Standout Jazz, Straight Outta Tel Aviv

Anat Cohen i

Reed player Anat Cohen is among the best-known of today's Israeli jazz musicians. Jimmy and Dena Katz hide caption

itoggle caption Jimmy and Dena Katz
Anat Cohen

Reed player Anat Cohen is among the best-known of today's Israeli jazz musicians.

Jimmy and Dena Katz

Unless you've been knee-deep in the world of jazz for several decades, you probably don't know of the late Arnie Lawrence. Until a few weeks ago, neither did I.

But I've since learned that he'd been seriously around the block: Writing music for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s funeral, playing saxophone in the Tonight Show band, recording with Blood Sweat and Tears, composing a symphony that Dizzy Gillespie helped premiere, being on the scene with anybody who was anybody. He's the guy who founded the jazz program at the New School in New York — one of the scholastic institutions of jazz today. (Ask Brad Mehldau or Roy Hargrove, perhaps, or see this documentary.)

In 1997, Lawrence moved to Jerusalem, where he developed a school for young musicians — Jewish or not. He, and folks like him, are a big part of the reason that jazz is thriving in Israel, and so many Israelis have achieved international acclaim.

Yesterday, All Things Considered aired my conversation with host Guy Raz about Israeli jazz musicians. Or rather, jazz musicians from Israel — I haven't had the opportunity to scope out the Tel Aviv clubs for myself. But I did talk to a number of Israeli musicians — several of Arnie Lawrence's students among them — to get a sense of why it's boomed of late. So I wanted to expand on some of the ideas I only briefly raised yesterday.

Education is a big part of it: Americans or American-trained musicians moving/returning to Israel to teach. Israel's teachers have long produced talented classical musicians — think of Daniel Barenboim, Itzhak Perlman or Gil Shaham — so the infrastructure was there for widespread musical literacy.

Twenty-five or so years ago, the numbers for jazz seemed to hit a small but critical mass. The Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, like many arts magnet schools, became known as a jazz incubator. The Rimon School for Jazz and Contemporary Music started up in 1985, and developed an affiliation with Berklee College of Music in Boston. The Hed College of Contemporary Music started, and is now connected to Oklahoma City University. And Arnie Lawrence would be proud to know that the New School announced a formal partnership last year with the jazz program at the Israel Conservatory of Music. (A whopping 10 percent of the New School's jazz student body is from Israel — a country whose entire population is less than Virginia's, or New Jersey's, or North Carolina's — according to a New School press release.)

But education alone hardly makes a jazz musician great. Most musicians came to finish studies or crack into the scene in the U.S. — often in New York. And the road to recognition wasn't cut-and-dry for every Israeli musician, to be sure. The guitarist Roni Ben-Hur came to New York and cut his teeth at Barry Harris' Jazz Cultural Theater — the 1980s bebop institution — well before many other Israeli musicians arrived. I didn't track down saxophonist Assif Tsahar, but I read that when he arrived in New York, he threw himself into the free jazz community, where he's known as both a player and independent record label manager. Pianist Anat Fort, too, relayed her sense of having a unique experience: She studied with hard-bop master Harold Mabern at William Paterson University in New Jersey. That's curious, since the original music she's developed since then sounds little like Mabern's.

Some Israeli jazz musicians did find each other eventually, though. The bassist Omer Avital was an early arrival as well — like many young jazz musicians of any nationality in the '90s, he spent a lot of time in the Greenwich Village club called Smalls. (Literally today, I received a press copy of the Omer Avital Quintet's new album Live At Smalls — which is exactly what it seems.) As more Israeli players met or reunited with each other in New York and at Smalls, Avital was a pivotal figure within the subcommunity. And as Avishai Cohen (the trumpeter) told me, networking among the diaspora helped him get both odd jobs and lasting connections.

Avital's roommate in those early days was Avishai Cohen the bassist, who would become known in the jazz world as Chick Corea's bassist, and then as a bandleader himself. Now, Cohen's new album Aurora finds him singing in English and Spanish, but also Hebrew and Ladino (aka Judaeo-Spanish). Avital also eventually spent time studying Arabic music and the oud, and working it into his musical concept. And that's something I didn't have time to address on air either: The fact that several, though certainly not all Israeli jazz musicians, found that their jazz training was a way to access the music of their homeland. Israel is itself a country of immigrants, so that meant lots of different Middle Eastern, Eastern European or North African jazz hybrids developing.

In any event, pioneers like Avital blazed the trail in the U.S., and the growing educational infrastructure ensured generations of talent would soon follow: the Anat/Avishai (the trumpeter)/Yuval Cohen siblings, Rafi Malkiel, Eli Degibri, Daniel Freedman, Gilad Hekselman and many more. The younger pianist Omer Klein has a new album out called Rockets On The Balcony; it also features drummer Ziv Ravitz, whose international trio Minsarah regularly gigs with Lee Konitz. Pianist Tamir Hendelman, who moved to Los Angeles as a teen but started on piano in Israel, was just on NPR's JazzSet. Reedman Oran Etkin's 2009 record Kelenia incorporates Malian folk musicians. Pianist Yaron Herman has chosen to live in Paris, where he somehow still records and tours with top-flight American musicians. Guitarist Yotam Silberstein recently released an album called Resonance, which rose high in the jazz radio charts. Saxophonist Shauli Einav recently issued a nice new straight-ahead record called Opus One; his pianist there is Shai Maestro, of bassist Avishai Cohen's trio. And Cohen himself put out an album this year on French Blue Note: Aurora is the first to feature his playing and singing.

Again, there's no single path that all of these musicians followed, but you get the picture: Having grown up in melting-pot cultures which valued the arts, a lot of talented Israelis are now fully immersed in jazz.1 This 2008 JazzTimes piece has further thoughts on the matter.

One more thought: I sense that a number of Israelis are spending more and more time back in Israel. I reached Anat Fort hours before boarding her flight home, and dialed Eli Degibri, who was contemplating giving up his place in Brooklyn, on his cell in Tel Aviv. It's possible to do this now, global communication being what it is, and the Israeli jazz scene having grown a lot in twenty-odd years. By sheer dint of numbers, New York is still the most populous place for a young jazz musician looking to meet others. But moving back home is looking more possible, and more attractive, than ever.


1 One might wonder if there is some reason why so (relatively) many Israelis are attracted to playing jazz in the first place — and I'm somewhat stumped. While I've heard a few somewhat compelling armchair theories about the nature of Israeli society reflecting various jazz aesthetics, those ideas also tend to smack of essentialism. Why does anybody like any form of music, right? Ultimately, my favorite answer is what trumpeter Avishai Cohen joked with me: "the swing is in the hummus."

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