Collaborating With The Isreali Jazz Scene

An Israeli take on jazz

Barry Davis

Of all the artistic disciplines, there is probably none more of a cross-fertilization nature than jazz. After all, didn’t the multistratified music emanate from New Orleans, then home to a multitude of cultures and communities?

The latter epithet could also be attached to Israel. This modestly proportioned Middle Eastern country is populated by people from across a broad spectrum of cultural and ethnic backdrops – from Germany to Yemen, and Brazil to Russia, and much betwixt - much of which informs the way Israeli jazz has evolved, particularly in the last three or so decades.

And it has grown in truly dramatic exponential manner. The country’s first major jazz event, the Red Sea Jazz Festival started out, as a pretty diminutive affair, in the southern resort of Eilat in 1987. A couple of years later Tel Aviv, the country’s main cultural hub, got its own annual festival, and there are now similar ventures dotted around the country, through the calendar, complemented by regular gigs, of local artists and acts of varying stature from abroad, appearing at such venues at the Zappa Club, Levontin 7 and the Yellow Submarine.

And that is even without mentioning the disproportional impact Israel expats have had on the New York scene for quite some time now. Increasingly, quite a few Israeli jazz musicians also live, or frequently ply their craft, in Europe, such as France-based pianists Yaron Herman and Yonatan Avishai, Paris resident saxophonist Shauli Einav and Germany-domiciled pianist Omer Klein.

This migratory pattern, as budding Israeli jazz musicians went in search of new cultural and artistic vistas, is one of the principle driving forces behind the incredible surge of interest in, not to mention incremental vertical shift in the quality bar, of jazz offerings from Israel.

That can largely be traced back to 1992 when, within the space of 24 hours, bassists Omer Avital and Avishai Cohen, and trombonist Avi Lebovich, all boarded planes to the Big Apple, ostensibly to study, but primarily to share the bandstand with some of the greats and upwardly mobile artists in the jazz world’s epicenter. Nigh on 30 years later, after working with the likes of James Moody, Chick Corea and Milt Jackson, Lebovich is now back in Israel and has helped to push the local jazz community ante up a couple of notches, partly by establishing an acclaimed big band, which also features some of Israel’s most innovative middle generation players, including reedmen Alon Farber and Amit Friedman. Cohen, of course, continues to draw large and highly enthused audiences across the globe, while Avital, who was in at the inception of the now 25 year old Smalls jazz club in Greenwich Village,  is a bona fide member of the New York jazz scene’s A-lister echelon, making frequent forays to top venues and festivals around the globe.

A handful of Israeli musicians preceded the Lebovich-Cohen-Avital threesome across the Pond – saxophonist Albert Piamente, guitarist Mordy Ferber and bassist Eli Magen were part of the small earlier vanguard – but it is the Nineties triad’s relocation that pointed the way for subsequent generations of Israelis who felt they needed to get a taste of the big wide world, and rub shoulders with their American and other counterparts, if they were going to make tangible creative progress.

Barak Weiss, artistic director of the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival and annual Israeli Jazz and World Music Showcase, says that initial Israeli plunge into the New York jazz community was a pivotal moment for the entire Israeli jazz community. “Suddenly, musicians from here had role models. That is very significant.” Things have moved along since then. “There are, today, over 200 very active Israeli musicians in New York and dotted around the global jazz arena,” Weiss continues.  “A country of approximately 9 million people, with no jazz heritage to speak of, has become something of a jazz super power. That is quite incredible.”

It is, indeed. But what is most intriguing about improvisational sounds coming out of Israel, and artists who hail from here, is the increasing prominence of “native” material. As most jazz artists will tell you, everybody comes up learning their trade by trying to get as accurate a handle on the work of their idols of choice as possible. But there comes a time when you have to find your own voice – bring your personal and cultural baggage to your own singular mode of expression.

Cats like Avital, with his Moroccan and Yemenite roots, Cohen and his stellar namesake trumpeter, Jerusalemite saxophonist Nadav Haber who introduced some Ethiopian influences into the idiom, Herman whose 2012 release Alter Ego, features a reading of the Israeli national anthem Hatikva, all bring uniquely Israeli seasoning to their work, while pianist Omri Mor is now known around the world for his Andaloujazz synthesis of jazz and Andalusian music. All that is a far cry from the pioneer generation of Israeli jazz players – such as pianist Danny Gottfried and drummer Areleh Kaminsky – who were introduced to the wonders of jazz by American saxophonist Mel Keller who moved to Israel in the 1950s. Yes, there were other immigrant musicians, like Romanian-born saxophonist Peter Wertheimer, Soviet-born avant garde keyboardist Slava Ganellin and similarly freewheeling clarinetist Harold Rubin, who came from South Africa, but, by and large, back then Israeli jazz musicians toed the bebop line.

Joachim Berendt, in his seminal tome The Jazz Book, talks about the symbiotic relationship that exists between the “sounds around us” and jazz. Taking the sensorial tag a step further one could tie in the range of food we ingest and smell into the creative hinterland that spawns improvisational music. Weiss feels that the eclectic Middle Eastern vittles factor runs parallel with the explosion of Israeli jazz, and the willing and ability of local players to let it all hang out, even if they don’t hail from New York, Chicago or New Orleans. Interestingly, he associates that with the Oslo Accords signed by Israel and the PLO in Washington DC in 1993.

Weiss sees a direct correlation between the then perceived political breakthrough and the opening up of physical and psychological boundaries in this part of the world. “Suddenly we look around and we see the world around us, in this region.” That, Weiss believes, opened the floodgates of local culinary finesse, rather than Israelis heading, for example, for a fancy French restaurant if they were looking for some special cuisine. That, he says, goes hand in hand with the freedom Israeli jazz musicians adopted to dip into Arabic music – such as on bassist Avishai Cohen’s initial recordings Adama, which featured Amos Hoffman on oud and signaled a kind of coming of age for the burgeoning Israeli jazz community. It was now “kosher” for Israeli artists to take their inspiration from sources closer to home, including from the Great Israeli Songbook. The natural continuum dam had been well and truly breached.

Even so, for most young players from here, going to New York, to get a firsthand taste of the jazz action where it really mattered, was still the stuff of pipe dreams. But then, New York came to Israel in the shape of a certain Arnie Lawrence. The then 59 year old reedman moved to Jerusalem, from New York, in 1997. Prior to that Lawrence had worked with a veritable Who’s Who of jazz luminaries, including Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus and Clark Terry, and had helped to found the jazz department of the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.

Israeli youngsters, such as Mor, Einav and bassists Hagai Bilitzky and Tal Gamliel, had an actual corporeal, breathing, talking and music-playing link with the art form’s homeland. This was in the pre-You Tube days, when the only way you could get any real handle on what was going down “over there” was by going along to a gig of some visiting big gun, or possibly catching a number on TV.

Lawrence opened a school in Jerusalem, where he welcomed youngsters of all ethnic backgrounds and religions and, for example, set about marrying the melodies, rhythms and sensibilities of jazz with the sonic baggage of Arab musicians. He even took some of them to the IAJE Conference in New York, and to China, in the early Noughties.  

Today, the likes of former longtime New York resident pianist Anat Fort, trumpeter Avishai Cohen, and pianists Yonatan Avishai and Shai Maestro are members of the ECM stable, and acts like the Shalosh trio, saxophonist Daniel Zamir and guitarist Gilad Hekselman are in high demand across the globe, putting their very own Israeli-nuanced take on jazz out there.

Yes, Israeli jazz has come a long way.