Yakir Arbib performed two shows recently at Elizabeth Spence’s house on the North Shore. Arbib was born blind and began playing the piano at the age of four. Submitted photo

“Before I was born, when I was in my mother’s womb, my father played tapes of Johannes Sebastian Bach for me.

“Then, as soon as I was able, he allowed me to walk on the keys of the family piano,” said international award winning improvisational pianist Yakir Arbib.

Arbib, who recently played two sold-out concerts at Elizabeth Spence’s home just a stone’s throw from Patterson’s Wharf in Tatamagouche, was born blind but with the gifts of perfect pitch and synesthesia. His pitch gives him the rare ability of being able to identify and re-create musical notes without the benefit of reference tones.

He said of his synesthesia, “I see musical tones as distinct colours and am able to translate these into musical notation and this lets me create musical compositions on the spot without any prior preparation.”

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And improvise he did!  His hands flew over the keys with lightening agility as he spontaneously riffed a variety of pieces including Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Faure’s Pavane and Aaron Copeland’s, Appalachian Spring. As part the performances, he asked the audiences to give him any melodies or any musical themes that they could think of and with these he created new compositions in the moment.

In one of the concerts, he incorporated Spence’s cat’s meowing into an improvisation.

Arbib was born in Jerusalem in 1989.

“I started learning piano when I was four years old and my first dream as a musician was to become a church organist. I loved Bach so much.”

His muse led him to jazz when he was 14 and then to a scholarship at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. At Berklee, he switched to classical music and composition but his love of improvisation and exploration remained.

“My musical life has been a freak show of chaotic events,” he said with tongue-in-cheek.

In 2015, Arbib won the Second Prize at the Montreux International Piano Jazz Competition and was declared as the “most extremely original pianist” by the jury.  Spence is the first to admit that is was a “real coup” getting him to play in Tatamagouche and that it was extremely generous of him to do so.

“We are too eager to categorize things. Yakir Arbib blurs the lines between classical and jazz and this might be where music is going,” she said.

Spence first heard of Arbib through their musical colleague, guitarist Amy Brandon.  Brandon had hosted Arbib during his last Nova Scotia tour and opened for him in his first Tatamagouche performance. She played mesmerizing solo guitar over mysterious electro-acoustic music from her latest and widely acclaimed album, Scavenger.

Tatamagouche has become a centre of the arts.

“This is absolutely stunning. The response to these concerts was highly enthusiastic.  There are few, if any locations, outside of Tatamagouche to hear this calibre of music on the North Shore,” Spence said.