An Interview with Kobi Arad: Groundbreaking New Album, ‘Ellington Upside Down’

Kobi Arad is an Israeli-Amercian musician who lives in New York, performs and composes in NYC’s top clubs like Blue Note, Jazz at Lincoln Center and City Winery. He collaborated with Stevie Wonder (a co-production with Stevie Wonder’s manger, Stephany Andrews and Stevie himself); has 20+ self-titled CD’s on amazon. He participated in different aired panel discussions and interviews with Zmira Luzki on IBA (Israeli national radio). Known for his uniquely expansive, cascading playing style, Arad is also the first musician in history to receive a Doctorate in the field of Contemporary Improvisation and Third Stream, in which field, he is world-wide authority. It was bestowed on him by the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.

In 2014, Kobi Arad has received award from the Israeli government, noting special excellence in Jazz and creative improvisation. Recently, Claes Nobel of the Nobel Peace Prize asked Arad to assemble 21 Grammy winners and nominees and produce them in Los Angeles with an African band called Ganda Boys. His song ‘Forever’ just won Silver Medal for Exceptional Achievement from Global Music Awards.


1. Firstly, tell our readers who is Kobi Arad?

Kobi Arad is primarily a musician. Music is essential for me, an air to breath. I was born in Haifa, Israel to a family of scientists and doctors. I had quite a difficult time finding myself in that type of environment (since my highschool was also focused on regular study). Only at age of 18 did I move to Tel Aviv to serve in the military bands of IDF, where I began to find people with common inner world and spiritual interests. The introduction to Jazz music was also a very colorful and refreshing change for me, since improvisation is my natural gift.


2. What opportunities do you find that NY offers to artists?

Well, I feel US altogether offers a wide breadth of opportunities for musicians, and especially for me. I arrived here to work on my masters and then Doctorate at New England Conservatory of Boston. Although I arrived here officially for study, in the back of my mind I saw myself working with black jazz artists and soul legends. Although there’s much further to accomplish – I could say I at least made a few milestones in that direction: When I was Boston I made a project with Bob Moses and Cecil McBee, called ‘Sufi Songs’ in the Harvard Campus. Then I had the pleasure of co-producing a project with Stevie Wonder and his manager Stephany Andrews. It was a show in Boston Performance Center which featured several songs by Stevie. His office and himself helped me organize it, gave me feedback on song order and Stevie participated in the evening.


Now that was in Boston. After I moved to New York, I began performing in the Blue Note, Lincoln Center and the such. I also had the honor to launch 20+ albums, some of whom are featuring Jazz legend Roy Ayers, and Robert Margouleff (the same guy who produced Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions). My view regarding CD release, btw was shaped by Prince. I dont believe in sitting and waiting for the “big” labels, but just getting up and actively sharing my music with world.

Another shaping force was Herbie Hancock, whom I know for several years. He told me his secret is to never pay attention to bad critics but just do, do and do.

3. What inspired you to work on the Ellington Upside Down?

 Duke Ellington was for me a revered figure, who didnt influence me directly – but rather seen as an influence of my role models (Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett etc.). I always knew he was important and challanging, and felt the need to do my personal homage to his stature and compositions.


4. How do you find that Duke Ellington infulenced you?

So as I said, I knew Ellington tunes, as quoted by many of my favorite artists, but never sat down with his own recordings. There came a point that I suddenly felt the importance and reverance we all owe this man. As a composer, improviser, pianist, – father. I felt his compositions had alot in common with classical composers in their complexity and structure and their demanding harmonic language. So I took the concept of “Cubism” I coined at my previous CD “Cubism” – which essentially deals with hyper dimensionsal outlook in jazz. You dont have to wait through the song to reach a particular place – just hit it from where you are. Like hyperspace – you are everywhere simultaneously. So I adopted the same notion in ‘Ellington Upside Down’ as well.


5. You also have a band, tell us more about that – how is working with Ray McNaught and Bobby Maccalough?

Ray MacNaught has been with me since 2009, when we began performing in NY. Except if being a master drummer (who could adapt himself to any style) – he is also a good friend. He brought in Bobby Maccalough into the recording of ‘Ellington Upside Down.’ Since Bobby also participated in the demanding making of ‘Cubism,’ he was well prepared for the huge undertaking of taking Ellington tunes and turning them inside out.


6. What can we expect from you for the rest of the year?

Im working on some upcoming shows some featuring Roy Ayers (at the Blue Note, Iridium, Jazz Standard and Festivals) with my new manager. I am also working on some additional CD projects to be launched alongside with ‘Ellington Upside Down,’ such as ‘Flux – Song Cycle for Fender Rhodes Solo,’ as well as some featuring duet with oud, and an interesting esoteric eletronic sounscaping project. Also a project that’s been ripening slowly is one with Brent Fischer (he’s got a grammy with Dangelo, and son of my idol, Clare Fischer, a genius musician who worked with Prince) for a project combining Hip Hop and Modern Classical avant Garde.


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