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Avi Wisnia: “My Jazz and Pop Sensibilities are Constantly Fighting for my Attention.”

September 1, 2015


Avi Wisnia‘s brand new track, “Sky Blue Sky,” will make you want to get in your car and head to the beach. Immediately. He crafted the song while reminiscing about days on the sand in Cape May, hiking around the Amalfi Coast, performing on the beaches of Brazil and hanging out on rooftops in Philadelphia.

We caught up with the talented Philly artist, who created this new track with the assistance of musician friends in South America.

You performed on the beach in Ipanema? How did that come about? What was the reception like?

I spent a month on tour in Brazil in 2011, performing in lots of different venues – jazz clubs, rock clubs, mountain resorts and theaters – but my impromptu performance on the Ipanema beach is one of my most memorable.

I had been sightseeing around Rio one day, walking home along the famous beach as the sun went down, and strolled past these two teenage kids who were just jamming away on guitars. I stopped to listen and they immediately engaged me, asking about where I was from. They seemed pretty excited to talk to the American about Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Police and Guns N Roses. So I played them some of those tunes (“Patience” was one of the first songs I learned on guitar) and they sang along. And then I played them some of my own songs, too.

As a crowd gathered on the sand, everyone was joining in, singing, swaying, dancing. It’s amazing how a good melody and some catchy chord changes can bring people together.  It was really gratifying to be able to make music and immerse myself in a musical culture that had fascinated me for so long, and to be embraced by the people that i met there really meant a lot.

What’s your relationship with the Brazilian musicians who participated in this project?

From its creation, I knew my song “Sky Blue Sky” had deep musical roots in bossa nova and I wanted to give the recording an authentic backbone of Brazilian rhythm. I also wanted to find a way to work with Brazilian musicians again. It had been a few years since I released new material and, not only was I anxious to put out new songs, I also wanted to do something different and exciting with the recording process. I realized that the most efficient way to harness my connections in Brazil was to record the song between Philadelphia and Rio de Janeiro.

While on tour with Brazilian artist Denise Reis in 2011, I got to perform with bass player and producer Bruno Migliari. We kept in touch after making music together in Brazil, corresponding about eventually working together on a recording project. I had already experienced Bruno as a great guy with incredible musicality. He has quite a reputation, having performed and recorded with top-tier Brazilian musicians such as Milton Nascimento, Ana Carolina, and Marcos Valle.

I knew the song would be in good hands with him guiding me through the recording process. He lives in the Cosmo Velho neighborhood of Rio, which is full of professional musicians. I trusted him to find the right players for the song. He enlisted Bruno Migliari on percussion and Bernardo Bosisio on guitar. 

Although our interaction was mostly through FaceTime, it was an honor to get to know and work with these accomplished musicians.

Talk about the recording process for this track.

Recording cross-continent was a big experiment. But through the magic of the Internet, we were able to make it work seamlessly. It started with a few Skype sessions between me and Bruno, discussing the arrangement and approach for the song. I had a spring tour booked in the U.S., so the musicians got to work in Bruno’s 8VB studios in Brazil.

I would check in via FaceTime from the road. So, the musicians would be sitting in the studio in Rio and I would be setting up for a show in Baltimore, or at a truck stop outside of Nashville, or strolling near Niagara Falls. Ithink the Brazilian musicians got to see a lot of the U.S. that way.

When i returned to Philadelphia, I got to work recording my parts. My Philly friend and music whiz Daniel Harris Levine (Sun Hat, 3DCosby) helped me record right in my Bella Vista apartment, finding just the right acoustics, including recording Fender Rhodes in my kitchen and melodica in my bathroom.

It was really cool to play off of what the musicians established in Brazil, even though we were in different countries and different time zones. Once the instruments had been recorded, we were able to send mixes back and forth via email, tweaking levels until we got it just right. It made the process go a little longer than being in the same room … but it also allowed for some unanticipated magic to happen.

Your music has always had a rather mature sound – blending pop and jazz, with hints of lots of other stuff. What are your influences?

My influences are pretty wide-ranging and eclectic. My jazz and pop sensibilities in particular are constantly fighting for my attention. There’s the side that wants to improvise and go free form and let the moment take control, and the side that wants to hook you with something structured, catchy, accessible and relatable.

My style is informed by the classic bossa nova of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto, the west-coast jazz of Chet Baker and Stan Getz, the piano rock of Billy Joel and Ben Folds, the subtle song-craft of John Mayer and Norah Jones, and timeless songwriters like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, John Legend and Stevie Wonder.

Does being the son of a rabbi impact your music at all?

I grew up watching my father at the rabbi’s pulpit. He was always at ease standing in front of hundreds of people and leading them in a communal experience. I think a lot of that made an impression on me, though I didn’t realize it at the time. But I think that my comfort on stage has a lot to do with that.

Every audience represents a new community of people, and they are looking to you for guidance for this experience they are about to have. So you lead them – sometimes sermonizing, sometimes in call-and-response, sometimes all together – and it becomes something transcendent because you are all together in that moment.

I think watching my father has made me a better communicator and a better performer.

Where’s the next trip for you?

I will be performing shows in the PA/NJ/NY area coming up to celebrate the release of “Sky Blue Sky.”

My next big travel plans will be to Poland in October. I’ll be traveling to Warsaw with my grandfather, who grew up around the capital city before being imprisoned by the Nazis during WWII. He survived nearly three years in the Auschwitz concentration camp by singing to entertain the guards. He has always had this amazing, deep, resonant voice that just carries so much emotion and tradition. We will be visiting Auschwitz together, and also performing together in Warsaw. I am really looking forward to accompanying him, learning about the family that i never knew and connecting to a whole history of people, through music.

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  1. Sky Blue Sky WorldWide Release « Avi Wisnia

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