CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Sefi Zisling Steps to the Fore With New Album

Expanse highlights the Israeli trumpeter's transition from sideman to leader

Sefi Zisling
Sefi Zisling (photo: Sharonne Cohen)

It’s late fall, but still balmy on this Wednesday evening at Teder—a one-of-a-kind outdoor entertainment venue nestled in the courtyard of a historic building in south Tel Aviv. Just a few blocks in from the Mediterranean Sea, several hundred people have gathered for drinks, wood-fired gourmet pizza, and the launch of trumpeter Sefi Zisling’s sophomore album Expanse (Tru Thoughts). The unique urban environment and Zisling’s music combine to create a decidedly relaxed, almost magical vibe, a welcome reprieve from persistent political unrest.

Zisling started playing the trumpet at 10; his childhood heroes included John Coltrane, Grant Green, and Fred Wesley. “I really love bold and fierce voices—music that allows me to hear the artist’s heart, not just their intellect,” he reflects, counting Alice Coltrane, Donald Byrd, Yusef Lateef, Don Cherry, Shuggie Otis, and Gil Scott-Heron among his influences as well. A graduate of the prestigious Thelma Yellin High School for the Arts in Givatayim, he has played in various ensembles and become a sought-after accompanist and session musician.

On this new recording Zisling steps to the forefront with sure footing and vision. Following his 2017 debut Beyond the Things I Know, an atmospheric, groove-driven album signaling the trumpeter’s dialogue with African rhythms and his “search for astral notes to make cosmic songs and sunlit rhythms,” Expanse presents a compelling combination of spiritual jazz, Afrobeat, and psychedelic funk. Zisling’s intention: Create a live session with many of his close friends and collaborators, “capture it like they used to back in the day, with as little digital processing as possible, and be committed to the outcome—mistakes and spontaneous moments included.”

With a changing cast of talented Tel Aviv musicians, on this November night Zisling explores material featured on the album, opening with “High Ride,” co-written with his partner Layla Moallem and evoking the mambo records of the 1950s. “Tito Puente and that whole era impacted the feel of the song,” he tells JazzTimes after the show. 

The infectious “Happy Solar Return,” an extended Afrobeat voyage featuring a beautiful saxophone solo by Shlomi Alon, is followed by the ballad “Dark Movements,” with its haunting, memorable tune. Then comes the free-funk “Flip Mode,” inspired by Sun Ra’s abstract melodies on the classic Lanquidity, and “Ongoing Morning,” a mellow, leisurely jazz ballad.

“The Sky Sings,” the only song on the album with lyrics, closes the set, featuring vocals by sisters Layla and Yasmin Moallem and Karen Dun, as well as soulful solos by guitarist Uzi Ramirez and trombonist Yair Slutzki. “Layla and I wrote this song together,” Zisling says. “She suggested incorporating Afro-Cuban influences, more specifically the concept of a choir singing over layered percussion found in Santeria. I kept imagining a conversation between the vocals and brass section, and that’s how the song was created.”

As for the strong presence of Ethio-jazz in his music, Zisling explains: “I still remember how excited I was when I discovered it. I’ve been fortunate enough to play both with Mahmoud Ahmed and Alemayehu Eshet. This music really got into my blood and is expressed both in my writing and in my playing.” Another perceptible influence is that of Roy Hargrove: “He had a big impact on me early on. I spent hours listening to his music, particularly the RH Factor. His passing really saddened me; he had unbelievable groove and style.”

Zisling, who will later play sold-out engagements at both the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv jazz festivals, is emerging as a significant force in Israeli jazz. This second album highlights his transition from sideman to leader; and, with an independent British label behind him, he is now likely to reach far beyond this Tel Aviv courtyard.

Sharonne Cohen

Sharonne Cohen is a Montreal-based writer and editor. A music journalist since 2001, she has contributed to publications including JazzTimes, DownBeat, OkayPlayer, VICE/Noisey, Afropop Worldwide, The Revivalist, and La Scena Musicale; her articles are often accompanied by her photographs.