Monday, August 24, 2015

The Late, Great Yosi Piamenta

He was often called the "Hassidic Hendrix," but Yosi Pimenta, z"l was a brilliant guitarist long before he decided to drop everything, move to Brooklyn and join Chabad. Drop everything, that is, except his Fender Stratocaster, on which he could play rings around anyone, and did, for nearly four more decades, until the illness that took his life yesterday at 63.

When he played and recorded with the late Stan Getz during the jazz legend's first visit to Israel in 1976 (a remarkable story, recounted on the DVD Stan Getz: A Musical Odyssey), Yosi was starting to make a name for himself, fronting the Piamenta Band, playing Sephardic-rock with his brother Avi and assorted family members. Avi's flute playing recalled Ian Anderson, but jazzier, while Yosi's driving lead guitar work featured tempo changes reminiscent of Frank  Zappa, with the long phrases and quarter-tones of Arabic modes.

Piamenta was, in some ways, a band out of its time — too late for the psychedelic 60s, too early for the jam-band 80s. Based in Tel Aviv, the Piamentas were coming up just as Poogy (the "Israeli Beatles") was winding down, but where Poogy was polished, Piamenta was a little rough around the edges, and proudly so. They cared less about entertainment and more about the music. Which is probably why, when Stan Getz sat in with them in 1976, something clicked. They gigged in Israel and the U.S, and recorded an album of Yosi's songs, creating some of the most transcendent music I have ever heard, in any language.

I met Yosi just one time. He was in New York, mixing the Stan Getz album, and a mutual friend brought him to our house in Brooklyn. Yosi was humble and sincere, and we shmoozed a little about acoustic guitar pickups. Then he played a rough mix for my roommates and me, and we were blown away. Getz had always said he hated rock music, but then Piamenta was no ordinary rock band. Perhaps it was the experience of playing with Israeli musicians in Israel that inspired him to express, for the first time, a "Jewish sound" with his saxophone. (Getz later said, "You know, when I'm playing, I think of myself in front of the Wailing Wall with a saxophone in my hands, and I'm davening, I'm really telling it to the Wall.") Somehow, I don't remember how exactly, I was able to get a copy of that tape, and I've been listening to it for nearly four decades. Like all great music, it gets better and better with age.

For reasons that were never clear to me, the album, which was to have been called "Mosaic Dreams," was never released.  It could have been due to any number of things. There are stories on the Internet claiming that Yosi and Avi, after seeing what the music business was really like, just walked away, settled in Crown Heights, and never looked back.  If that's true, kol hakavod to Yosi and Avi, who prayed and played and played, leaving an indelible imprint on Hassidic music.

But Yosi never forgot about those heavenly jams with Stan Getz in 1976. When he moved back to Israel in 2005, a story about him in Ha'aretz noted, "The album he made with Getz, with his brother and sisters accompanying, was never released. Getz died in 1991, but Piamenta still has the masters. About 10 months ago he had the unfinished mix transferred to a computer. "I intend to go back to the studio and finish the album when I have about $20,000, so that it will have the proper quality, as I dreamed back then.""

How sad it is that Yosi's dream remained unfulfilled in his lifetime.

Zichrono livracha. His memory, and his music, is a blessing.