Hannah Gelman and Jonah Massey
October 3, 2022
Jazz Pianist, Mystic, and Mover: An Interview with Moshe Elmakias
The busy musician shares his thoughts on staying spiritually and communally connected
“It was a lot, but I learned that I can do way more during the day than I can think of. If you use every single moment in the day, you will say, ‘Wow, I did a lot today!’” This comment from Moshe Elmakias during our interview with him was pretty emblematic of the whole 45-minute conversation. The Israeli jazz pianist, who is not even 30 years old, seems to have already had a lifetime’s worth of a career.
Elmakias began playing piano at age six, and then never really stopped. During his mandatory service in the Israeli army, Elmakias was accepted into the Distinguished Musicians Program, which allowed him to study and perform music while also serving as a Jerusalem tour guide for soldiers. At the same time, the then 18-year-old pianist was additionally completing his bachelor's degree at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, and playing international concerts. But it wasn’t until 2018, once he completed his service, B.A., and tour, that Elmakias experienced “the craziest year ever.” The young artist joined three full-time, internationally-touring Israeli music groups – a jazz trio, a Moroccan jazz band, and world music singer Mor Karbasi.
That same year, Moshe also began playing with the Nigun Quartet, a project which he described as “special and different,” and very close to his heart. The group plays Jewish melodies arranged for a jazz quartet. Elmakias is the only non-Hasidic and America-based member of the band, which includes Tom Lev on saxophone, Opher Schneider on bass, and Yosi Levy on drums. Originally, the four Israeli musicians were on a similar path — moving to the northeastern United States to pursue music — until Lev, Schneider, and Levy found their way to traditional Judaism, returned to Israel, and stopped playing music outside of religious weddings. At some point, Lev and Scheider played a killer set together and decided to fuse their Hasidic spirituality with their love for jazz and improvisation. They then reached out to Levy and Elmakias, and thus the Nigun Quartet was enthusiastically formed. Soon after joining the quartet, Elmakias relocated to his current home of Boston and started earning his master’s degree from The New England Conservatory.
Elmakias also released his debut full-length album, Songs and Friends, this year. In keeping with his clear commitment to collaboration and apparent bottomless well of energy, the pianist recorded each song by playing alongside a different musician friend of his. Most songs were recorded in one take, during which Elmakias improvised with whatever the visiting artist brought with them to play. The result is a richly melodic and emotional series of songs with a wide range of instrumentation yet a smooth, cohesive groove. Below are some highlights from our conversation with Elmakias.
BFNJM: What makes you happy about making and playing music?
Moshe Elmakias: Every time I go and play for people, in Europe or in cities where people don’t get cultural music usually, I play for them and I can feel what my music does for them. Sometimes they are crying, or it’s just making them happy, or there’s something meaningful for them in the evening. That is basically the reason why I play and perform. I go to a place and I bring my own ideas and I play my own music. It’s jazz, and the thing about jazz is that I can fit myself into every situation. If I feel that the crowd needs some more energetic songs, I can play something that will make them smile. If it’s a sad ceremony, they need something serious and soft, so I can fit that meaning. So, the best thing for me about being an artist is being able to bring access to a crowd and to bring them something they wouldn’t have gotten if they hadn’t gone to my show.
BFNJM: You’ve been playing music around the world since you were very young, performing in places ranging from Finland, to Colombia, to Uzbekistan, to Guatemala, and more. How has playing internationally influenced your musicianship?
Moshe Elmakias: I think being on the road and playing for people who don’t get music usually made me realize that you don’t need to be that complex to make someone feel good, or feel something. Especially in jazz school, everyone is always trying to be special or to write really hard stuff, but I realized that people just want to hear beautiful music and they want to see you enjoying yourself on stage and to give them joy. So, when I write music, I try to mostly think about the broader picture of what I want to present, and less about the small details. I also write very melodic music that people can sing or listen to and say, ‘Oh, this song goes like that.’ Also, groove is really important to me. I want to make people dance in their chairs, or stand up and dance.
The thing is, in 2022, most of the music all over the world is the same. The Uber driver in Uzbekistan is listening to American pop music. So, unfortunately, I can’t say I was inspired by their music because I didn't have enough time to go and listen to them. But I can say that I realized that people are not familiar with jazz or Israeli music or Moroccan music, and they really appreciate it. It’s good to stick to your thing and just find the right audience for it. You don’t want to only play jazz for jazz musicians or Israeli music for Israelis in Israel – I mean, you can – but you want to combine everything together.
It’s really just about finding your audience. For example, in our concert in December, we are going to play Jewish music that people are familiar with because most of the crowd is going to be Jewish. But we’re also going to give them some jazz and some Moroccan music, and none of them or maybe just a few of them will recognize the songs and the styles we are going to introduce. So, everywhere I go, I try to find a new style, a new voice, to get the audience excited.
BFNJM: We’ve noticed that, in recent years, you have worked on several pieces concerned with environmental preservation and protection, for example, Rise Again, Hopes, and Water. How do you think music can help us combat climate change or other injustices?
Moshe Elmakias: For the last few years, people haven’t really realized what’s going on. Phones are taking over us, and, you know, Amazon and Tesla and everything are just so big, and we just follow them. Everyone is on the phone and on Instagram and writing comments and fighting each other, and no one stops to think. If you are bored, you just check your messages. And I think that stopping everything is very important for everyone, just stopping and turning off your phone. Music is one of the things that can do that. Because you go to a show and, hopefully, you don’t touch your phone, and when you don’t touch your phone and you just focus and close your eyes, you start to realize that the world is messed up. I’m sure everyone already knows that, but we don’t really accept it because when was the last time we didn’t use our phone for two hours? I can’t even answer myself. We don’t get bored, we don’t get to think. Music, for me, is one of the only things that takes me away, or going to synagogue. Music means less time on Facebook, and more time for the environment, and for supporting each other, and for just being better humans.
BFNJM: If there is one thing you want people to take away from your music, what would it be?
Moshe Elmakias: When I play, the music is somewhere in the air. For me, it’s with God, but it can be with anything you want. I really try to take that word of God and to translate it into music and to give it to the audience. And I want my audience to listen and relate to that word and translate it and give it back to God, or to whatever. So, my music is not mine. It’s everyone’s, and I’m just trying to do my own thing with it and to pass it on, and they can do with it whatever they want with it to pass it on – a feeling, a melody, a hug, a prayer.
See Moshe Elmakias at the Boston Festival of New Jewish Music on December 11th, 2022: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/moshe-elmakias-emerging-artists-at-the-bfnjm-tickets-429199847297?aff=blog.