Finding his voice
A rabbi’s son taps tradition to make ‘Something New’
To hear about Avi Wisnia is to be reminded of The Jazz Singer, the pioneering talkie of 1927 that is the story of a cantor’s son who defies religious and family traditions to become a popular mainstream vocalist.
But when you suggest the comparison, the 27-year-old — who is actually the grandson of a cantor and the son of a rabbi — shrugs it off with a laugh.
“My parents are not bent out of shape because I didn’t go into the family business,” he said. “My father would certainly love it if I did join the rabbinate or become a cantor, but my passion was always a little bit larger in scope. I grew up with Jewish summer camp, and in the congregation, music was how I connected to my Judaism.
“But I enjoy performing outside the temple.”
His “outside” world includes venues as varied as the Texas Rock Fest in Austin and Birdland, the famed Manhattan club that bills itself as the “Jazz Corner of the World.”
But on March 12 the singer-songwriter returned to his roots, at least geographically. His latest CD, Something New, had its official release at a party at Congregation Beth Chaim, the Princeton Junction synagogue where his father, Eric Wisnia, is chief rabbi.
He has another performance at the World Cafe Live in Philadelphia on April 9, and others at clubs in New York, Trenton, and Cape May.
Curiously, the title tune of his new album is replete with references to a host of oldies — among them “Smooth Operator” by Sade, “Eleanor Rigby” by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Only the Strong Survive” by Billy Joel, “Saturday in the Park” by Chicago, “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor, and “The Girl from Ipanema” by Antonio Carlos Jobim.
The respect for tradition those allusions signify coupled with an insistence on creating his own unique approach is what underscores Wisnia’s work.
The point he is trying to make with Something New is that “the characters are struggling to find their own voice amidst all the influences and the pressures of society,” he told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview March 2. “We can never escape our influences, and in the end you have to accept them. Then you finally can find your own voice and your own way of saying something new.”
Uniqueness has been Wisnia’s goal since he started performing his original material after graduating from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University in 2005.
He started out as a music major focusing on film scoring and composition.
“But that was far too narrow,” he said. “There were more things I wanted to do and more influences I wanted to explore.”
So after testing his skills, he tailored a course of individualized study around a new passion. “I fell in love with bossa nova, and it started to color the music I wrote — the rhythm and the mood, the energy and the melody line.”
He studied Portuguese and Brazilian history and performed bossa nova classics. Then, he said, “I turned to some of the songs I grew up with, listing to The Cure and Radiohead and Lauryn Hill and injecting them with a bossa nova feel to make them more my own.”
From there came other influences — Ben Folds, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder. But somehow, by his own definition, a Jewish background also plays a part in his creative work.
“I grew up in a very community-minded atmosphere where I’m comfortably surrounded by friends and family and strangers who become family. And, of course, seeing my father standing in front of a crowd — a congregation — and seeing the way he handles himself, it affects my performance and the way I connect to an audience. It’s sort of an art to have a conversation with 50 or 100 or 500 people at the same and make it special for everyone.”
His image on the cover of Something New — posed as if he were about to jump off the roof of the Manhattan apartment house where he lives — was intended, Wisnia said, “to show something that was different. That is what I want to convey in the songs I write.”
Always open to new inspirations, he is never without pen and paper at hand. Sometimes the words come first, sometimes the music. “I’ll find I have a melody, a catchy hook, and then I’ll try to play it on piano. I’ll sing nonsense over it and let the words just come. A lot of my songs start out with gibberish.” But the finished product is a literate statement of the way he sees the world, often set to the Brazilian beat of the samba.
He loves playing with friends and family members. “I’ll have two of the people singing backup harmony. My uncle plays the trombone. My cousin plays the violin. My brother plays the bass. It makes it a party atmosphere on stage.”
Offstage, he will occasionally join his grandfather, Cantor David Wisnia, who left Har Sinai Temple in Pennington in 2008 after 22 years there, playing keyboard as the cantor’s backup at wedding ceremonies.
As his “day gig,” Wisnia teaches music to prekindergarten and religious-school students at Temple Shaaray Tefila, a Reform congregation on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
But he is determined to turn his own ideas and style into a full-time commitment.
“I have been performing since I was little, singing in choirs and doing theater in school and camp. I always knew I wanted to make a living doing something performance-based in music,” he said.
“It is definitely a tough gig. Nothing is guaranteed, and it is such an unstable lifestyle. But that is what I love about it. I don’t want a nine-to-five job. I am seeing the country and meeting new people. I love the excitement of not knowing what is going to happen.”