Israel, a New Orleans jazz experience? Video, Photo

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In February this year I was fortunate to accompany friends to Israel. It was my first visit. We were based in Tel Aviv and it did not take long before I was checking out the local scene, football, food and jazz.

On taking advice from friends of my fellow travellers I was pointed in the direction of the House of Pillars, Beit HaAmudim as the best jazz club in town.

After several visits, conversations with jazz patrons, musicians, listening to the music, live and since on CD and by recommendation to various social media sights three things occurred to me which I hope to explore in this article.

Firstly, jazz has evolved exponentially in Israel over the past three decades or so. Jazz has grown qualitatively and quantitatively across the country. Thirdly, that the effects of this has perhaps been to mirror that of New Orleans in the origins of Jazz.

The beginning of jazz in Israel was in Palestine, actually. The first jazz band was the Police Orchestra during the British Mandate. In the 1950s and early 1960s some musicians used to play jazz, but it was all American jazz, the standards. I’m told the first Israeli jazz album was recorded in the early 1970s. It was not until the 90’s that jazz took off with some significance. The summer Dead Sea Jazz Festivals in Eilat brings in relatively large numbers of patrons.

I estimate that since the 1990s Israel has been a jazz laboratory with around 200 musicians currently based in New York, around Europe and the UK doing sterling work on various creative fronts.

How has this come to be? Is this yet another miracle from the Holy Land, or are there some rhyme and reason behind the explosion of improvisational sonic offerings from the country?

I asked Yael Hadany, Manager of the House of Pillars whether there was something fundamentally different about the way Israeli artists approach jazz. Yael responded,

“Jazz is an American art form, American musicians may be more “respectful” of the genre, while their European counterparts, looking in from the outside, have more freedom to play around with it, and invest it with their own cultural baggage. The same might be said for the Israeli jazz ethos.”

“Whilst Jazz did not originate in Israel, but by examining Israeli jazz, the character of Israeli jazz, the various paths of development, it has parallels of examining the boundaries of Hebrew culture. It has absorbed the big band music of America, the emergence of be bop in Europe and fused it with Israeli Hebrew culture of the classics and indigenous folk music which has drawn on different national influences.”

“Here you have Israeli jazz which can be heard to be Israeli, there is an Israeli sound. But, at the same time, it originated in another place.”

Whilst that different location was New Orleans, itself a veritable cultural melting pot at the time. German jazz writer and producer Joachim Ernst Berendt, in his seminal tome, The Jazz Book, questions whether New Orleans was, in fact, the sole birthplace of jazz, and talks about the entire Delta region as having some impact on the way the art form evolved. Even if we do go along with the notion that the creation of jazz can be attributed to that particular southern town, one has to relate to the many communities that populated New Orleans in the early 20th century, including the Spanish, French, English, Italian, German, Creole and “American Negro” groups. Add to that various religious beliefs, taking in Christianity, Judaism and Voodoo, and you have yourself a singular coalescence of sounds, smells, flavours and sensibilities.

That sounds a lot like Israel too. But as I was told by local jazz musicians you have to pay your dues. You have to work through the underlying established strata before you “find your own voice.” It took Israeli jazz a while to do that.

I was told that it was the efforts of the likes of American born saxophonist Mel Keller, who made Aliyah in the early 1950s, who is credited with kick starting the Israeli jazz scene. Things gradually evolved through the founder generation of Israeli jazz players. These include the now 80 year old pianist Danny Gottfried, the founding artistic director of the Dead Sea Jazz Festival, 77 year old drummer Areleh Kaminski, and 81 year old multi instrumentalist Albert Piamenta.

Piamenta played alto and soprano saxophone on a six track run out that fused Jewish, Arabic and Mediterranean grooves with jazz.

That was a rarity back then I was told. The still diminutive Israeli jazz community generally tended to follow the American jazz route, performing bebop, swing and even some Dixieland and ragtime. Israeli jazz began to find its “own voice” around 25 years ago, when bassist Avishai Cohen who, along with fellow bassist Omer Avital and trombonist Avi Lebovich was part of the vanguard triad that relocated to New York to seek more expansive jazz pastures.

Cohen’s first three albums Colors, Devotion and Adama sought to marry the jazz discipline he had trained in with the melodies he had naturally imbibed as a youngster, taking in material written by the likes of iconic song smiths Mordehai Zeira and Sasha Argov and Arabic melodies.

Increasingly, the last decade and a half or so, jazz artists from Israel have culled items from the Great Israeli Songbook, feeding off Israeli folk and pop as well as more traditional and even liturgical songs. The recent release from pianist Guy Mintus, Connecting the dots, for example, includes a plaintive ethereal rendition of the Avinu Malkeinu prayer, including a reading of Mizrahi staple Haperach Begani, with Mintus drawing on his Moroccan roots to produce a highly convincing turn on vocals.

