The Beat

Miri Ben-Ari
By Seth Rogovoy

(WILLIAMTOWN, Mass., Nov. 03, 2000) - Miri Ben-Ari is Israeli, but when it comes to music, she knows no borders. Jazz, pop, classical, blues, Latin, dance, soul and world music - it’s all on the menu.

“I do music, violin is my voice and I’m from Israel. That’s it. The rest is about communication,” said the violinist, best known as a jazz musician, who performs with her quartet on Saturday night, Nov. 4, at 8 as part of the “Saturday Night Jazz” series at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown.

“You want to call it names, that’s fine,” said Ben-Ari in a recent phone interview from her current home in New Jersey. “I’m not looking to put up any walls -- I’m looking to break through the walls and get through to the people.”

As heard on her recent recordings, the full-length CD, “Song of the Promised Land,” and the brand-new dance single, “Peace in the Middle East,” Ben-Ari has a gift for melody and immediacy that should get through to the people with little trouble.

Along the way, that gift or fluency has attracted the attention of such world-class mentors as classical violinist Isaac Stern, jazz vocalist Betty Carter, and trumpeter/composer Wynton Marsalis, who lends his horn to two tracks on “Promised Land.”

Ben-Ari grew up in Israel studying and playing classical music. It was there that she drew the attention of Stern and Yehudi Menuhin. But while serving her mandatory stint in the Israeli army at age 17, Ben-Ari heard her first Charlie Parker album, and from that moment she was hooked on jazz.

“That was the beginning and end,” said Ben-Ari. “My soul was sold. He’s a genius -- the way he plays he’s talking to you.” Ben-Ari had heard very little jazz before this. “My parents weren’t into jazz at all,” she said. “I’d heard some but before Bird I didn’t hear anything that would make me go like, wow, this is what I want to go ahead and what I want to pursue.”

Pursue is what she did. After her army stint, Ben-Ari flew to New York and enrolled in music school and took private lessons. But mostly she began playing out, which is where she says she learned her most important lessons and continues to do so.

“For the most part I learn on stage and from listening to records, which is real school,” she said. “Every time I listen to music I learn. I never stop playing and I will always learn.”

Ben-Ari had a few helpful teachers along the way, including Betty Carter, with whom she worked in the late legend’s Jazz Ahead program. “The most important thing I learned from her was the importance of being original and the importance of not being afraid to be original,” said Ben-Ari. “To stick to your guns with pride. It’s pretty deep. You are who you are and that’s it. That’s what Jazz Ahead was all about.” This message undoubtedly hit home with Ben-Ari, who when she first arrived in New York was self-conscious about her origins.

“When I came here it was hard for me,” she said. “I wanted to have the perfect English that nobody could recognize an accent. I was trying to deny it.

“But then people said ‘oh your accent is so cute,’ and responded to who I really am. Now I believe that where you come from never leaves you. It’s always part of you.

“Because I grew up in Israel it’s difficult every day. What you’re watching on TV is for real. You go through so much. It’s made me what I am.” The music on “Song of the Promised Land,” and certainly the dance single, “Peace in the Middle East,” might take their thematic inspiration from Ben-Ari’s Israeli background. But the music itself is an accessible, international fusion of popular melody, swing, Latin, blues, and other influences, all tied together by Ben-Ari’s dazzling voice as an instrumentalist. Her violin is less influenced by other jazz violinists than by her musical heroes, including Stevie Wonder, Wynton Marsalis and Charlie Parker.

Ben-Ari credits her classical training for giving her the technical facility to approach the challenges of improvising, or composing in the moment on the bandstand.

“It’s the best thing that could have happened to me,” she said. “I had the best teachers. Jazz is so difficult to begin with, and violin is so difficult to begin with. So in order to play jazz you have to have so much facility to improvise, composition in real time, you have to flow. If I didn’t have classical training the way I did, I probably wouldn’t be able to pursue my ideas the way I do. It gave me dexterity; it gave me chops. Ben-Ari has recently been involved in more pop-crossover projects. Besides her dance single, she has worked with several urban, hip-hop and r&b artists and producers, including Mariah Carey, Seal, Luther Vandross, Les Paul, Manhattan Transfer, DJ Logic, DJ Spinner, Diamond D, Mos Def, Keri Chandler, Dallas Austin and Jimmy Cozier.

In January Ben-Ari will perform at Carnegie Hall with hip-hop superstar Wyclef Jean. She is a busy studio musician, and frequently performs in pit orchestras on and off Broadway. She has several albums in the works, including an album of original Jewish music in the tradition of the Hasidic nigunim, or wordless vocal melodies.

“It’s hard for me to talk about my music,” she said. “People always find the gypsy in me. They say I’m possessed, that I’m playing my soul. “I’m very into soul music. I think all music is soul music.”

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on Nov. 3, 2000. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2000. All rights reserved.]


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