'I'm not good at words, I'm always better with sounds'

Bassist Barak Mori to play blue notes at Jerusalem Jazz in memory of fallen nephew

After paratrooper Omri Ben Shachar was killed in battle in Gaza, his musician uncle wrote a piece in his memory

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Bass player Barak Mori will perform a piece he composed for his nephew, Omri Ben Shachar, killed in action in Gaza in December 2023. (Courtesy)
Bass player Barak Mori will perform a piece he composed for his nephew, Omri Ben Shachar, killed in action in Gaza in December 2023. (Courtesy)

When double bassist Barak Mori performs Thursday for the Jerusalem Jazz Festival, he’ll be taking center stage for the first time in a while.

Mori and his quartet, featuring Yuval Drabkin on saxophone, Katia Toobool on piano and Yali Shimoni on drums, will perform several pieces, including “Omri, My Omri,” an original composition Mori wrote and dedicated to the life of his nephew Master Sgt. (res.) Omri Ben Shachar. He was a paratrooper in the 55th Brigade’s 6623rd Battalion, who was killed on December 8, 2023, in battle in Khan Younis in Gaza.

Mori wrote the piece for the ceremony concluding the first 30 days of mourning for his nephew.

“I’m not good at words, I’m always better with sounds,” said Mori, who’s been playing instruments since elementary school.

The week before the ceremony Mori said he “felt a tune” with his bass, writing the first part in five minutes and the second section in 10 minutes.

“It felt like Omri was with me, and we were writing it together,” he said. “It’s never easy like that for me, but when it happens, it works.”

As he played it with fellow musicians and friends, trumpeter Avishai Cohen and saxophonist Eli Degibri, in front of an intimate audience of family and friends, “we felt like the gates of heaven opened and his soul went up,” said Mori, his voice choked with tears.

When Cohen, who is also the artistic director of the Jerusalem Jazz Festival, as well as a music school classmate and Mori’s friend of the last 35 years, asked him to perform for the festival, Mori knew he wanted to play the piece for Omri.

“I first wrote it in his memory, but then I dedicated it to his life, which is what he would have wanted from me,” he said.

Omri Ben Shachar was killed on December 8, 2023 as part of the war against Hamas. (Israel Defense Forces)

Mori, 48 and single, was close to his nephew, a 25-year-old electrical engineering student from Givatayim.

“Omri was an amazing kid, from the day he was born,” he said. “It sounds a little like what everyone says, but he was just this very positive person.”

The family is trying to carry on with their lives, something they knew Omri would have wanted, but it’s hard, he said.

“I’ve never felt sadness like this before, your heart is broken,” he said.

Mori doesn’t want to bring that deep sense of mourning and sadness into his June 20, 9 p.m. performance, but knows that some element of that bereavement will be present as his quartet performs in the Israel Museum gallery of the “The Dawn of Darkness: Elegy in Contemporary Art” exhibit, the museum’s own homage to the Hamas attack of October 7.

“We’ll add other things that are optimistic, as Omri would want me to,” said Mori. “He didn’t have a big connection to jazz, but he always came to hear me in Eilat, with his girlfriend and his friends.”

It’s also Mori’s first time performing the piece for an audience that isn’t composed of family and friends, although many of them will be present as well.

“It will be another emotional moment, but people will understand,” said Mori.

Mori has performed at the Jerusalem jazz event many times, often with quartets that he’s worked with in the United States and Europe. He’s performed with Madeleine Peyroux, Peter Cincotti, Eric Reed, Benny Green, Paula West, Keren Ann, Yoni Rechter, and his old friends Cohen, pictured below and Eli Degibri as well.

He’s been in touch with many of those fellow musicians and friends during the last eight months, many of whom checked in and sent condolences when his nephew was killed.

After living in New York for nearly 20 years, Mori returned to Israel in 2015 to care for his ailing father, often commuting to the US and Europe to join Peyroux, until the COVID pandemic brought an end to the tours.

Mori now teaches at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, working with private students and performing with his quartet and with Cohen.

“To be in Israel to teach and perform isn’t quite enough for me,” he admitted. “Things have to readjust somehow after COVID and this war.”

For now, though, he’s glad there’s the Jerusalem Jazz Festival, which he says always offers access to every kind of music and audience member.

The event, produced by the annual multidisciplinary Israel Festival, which also takes place in Jerusalem, runs Wednesday through Friday, June 19-21, at the Israel Museum and Yellow Submarine music club.

Among other scheduled artists are Joseph E-Shine Mizrachi, Balkan Beat Box’s Tamir Muskat, Marsh Dondurma, Slovakian quintet Oskar Torok, Sol Monk, and others.

Tickets are on sale now at the Jerusalem Jazz Festival website and will also be available at the Israeli Museum entrance hall.

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