Something Else! Interview: Emerging jazz star Sam Yahel

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by S. Victor Aaron

Whether it’s for gigging with Joshua Redman, opening for Steely Dan, sessioning with Norah Jones or forging a new approach to the jazz organ, Sam Yahel deserves your notice. Find out what sets Yahel apart from other Hammond B-3 players and get his insights on why his just-released CD ‘Truth And Beauty’ isn’t just for jazz listeners.

Tell me about how you got to make music your profession and the organ your keyboard of choice.

For me as a kid (I grew up in Europe), being a professional musician was something reserved for the realm of fantasy, like being a professional basketball player or an astronaut. As I approached college age, I felt excited at the prospect of trying to actually follow the dream of becoming a professional jazz musician, but I had serious doubts about whether this was a realistic path, whether I had the talent or the drive to succeed.

And by coincidence right after high school I had the opportunity to do something completely different, and unrelated to music, namely go work for McDonald’s in Moscow, in the Soviet Union as they were about to open their first store there (This was 1989, the Soviet Union was still Communist and under the leadership of Gorbachev). Ironically, it was by taking a year off playing music, immersing myself in something completely different, that I gradually realized that if I had any chance to pursue the path of professional music I had to do it.

In fact, I can almost remember the exact moment of revelation; I was watching a soccer game on TV. And I thought to myself; “soccer players do exactly what they love, and they get paid to do it. Being a musician would be no different.” At that point, I came to New York, enrolled in music school here, and the rest has been a steady evolution since.

As far as making the organ my keyboard of choice, I’m not sure quite how that happened. I do know that when I first played the organ (my first organ was a Korg BX3) I felt very much at home, like it was a natural match for me. And I guess I loved the way playing the bass allowed me to connect with drummers in a way that I hadn’t done as a piano player.

You don’t sound quite like any of the other B-3 players out there. How would you describe your approach to the organ?

I think it would be hard for me to describe a specific approach. One thing I do tend to do is concentrate on the left hand a lot, trying to really think and feel like a bass player when I can. Also, I don’t like to think in preconceptions – in other words, I try to stay away from the “Jimmy Smith thing” or the “Larry Young thing.”

Miles Davis once wrote that the greatest thrill he had as a musician was when he got to play in Billy Eckstine’s band as a teenager alongside Bird and Diz. Tell me about a similar experience you had early in your career, playing alongside guys you were in awe of.

Probably an analogous experience for me would be when I played a few tours with Maceo Parker early in my career. I was fresh out of college, and relatively green when it came to playing gigs on any level except locally, around the city. And here was Maceo, a vet to say the least – his power of concentration, focus, groove absolutely shocked me. I hadn’t experienced anything like it up to that point. His concerts were usually at least three hours long, many times stretching to four hours or beyond. His intensity never wavered for even an instant, and I was definitely in awe of him.

We know that your association with pianist Brad Mehldau goes way back, to your days together at the New School in New York. How much has he been an influence on you, and vice versa?

I cannot speak as to my influence on Brad (you would have to ask him that), but I can tell you that he was very influential on me from the first moment I came to New York City. And although there are many ways in which i have been influenced by him two specific ones come to mind.

The first one being his art of accompaniment. Early on I learned through watching and hearing him play with other people, the power of the accompaniment which says “the soloist is always right.” Its a commitment to always being engaged with what the soloist is doing, keeping one’s own ego on the back burner for that period of time, walking the fine line between staying involved and supportive, but hopefully never overbearing. And there is an aspect of this type of accompaniment which tends to be “anti-formulaic.” This means if you comp for the saxophone player the same way you just did for the trumpet player, then something is not quite right.

And one of the other ways I would say he has influenced me is his commitment to personal and musical evolution. Never being satisfied with what one has already accomplished, but always looking for opportunities to evolve or even, when possible, to reinvent oneself.

