I become uneasy when I see a jazz CD with the title Follow the White Rabbit, with its implicit images of an alternate reality where assumptions are turned on their heads. This sounds like music that takes itself VERY seriously, requiring a furrowed brow and several hits of caffeine to get through. Fortunately, this album, from 29-year old Israeli pianist Yaron Herman, is much less formidable than is sounds. It is an adventurous effort that, while staying grounded in its roots, nudges the boundaries of jazz improvisation outward.
Herman has an interesting entry into the world of jazz. As a teenager, he was a member of the Israeli National Junior Basketball team until injury halted his career. He then began studying piano with Opher Brayer, who has created a teaching approach based on philosophy, mathematics and psychology. (Herman, incidentally, has extended this technique to create a theory called “Real Time Composition.” As I understand it, it involves the use of mathematical models to free improvisers from inherent patterns and prejudices). Within a few years, Herman was winning multiple awards, playing at international jazz festivals and obtaining recording contracts. One piece of trivia: he became the first jazz pianist to play in Beijing’s Forbidden City. Along the way, he has acquired a great many musical influences, from Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau to Maurice Ravel and Björk.
These influences, along with the directions he is taking them, are displayed in Follow the White Rabbit. Most of the compositions are written by Herman, but he also incorporates other songs not commonly associated with jazz improvisation. These include “Heart-Shaped Box” by Nirvana, “No Surprises” by Radiohead, and an Israeli folk song, “Ein Gedi”, about the picturesque spring by the Dead Sea. The only 32-bar ballad included here, “Baby Mine” from the movie Dumbo, is also, to my knowledge, not often covered by jazz groups.
One interesting characteristic of the album is that Herman plays in such a variety of techniques that it’s difficult to pinpoint a particular Herman “style.” This seems to be deliberate, a consequence of his improvisational theory. The title track begins with a four-note theme, repeated in different rhythmic variations, that establishes a dream-like atmosphere. It then evolves up into a more open improvisation on this theme. “Cadenza”, another Herman composition, shows his classical influences, beginning with a series of arpeggios before moving to a series of varying tempos and moods. By contrast, the beginning of “Ein Gedi” incorporates an almost Stephen Foster feel to it. Herman’s improvisations on the melody retains the wistfulness of the lyrics.
In interviews, Herman states that he “refuses to stroke the public’s ego.” Having said that, his strong rhythmic sense and effective use of space makes his music more accessible than one would expect. The rhythm section, Chris Tordini on bass and Tommy Crane on drums, lends seamless support, never getting in the way of the musical flow. (This may be more difficult than it appears, given Herman’s multiple musical approaches).
In summary, Follow the White Rabbit is a strong and creative effort by a young and increasingly influential voice in jazz. It will be interesting to follow the direction of this artist as he continues to evolve: to compare this album to an one made five or 10 years in the future.