Playing one-off shows in Tel Aviv brings Silberstein back to how he started in Israel and the people who played a prominent role in his training. Silberstein got into jazz when he was in high school, in no small part because of a teacher he had, who he says “was more than a teacher, this guy was really sort of a mentor for me.”
Amit Golan, the man responsible for Silberstein’s interest in jazz, had lived in New York and acted as Tel Aviv’s jazz messenger, bringing back what he learned in the Big Apple to hungry jazz students in Israel. When a lot of high schoolers are merely playing in the jazz band as a means to hone in on their chops to play with their friends outside of school, Silberstein was hanging on to every word that Golan said to him. In other words, jazz is still cool in Israel.
“I think he was very passionate about it and he was really into it. I think that attracted me; I never saw someone so into music. As a teenager, you can imagine how easy it is to get into that mind frame. I was looking for somebody like that. I think a lot of young people just need to find the right person,” says Silberstein.
At the time that Silberstein was leaving Tel Aviv to move to New York to attend The New School, he says that “a lot of young people were actually really into it and doing it.” Many of the young jazz musicians in Tel Aviv always had their eye on New York, as they believed it to be the place you could go to play jazz, which Silberstein still believes. What he finds funny is that while everyone was dreaming of New York, “we didn’t realize how good we were.”
He says that all the jazz players who wished to move to New York had feelings of inferiority in regards to their skill and feared being a “little fish in a big pond.” But when they arrived in the States, the feeling became, “Okay, we’re here. We do have something to say.” The thought to move to the East Coast was so pervasive because “the opportunities were so limited.” The lack of talent never seemed to be an issue in Israel, with Silberstein reticent to mention names because he didn’t “want to leave anybody out.”
He says that there’s a point, though, when you have played with everybody, likening the situation to basketball, his one true passion besides music: “It’s like the difference between the NBA and maybe the Israeli league. Every young basketball player would want to one day play in the NBA so New York is kind of the NBA for jazz.”
On getting better at playing jazz music, Silberstein loves being based in NYC because there is “a lot of sense of activity here; people are always doing stuff” and he still meets musicians he thinks of as great nearly every day. He puts a high premium on playing “world music,” though he acknowledges the ubiquity of the term.
More specifically, his last album Brasil experimented with Brasilian samba music and he never even planned it to be an album. He describes it as “just a session that we decided to release.” He rattles off flamenco music, Indian, Arabic, and Argentinian as styles that he’s “into,” not necessarily to play but just to listen to.
When asked how he adapts his guitar tone to the styles that he’s playing, he gives a very Yotam-like answer that reads a little like his faith: “I’m not sure. I’m trying to just take care of the music every time I play, just try to play pretty. It’s always hard for me to think of it like that but I’m just trying to play as good as I can in every given moment. I’m not trying to think so much about those kinds of things. I’m not saying it’s a good thing but that’s just the way I operate.”
Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing or just a thing, Silberstein is trying to find his own way to succeed without being bogged down by the concept of success. And much like his relationship with a higher power, he and music have their “own thing going.”
Get your own thing going with Yotam Silberstein by clicking here.
Check out Yotam Silberstein’s music and interview on the latest episode of Discovery Corner on BTR.