Over your career you’ve worked with artists as diverse as Norah Jones, Bill Frisell, Lizz Wright and Maceo Parker, to name a few. Relate how your role as a sideman for these noted musicians made an impact on your own style of music.

It would be hard to say how they have influenced me, each one has been different. I think being a side-man, having the opportunity to work with strong artistic personalities has been a blessing. Many times just being around people like that, one cannot help but absorb some of their concepts into my own.

How does your new release ‘Truth And Beauty’ compare to your three prior records as a leader?

I guess I feel that ‘Truth and Beauty’ is the most adventurous recording I have made to date as a leader. Also, I believe, on this record I was more free to follow my own creative impulses as a composer. Not really feeling the need to pander to any specific style of music. As a result, some of the compositions tend to be more unique and mood evoking as opposed to being written in any particular “style.” And because of that, I feel that this record has perhaps a better chance at connecting with audience members who are not necessarily steeped in any particular jazz tradition.

On ‘Truth And Beauty’ you en
list the help of saxophonist Joshua Redman and drummer Brian Blade, and this is hardly the first time you guys have played together. Tell me how you three met and how you’ve developed such a rapport through such bands as YaYa3, Joshua’s Elastic Band and now, your band.

I originally met Joshua Redman when I was a contestant at the Thelonious Monk piano competition, years ago. We hit it off personally, I think, kept in touch and over the years, started to do some playing together. And I originally met Brian through Peter Bernstein who had been working with him on the road (in Joshua’s band). Sometimes chemistry is something that is just there from the beginning. I don’t know if I would go and analyze it any further than that. Suffice it to say that from the first time I played with them individually, I felt a very strong musical bond. And when I had the opportunity to hire them together at Smalls, I felt like I truly was playing in a situation where anything could happen. Joshua probably felt the same way, I imagine, which is why he eventually took the three of us as the original members of his elastic band.

On the new album you covered a tune by pop artist Paul Simon, “Night Game.” Who are some other more mainstream artists you admire?

There are a lot of mainstream artists I admire. I love a lot of Paul Simon’s compositions, Steely Dan, Prince, and all the ones which seem to be almost cliché for jazz musicians to like these days (Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, Nick Drake, etc). Additionally I am also influenced by a lot of classical music and by Brazilian and African music (I like Rosa Passos and Oumo Sangare).

You also cover Ornette Coleman (“Check Up”), where it sounds like you were able to adapt Coleman’s harmonically free approach to an organ trio setting successfully. Do you plan to do more risk taking like that in the future?

I would love to explore more of that approach in the future. It also helps to be able to do it with two guys who are ready to explore anything.

What was it like touring with Steely Dan this spring? I’ve heard that Becker and Fagan are a couple of lunatics. Do you have any anecdotes to share with us?

There was an incident at a gig which was the Toledo zoo involving a mongoose, a boa constrictor and some back-up singers, but unfortunately I have had to sign a confidentiality agreement.

Seriously, touring with them has been very special for me. First of all, to get to hear them every night has been a lot of fun, to see how incredibly well their compositions have stood the test of time – these guys are amazing – and the band that they have assembled has got to be one of the best in the business. But it is probably their support of my music which has touched me the most. That they believe in what I do strongly enough to present me and my group to their audience night after night has been a great vote of confidence in my playing and writing. And now they have asked me to continue with them and do Europe as well, so I am very excited.

You, Meldhau, Peter Bernstein, Larry Goldings and several others all seem to be a part of a generation of younger jazz musicians out of the New School in NYC making a big impact on the current jazz scene today. Who are some names from the next generation we should be keeping our eye on?

Aaron Parks (piano) and Tyshan Sorey (drums) are two younger musicians who I have really been impressed by recently. I am looking forward to seeing where their musical paths lead them

You’re musical career to this point seems to have been one of constant motion. What’s on tap for you next?

For me I think that I would like to continue on the path I am, playing stimulating music as a side-man, but perhaps at the same time leaning more towards getting out there and presenting my own take on things.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron

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