Then there’s long time Paris based Israeli pianist Yaron Herman’s various versions of such venerated Israeli nuggets as Layla Layla and Ein Gedi, and even a stirring take on Hatikva.

Here in the UK we have two prominent jazz musicians from that country, Asaf Sikis and Gilad Altzmon.

Asaf spent his teens and early twenties in Rehovot, Israel where he began drum lessons aged 12. His early musical influences were The Beatles, The Police, Yes, Allan Holdsworth, Weather Report, classical music, Arabic, Balkan, Klezmer, Pop, and Israeli folk music. In 1990, shortly after he completed his three year national service he started his full time professional career working as an all round drummer in Israel. He has played with some of Israel’s jazz and world music luminaries such as Harold Rubin, Albert Beger, Yair Dalal, Eyal Sela and many more.

He moved to Tel Aviv and soon after formed the Asaf Sirkis Trio featuring Kobi Arad on keyboards, and Gabriel Mayer on electric bass. With that line up he recorded his first solo album One Step Closer (1996) as well as touring in Israel with the trio.

Asaf left Israel in 1998, settling in London in 1999. Shortly after arriving in London he met Gilad Atzmon with whom he formed The Orient House Ensemble and recorded 7 albums, including Exile, which won “Best CD of the Year” at the BBC Jazz Award 2003 while the band was nominated for “Best Band” in 2004. After almost 10 years in the OHE, Asaf left the band in 2009 to focus on his solo career and other collaborations.

Since 2014, Asaf has co led the Asaf and Bialas International Quartet together with Polish singer/composer Sylwia Bialas. The Quartet’s new double album ‘Our New Earth’ was released in 2019.

Gilad on the other hand first became interested in the British variety of jazz when he came across some recordings of it in a British record shop in Jerusalem in the 1970s, and found inspiration in the work of Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes and regarded London as “the Mecca of Jazz.” At 17 he happened to hear a radio broadcast of a recording of Charlie Parker’s With Strings and was swept off his feet. Gilad is on record as having stated of the album that he, “loved the way the music is both beautiful and subversive, the way he basks in the strings but also fights against them.”

 

He was conscripted into the Israel Defence Forces in June 1981, first serving as a combat medic and participated in the 1982 Lebanon War. Gilad, was transferred to a position within the Israel Defence Forces Orchestra and spent most of his military service in the Israeli Air Force orchestra. In the following years, he trained at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem. During the late 1980s and 1990s Gilad was a popular sessional musician and producer, recording extensively and performing with Israeli artists including, Yehuda Poliker, Yardena Arazi, Si Himan, Meir Banai and Ofra Haza.

It hasn’t all been a one way street for jazz musicians. Some of the greats from the larger jazz world have also taken on board some of the sounds and sentiments from Israel. One of the most striking examples of outgoing influence is The King David Suite written by Lionel Hampton. The legendary American drummer and vibraphonist who became interested in Judaism after World War Two, met the then Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and Chief Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog and subsequently came to perform the work in a mammoth stint of almost 50 concerts.

One should also pay tribute to Arnie Lawrence. The late American jazz saxophonist and educator for making Aliyah in the late 1990s and literally transformed the Israeli jazz scenes. Generations of jazz artists from there including Itamar Borochov, who was Lawrence’s last student and pianist Omri Mor, who today combines jazz with Andalusian music. Paris based saxophonist Shauli Einav; and bassist Hagai Belizki, who now channels a highly creative path through Arabic musical pastures.

I hope I have shown briefly how jazz in Israel and Tel Aviv in particular has grown exponentially. That the number of musicians has grown significantly and that the impact of which been quiet, but significant upon the world wide jazz scene. How many other national jazz scenes are there with a distinctive social and musicological history? For example jazz in Germany, Italy and Spain with the rise and fall of Fascism, Vietnam and the impact of the `American war` there. This is something I would like to explore in a further article, corona virus permitting.

Special thanks to Yael Hadany, Manager, Beit HaAmudim Jazz Club, ‎‎Neta Silbiger, Pannonica Jazz and Singer‎, Ofar Landsberg, Guitarist, Danny Rosenfeld, Trumpeter, Gasper Bertoncelj, percussionist, many jazz patrons of the Jazz Club and there helpful staff and the many pages of the World Wide Web.

Steve Bewick, Jazz Broadcaster, Hot Biscuits

The Three Waves Of Israeli Jazz Musicians | Jewish Week

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