It was only a matter of time before Avi Wisnia carried on his family’s three-generation dynasty of making music.
Wisnia is the grandson of the late David Wisnia, a Holocaust survivor and the former cantor at Temple Shalom in Levittown and Har Sinai Hebrew Congregation of Pennington, New Jersey. He’s the son of Rabbi Eric Wisnia, who served as rabbi at Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction, New Jersey, for 42 years.
Attending Shabbat services every Friday and Saturday, Wisnia drew deeply on the family’s tradition of singing among their community.
With the release of his second album “Catching Leaves” last year, Wisnia, an East Kensington resident, is cementing his musical legacy, branching out in his own jazz, folk and piano pop style, while deepening the musical roots his family has laid down for nearly a century.
“I quite literally grew up in a synagogue, and most of my time was spent in synagogue: seeing my father and grandfather at their respective pulpits, and recognizing that community was always a big part of my life and that Judaism really fostered that sense of community, that being in a synagogue was where people came together,” Wisnia said.
“Music was the way I connected to Judaism,” he continued. “Because I saw people making music together and making harmony and listening to the choir and listening to the cantors.”
Wisnia, 39, became resistant to stage fright and learned to thrive in front of a crowd, enjoying the energy of bringing people together. He started the Philly Songwriters Circle with his friend Aaron Nathans seven years ago, a project which evolved from local songwriters meeting in Wisnia’s living room to a community of more than 500 artists showcasing and workshopping their pieces as part of Philly Songwriters in the Round.
On Nov. 5, Wisnia will launch his Catching Leaves tour, playing at the New Jersey West Windsor Arts Council in his hometown of Princeton Junction, the place his musical journey began.
The youngest of three, Wisnia was eager to learn to play piano, following in his siblings’ footsteps.
“Being a third child, by the time he was three years old, [he] was saying, ‘How come I’m not taking piano lessons, too?’” said father Eric Wisnia.
Wisnia tinkered with the sounds of Elton John, Carole King and James Taylor, but his taste and sound matured to later emulate jazz philosophies and the Brazilian bossa nova style of Tom Jobim.
“It was that kind of combination of the freedom to improvise with jazz with the really accessible melodies and storytelling of pop music that I really liked being able to combine,” Wisnia said.
Wisnia’s formal training took him to New York University, where he studied music theory and composition, though he always had a soft spot for playing music closer to home. He recorded his debut EP “Avi Wisnia Presents” in the sanctuary of his father’s New Jersey synagogue after graduation.
After his first album “Something New” was released in 2010, Wisnia went on tour and played alongside Ani DiFranco and The Roots, among others. And while “Something New” was symbolic of Wisnia’s green musical prowess, his sophomore album represented a different season of his life.
Released over a decade after its predecessor, “Catching Leaves” was defined by Wisnia’s struggle to process the death of his brother, who died at 33 of a brain tumor almost a decade ago.
“He was the first person I ever really can remember playing music with,” Wisnia said. “We would jam all the time; we would improvise together. … He was always getting people together in a room, playing music, improvising, having fun with music, celebrating with music. And so my joy of music was really tied up with him and my relationship with him.”
After his brother’s death, Wisnia had to reconstruct his relationship to music. For a while, he didn’t want to make music again, but Wisnia found catharsis in providing the piano accompaniment to his grandfather’s singing. The two went on tour together in 2015.
“One of the ways he survived was through music because he was singing as a young boy in Poland,” Wisnia said of his grandfather’s time during the Holocaust. “Singing actually helped him survive in Auschwitz. Singing sustained him after the war when he came to the United States, and he was able to pass along a lot of his music to me.”
Through playing with his grandfather, Wisnia learned a lesson in using music to process pain, which he channeled into the sounds and lyrics of his second album.
Though “Catching Leaves” captures Wisnia’s journey back to music through struggle and grief, his future projects, while tonally different, are still inspired by his brother.
“His passion made me think about my own identity as a musician, as a person in the world,” Wisnia said. “He was always such a confident person, and without him, I feel like a way of honoring him is to be more confident in myself and to put that out in the world.”