TEL AVIV, Israel—If you listened to Adam Ben Ezra’s live one-man musical performance with your eyes closed, you’d swear there were a few musicians on stage. But creating a sound with layers and almost constant movement is exactly what he achieved as the opening performer for the Jerusalem Music Conference this summer.
The performance at Jerusalem’s Zappa wasn’t an anomaly; it is exactly what the 30 year-old Tel Aviv contrabass player is known for, and has been working on most of his life.
Ben Ezra has been studying and playing different musical instruments since the age of 5, when he told his mother he wanted to play the violin. Today, in addition to the violin and contrabass (an extremely large bass instrument taller than a grown man, also known as a double bass), he also plays the clarinet, piano, oud, melodica, percussion instruments, and sings. He practices at least one of them almost every day.
The soft-spoken performer decided on the career of musician at the age of 9. In junior high, he formed a group (now defunct) with his lifelong friend and manager, Guy Dayan. His first paid performance gig was at the age of 17. By age 21 he was making a living as a musician. But it is just now, at the dawn of his 30’s that he seems to be on the verge of greatness.
Ben Ezra’s trajectory to present day started a few years ago when he saw French contrabass player, Renaud Garcia-Fons, perform.
“I was shocked when I saw him,” said Ben Ezra during an interview in Tel Aviv. “He plays the bass like a violin player. Very fast, and very musical.”
The encounter with Garcia-Fons contributed to Ben Ezra’s decision to have a contrabass builder in the U.S. custom design a new instrument for him. It will have five strings—instead of the standard four—so that he can reach notes as high as those on the viola and even the violin.
Another turning point in his development in recent years came during a trip to India.
“When I was in India I heard religious music,” recalls Ben Ezra. “[It was] very simple, but the sound was unfamiliar. It was like a new color.”
He adds that religious music in general is a source of inspiration for him.
“In this [religious] music, you can see the roots of the culture,” he says. “In church, everything is big. The harmony surrounds you. Arabs [in their religious music] are very emotional, and the music comes from their stomach.”
Balancing the Solo Performance
The influence of call and response from religious music shows up in Ben Ezra’s repertoire, particularly in his live performances.
“When I do solo stuff, I answer myself in my music,” he says, adding that performing alone on stage as he does is a big responsibility and requires being able to “feel the space.”
“You can’t rest,” he says about his solo stage performances. “Even when you decide to stop, you have to decide.”
Last year, Ben Ezra’s maxim was tested when he opened for five-time Grammy winning bassist Victor Wooten at HaTa’arucha 3 in Tel Aviv. He says that audience was a prime example of how the performer engages and interacts with those listening and watching during a performance.
“I felt that they loved me, that they loved the show,” he recalls of opening for Wooten, smiling. “It was like fuel for me.”
In 2010, he performed at Tel Aviv’s Hiechal Hatarbut to mark 30 years since the tragic death of John Lennon, joining fellow musicians Aviv Geffen, Shlomi Shaban, Assaf Avidan and others in playing John Lennon covers for a crowd of 3,000. During the performance, in which he played “Come Together,” he says he truly felt a massive surge of enthusiasm and energy from the audience.
More recently, he was part of Moshe Ben Ari’s ensemble performance group during the annual Tel Aviv piano festival.
When he is the star of the show, though, Ben Ezra needs a deep well of energy both from the audience and from his own psyche—his solo act lasts a full hour.
One of the more surprising aspects of Ben Ezra’s professional development is connected to his manager—and childhood friend—Guy Dayan. Dayan helped carve out a niche for Ben Ezra as a “YouTuber;” a musician who promotes, markets, and shares his work with his audience primarily through YouTube.
Even though the U.S. label CandyRat Records launched the distribution of his new song as a video and audio track worldwide on Nov. 13, Ben Ezra’s primary platform continues to be through YouTube. CandyRat is releasing his new track called “Openland” that layers piano, contrabass, violin, and percussion into a dreamy 3-minute mixture.
Layering instruments is a major way Ben Ezra accomplishes sounding like a group of musicians instead of one man. By using a looper in live performances and in recordings, he can record and play back a variety of different pieces of music.
Once the songs are put into video and posted on YouTube, the visual and audio make a seamless blend that is striking. Perhaps it’s in part due to Ben Ezra’s involvement in every aspect of making his videos, from performing the music, to helping craft the visual concept, to sitting in on editing of the footage.
“We sit together and think about what we want to project with the video,” says Dayan, who works with videographer Sergey Maydin. “Adam sits on every frame [in the video editing process] right beside me.”
Using the slickly-produced and highly professional videos to gain a public following and traction in the industry through YouTube seems to be working.
“Three years ago we started to film a video for YouTube,” says Dayan, whose company Goola creates and promotes online content, and ventured into music with Ben Ezra. “We were amazed at the number of views. After a couple of videos we decided to keep going.”
Today, Ben Ezra’s YouTube channel has over 13,000 subscribers, with some individual videos logging from 300,000 views to over 600,000 views. His most watched clips by far are his covers for popular television shows including Dexter and Mad Men. In fact, Ben Ezra’s creative interpretations of those songs and his general popularity on YouTube have led to solid business opportunities.
“I’m invited to a lot of sessions and people come to see the show because they saw the video,” he says.
Dayan maintains that much of their progress so far has been simply due to being in the right place at the right time.
“Every day that passes it gets harder to be seen on YouTube,” he says, adding that if you search “upright bass” today, three years after they started crafting a career for Ben Ezra as a YouTuber, his name is at the top of the list. He’s right.
In fact, of the 35,600 results when searching upright bass, Ben Ezra shows up multiple times along with the likes of Paul McCartney. His cover of Andy McKee’s song “Drifting” is number one, with more than 375,350 views.
The unusual path that Ben Ezra has carved with the help of Dayan has never been about a destination; it’s the journey, and it is far from over. One of the highlights along the way is when someone says he inspired them.
“Every week I get an email from bass players who say I changed their life,” he says, adding that the emails come from all over the world.
That’s a lot to live up to, but he’s not daunted.
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