Alex Weiss was the most sought-after music arranger in Tel Aviv, Israel, when Adi Yeshaya was a teenager. When it came to creating music, Weiss was the standard everyone looked to, and Yeshaya was no different.
Yeshaya had started playing the accordion and electric organ as a 9-year-old, and as he grew into music, he discovered a love of composition and arranging. He didn’t just want to play music; he wanted to make it. He wanted to be Weiss.
So Yeshaya went to meet him.
He reached out, in a moment of courage, to see if Weiss would teach him. Weiss had little free time, but offered to look at some of Yeshaya’s arrangements. Ever modest, Yeshaya says now that Weiss was quick to point out his faults, but was just as quick to see potential in his work. Weiss agreed to mentor Yeshaya. The relationship lasted five years and eventually led to a career that found Yeshaya working with the likes of Prince, Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin.
Prior to tracking down Weiss, Yeshaya came up through an Israeli school system that, while deep in musical talent, had few paths for those pursuing the craft. Students had to enroll in a music-specific school, something that Yeshaya wasn’t prepared to do.
Instead, he pieced together his own music career. In high school, Yeshaya’s vice principal discovered his talent, along with that of several of his classmates. He helped the students find music classes and connections to a youth orchestra.
Once Yeshaya began working with Weiss, he secured more gigs working as a pianist for local musicians and on television shows. As his roles expanded, he felt he was ready to push his education to the next level.
He discovered Berklee, a music school in Boston, and enrolled in 1983 at age 24, unaware that he would be leaving Israel for good.
“When I experienced the accessibility of music for the first time in Boston, I thought I had walked into the holy temple,” Yeshaya says. “Moving was a culture shock at first, but as soon as I started school I realized it was the right fit.”
Berklee allowed Yeshaya to focus solely on music. As at other schools, students start with core classes before filtering into more specific electives. Yeshaya, naturally, gravitated toward arrangement. He graduated after three years and entered the working world.
His original plan had been to finish school and head back to Israel, but he met his future wife at Berklee. She was from Minnesota, so in 1988, the pair packed up and moved to the Midwest.
“The only two things I knew about Minnesota were the Garrison Keillor show and Prince,” Yeshaya says. “It was limited knowledge, but it was enough to know there were good things happening in town.”
Coming to Minnesota also meant starting over. Yeshaya had gotten involved in the music scene in Boston, working primarily on jazz, but coming to Minnesota meant forging his own path once again.
He began reaching out to musicians and locals in the music industry to find work. He played in jazz competitions to help get his name out in the music community and quickly found a role teaching at the school that would become McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul.
During his time at McNally Smith, Yeshaya kept working with local musicians and by the mid ‘90s, was deep into the local music scene. Well known in the Twin Cities, he was arranging for records and live shows around town.
In 1995, Yeshaya was working with a local songwriter who had connections to jazz singer Lena Horne. The writer felt Yeshaya’s arrangements would be perfect for Horne, and sure enough, her people reached out. He flew to New York to work on her next album. It felt like a big break, but the record, Seasons of a Life, wasn’t released until 10 years later. Yeshaya still doesn’t know why.
He returned to the Twin Cities and continued working. “I had a good thing going here,” he says, lessening the disappointment of the Horne album.
Just two years later, in 1997, Yeshaya got what turned out to be his real break. Whitney Houston’s musical director, Michael Baker, needed an arranger for one of Houston’s live performances. Yeshaya, without question, took the gig.
Doing the arrangement led to more work with arranging for Houston, and before long a friendship developed between Baker and Yeshaya. Yeshaya became Baker’s go-to for arranging Houston’s live work from 1999 to 2010.
“It was a very humbling experience, because she was as good or better than what people even thought she was,” Yeshaya says.
Working with Baker led Yeshaya to Aretha Franklin, and he spent several years as her arranger, flying out to work on records and live shows.
Even with Houston and Franklin as clients, Yeshaya has another big star to claim: Prince. Yeshaya worked with a local horn player, Michael Nelson, who does Prince’s horn arrangements. The connection led to a referral, and Yeshaya found himself doing string arrangements for some of Prince’s most recent work.
“Working with these people was a pipe dream,” Yeshaya says. “It wasn’t something you expect would happen, but it happened in such a casual way.”
After ticking some of the biggest stars in music history off the bucket list, the only thing left to tackle is one of the biggest shows on television. Two and a half years ago, an arranger connected him to the television show The Voice, and Yeshaya has worked on arrangements for the show since. The show is a whole different experience, one Yeshaya can’t talk much about because of the live format, but it requires him to create arrangements in a matter of hours and send them back to the producers.
Even still, Yeshaya is reluctant to talk about himself. Rebecca Arons, a local musician Yeshaya partners with through their company STRINGenius, says, “He’s one of the most humble people you’ve ever met. One of my jobs in STRINGenius is to tell people how great Adi is, because he won’t tell them himself.”
For all they’ve accomplished together professionally, Arons’ favorite story about Yeshaya is personal. Arons and her husband have a favorite opera aria, and when they were to be married last year, she wanted to surprise her husband by having it performed at their wedding. Yeshaya took the arrangement that was created for an entire orchestra and distilled it down to be played by a string quartet, clarinet and flute, a task only possible for the most skilled arranger.
“Adi has such incredible depth and versatility as a musician,” Arons says. “I am completely honored to work with him.”