Since 2002, when he released his first album, Israeli keyboardist and songwriter Idan Raichel has defined himself through collaboration. The international cast of artists with whom he has forged musical relationships ranges from Ethiopian refugees in Israeli nightclubs to concerts and recordings with the likes of Alicia Keys, Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré, Portuguese fado chanteuse Ana Moura, Colombian singer Marta Gómez, Italian pop stylist Ornella Vanoni, and India.Arie (with whom Raichel made “Open Door,” an album they briefly toured behind but haven’t yet released).
But Raichel will be alone with his piano when he returns to the Luckman this Saturday.
The pop star’s fascination with diverse cultures and genres began early. Childhood flirtation with the accordion — and the Argentinean tango and Israeli folk music played on it — matured into love of the piano, and by high school he was studying jazz. Service as musical director for the Israeli army’s band was followed by a return to civilian life, where he started jamming with Ethiopian musicians in Tel Aviv and began pursuing his interest in the Jewish diaspora.
That sketched out a musical template that he’s been creatively coloring ever since. Lyrically, his songs celebrate love with passages from biblical scripture and traditional Jewish blessings, sung primarily in Hebrew, and also in Ethiopia’s Amharic tongue, Arabic, and Portuguese. Instrumentally, his keyboards have been complemented by West African guitar, South American percussion, Iranian kamanche (cousin to the violin), and lead and harmony vocals from African, Latin American and Yemenite singers. His five Idan Raichel Project albums have gone multiplatinum in Israel, and two albums made with Farka Touré as the Touré-Raichel Collective have garnered broad acclaim.
Raichel’s sturdy melodicism has been evident throughout all those recordings. Last year, he finally released his first solo album, “At the Edge of the Beginning,” and it takes a pronounced turn toward ’70s- and ’80s-style pop. At times the music bounces with rubbery funk (“Be’Chamesh Shniyot [In Five Seconds]”) reminiscent of his full-band sets, but mostly it’s wistful and melodic (“Mabitim Ba’Yare’ach [Looking at the Moon],” “Ga’agua [Longing]”). The rhythmic pulse that gave past recordings some edge has been replaced by polished, radio-ready arrangements of piano, acoustic guitar, cello, saxophone, trumpet, and sinter (three-stringed African lute). It is as though, after years of pushing to build bridges with different cultures, he has curled up to re-examine his point of origin.
Creatively, the need to shift gears is understandable. After a decade and a half of traveling outward across the globe, Raichel now seems more inclined to look inward. Instead of swapping solos with other players Saturday, he’ll be accompanying himself on piano, and sharing stories about songs with the audience — a different kind of collaboration for an artist now fronting a band of one.
Idan Raichel appears at Luckman Fine Arts Complex, Cal State LA, 5151 University Drive, LA, at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 6; $30-$50. Info: (323) 343-6600. idanraichelproject.com, luckmanarts.org