The West Windsor Arts Council describes it as a homecoming.
That’s almost accurate. Award-winning singer-songwriter Avi Wisnia, who will perform at the West Windsor Arts Center this Saturday evening, was born one town over, in Princeton, and spent his early years next door in East Windsor, so it’s close.
And it is a return.
After a decade away, Mr. Wisnia’s appearance celebrates the release of his new album, “Catching Leaves.”
“Catching Leaves” is described “as a collection of songs about living in the moment and surrendering to forces beyond our control,” Mr. Wisnia said. “The music is a little bittersweet and introspective. But at the same time, it’s upbeat and happy.”
That might sound oxymoronic. But for Mr. Wisnia, whose brother, Dov Wisnia, recently died, it makes emotional sense. “I found it very hard to make music” after his brother’s death, he said. It was difficult “to find the joy in it.
“But through the process of making ‘Catching Leaves,’ I found my way back to the thing I love — connecting with people through music. Making the album was a way of processing my grief and moving forward. It was a way of finding joy on the other side.”
On Saturday night, Mr. Wisnia will perform with an ensemble of Philadelphia-based musicians that he thinks of as his band. They will play songs from “Catching Leaves” as well as his signature mix of music, which includes 1950s West Coast jazz, acoustic American folk, Brazilian bossa nova, and contemporary piano pop.
Mr. Wisnia is a pianist; he also plays guitar, melodica, and kazoo, and has some facility with saxophone, clarinet, accordion, and bassoon. “The thing I love most is performing my own music and sharing stories with an audience,” he said. He also runs a workshop in Philadelphia, called the Philly Songwriters in the Round, and teaches piano. “I still song-lead for synagogue services on special occasions, holidays, and community events,” he said. “I find inspiration from music everywhere.”
Finding inspiration specifically in synagogue music came early to Mr. Wisnia. “Both my father and grandfather were clergy at Reform congregations,” he said. “For me, Judaism is all about community and being together. Some of my most profound moments growing up were in the synagogue singing the prayers, or at Camp Harlam” — a URJ camp in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains — “learning instruments and playing around a campfire. That sense of community has always stuck with me.
“Caring about the world and taking care of others, that was always instilled in me through Jewish ethics, informed the songs I gravitated toward, and the songs I wanted to create.”
Mr. Wisnia made his first recording at his father’s synagogue, Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction. Rabbi Eric Wisnia retired from the shul in 2019, after 42 years on the bimah. “In 2007 I gathered a band together, and in two days in the sanctuary, we laid down seven tracks on the album,” called “Avi Wisnia Presents,” Mr. Wisnia said. The album was released later that year, and Mr. Wisnia went on to perform its songs to sold-out crowds at the Bitter End in Manhattan and the Tin Angel in Philadelphia.
But it was with his grandfather, David S. Wisnia, z”l, who inspired him musically. Cantor Wisnia was the cantor at Temple Shalom in Levittown, Pennsylvania, for 28 years, and then for the next 23 years he was the cantor at Congregation Har Sinai of Trenton.
Cantor Wisnia was a Holocaust survivor, escaping death at the hands of the Nazis through his music. For three years, while imprisoned in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the teenager entertained his captors with his beautiful baritone voice. Cantor Wisnia died in 2021, at 95. “I spent the last few years with him, performing with him, and helping him tell his story about surviving the Holocaust,” his grandson said.
On Saturday night, Mr. Wisnia will not just perform his songs, but also tell stories. “Putting on a concert is a communal experience,” he said. “Like sitting in a sanctuary, it is something that can only be experienced in that place in that moment. It can be very moving. It can bring you closer together.”
Aylin Green is the executive director of the West Windsor Arts Center. “This is a very special concert for so many reasons,” she said. “We are honored that Avi considers us his hometown venue, and to have the opportunity to present an evening of music that brings us together and feeds the soul. We all really need that now.”
The concert will begin at 7 p.m. Registration is $25 in advance and $30 at the door. Seating is limited. For more information, go to www.westwindsorarts.org/avi-wisnia