Sarel River was born in Haifa, Israel, originally being trained as a classical violinist. “I grew up in a classical music environment, often playing Mozart,” he remembers. While he always loved classical, early on Sarel began to listen with great interest to other styles of music, including the pop songs that he heard on the radio. He became a serious record collector, became a big fan of the Beatles, and sought to find a way to play the music that he enjoyed.
When he was 18, he switched to guitar. “A friend of mine, a guitar player, showed me some chords and that was the start.” After his mandatory military service in Israel, he was introduced to jazz. “In the 1980s I took a class with a guy who went to Berklee and that is how I really started hearing jazz. The complexity of the music, its drive and the grooves are what attracted me to jazz and hooked me for life. I soaked up the lessons like there was no tomorrow.” Dedicating himself to performing creative jazz and finding his own musical path, Sarel played as much as possible in his homeland. In 1989 he made a major decision. “I had gained a lot of knowledge about jazz and got to the point where I knew that, if I really wanted to study and play this music, I had to go to the land of its birth. I packed my bags, went to the U.S., and studied at Berklee.”
At the Berklee College Of Music where the great tenor-saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi became a mentor, Sarel learned a lot about harmonies and investigated different styles and approaches. He realized that jazz has its own vocabulary and that the most rewarding improvisations consist of musical sentences with a beginning, a middle and an end. Sarel had opportunities to play professionally before he graduated in 1994.
After leaving Berklee, Sarel moved to Budapest to join his wife who was attending medical school in Eastern Europe. The year that he spent in Hungary made a strong impression on him and he spent this period teaching, writing music and playing sessions.
Returning to the United States, Sarel soon settled in New York where he immediately began gigging in a wide variety of settings including playing at Small’s, gaining a strong reputation as a consistently creative guitarist who wrote picturesque and colorful originals.
Sarel made his recording debut as a leader on 2 In One, a quartet set with Matan Klein on flute, bassist Mat Penman and drummer Stive Hass that features eight of his originals (including “Back Home,” “Misery” and “Budapest In 95”) plus Joe Henderson’s “Serenity.” The album’s title gained its name due to the beautiful blend of Sarel’s guitar with Klein’s flute.
His next album, “Mr. Blue Eyes,” was a bittersweet affair. It was inspired by his late son who died from Neuroblastoma a type of cancer when he was just eight months old. His compositions on “Mr. Blue Eyes” are complex, involved and personal, expressing a wide variety of emotions (from introspective to swinging) with the highlights including “Mount Judah On My Mind,” “Stormy Tuesday,” and “The Power Of Your Smile.” The performances, which feature in various combinations bassist Ron McClure, drummer Bruce Hall, pianist David Berkman, trumpeter Dave Scott, trombonist Allen Ferber, and Adam Kolker on tenor, alto, soprano, and alto flute, are a tribute to the joyful if tragically brief life of Sarel and Daphne Sack River’s son.
Sarel, who performed the music from Mr. Blue Eyes at a 2007 concert at New York’s Town Hall, created a new and eclectic set of original music for Long Ride Back. Influenced by both classical music and modern jazz, he describes Long Ride Back as “the story of my musical journey from 20 years ago until now. I could not have asked for better musicians for this recording; they added a great deal to my music.” The trio set teams Sarel with Ron Oswanski (organ and accordion) and drummer Marcello Pollitteri. Oswanski made his debut with Maynard Ferguson’s Big Bop Nouveau band and has also recorded with guitarists Jeff Barone, Tom Dempsey and Sheryl Bailey, singer Sandy Sasso, saxophonist Dan Willis, and vibraphonist Dave Samuels among others. Drummer Marcello Pollitteri has taught at Berklee for the past 31 years and has worked and often recorded with a long list of notables including Wynton Marsalis, Slide Hampton, Paquito D’Rivera, Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw, Jon Hendricks, and Dave Liebman.
Sarel’s trio performs nine of the guitarist’s originals on the consistently memorable Long Ride Back with the music including the medium-tempo blues “Home Alone,” hints of both Bach and Thelonious Monk on “Main St. Fugue,” the advanced jazz waltz “Back In Town,” a relaxed and mysterious “Tales From The Dark Side,” the haunting ballad “Misery In The Box” and the moody and picturesque “Winter In Budapest.” Throughout the enjoyable set, Sarel is heard at his very best, displaying a very original musical personality and swinging ideas.
Sarel River, who works with both small groups and a big band in the New York area in addition to teaching, looks forward to every performance and recording, and to bringing his rich music to a wider audience in the future.