Israeli Jazz Musicians Make Mark

On Foreign Turf, New Generation Reshapes American Genre

New Swingers: Israeli jazz players jam at Smalls in New York’s Greenwich Village.
dana morgan
New Swingers: Israeli jazz players jam at Smalls in New York’s Greenwich Village.

By Phillip Lutz

Published August 27, 2012, issue of August 31, 2012.
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Some two decades ago, bassist Omer Avital stepped off a plane from his native Israel and into a jazz scene in Manhattan’s West Village that was nearly devoid of his countrymen and their music. It was a lonely time, he said, and when he set up shop in Smalls, a dark and slightly tattered basement club that was, like Avital, struggling to build a reputation, he inevitably found his bands populated by Americans and his sets dominated by well-worn standards.

But when Avital returned to a refurbished Smalls for four nights this past June and July, his standing had taken a turn for the better and his repertoire a turn toward the East. The occasion was the debut of his new combo, the Band of the East, which places the traditions of his youth at the core of a working unit. The personnel of the band changed over the course of the engagement, but on all four nights, a singular young Israeli, Nadav Remez, filled the guitar chair.

Can’t tell the Israeli jazz men without a scorecard? We’ve got a primer for you on the Arty Semite blog.

Playing to packed houses, Remez became a central figure in the show. Whether catching the crowd’s eye as he fixed a respectful gaze on saxophonist and band mate Greg Tardy, a veteran of Avital’s early days given to muscular flights of improvisatory fancy, or catching the crowd’s ear with his own consistently seductive lines, Remez showed why he has emerged as a standout among a new crop of Israelis making waves in the jazz world.

It is hardly a secret that the ranks of Israeli jazzmen have grown markedly, nor that Avital, 41, has achieved senior status among those ranks. Less known is that Avital has been aggressively leveraging his status to program the return-to-roots fare he favors. His bands, like those of the other pioneering Israelis in America — for example, Cohen siblings Anat and Avishai, and trombonist Avi Lebovich — have helped these Israelis boost their profiles while helping Avital spread the word.

More than their predecessors, the new Israeli wave brings a predilection for popular culture and personal advancement to the scene. These performers possess a global sensibility that has been shaped by the digital age and the kind of comprehensive jazz studies that were just developing when those predecessors were starting out.

Remez, 28, is a case in point. His education took him from the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts and the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music, both in Israel, to Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory, both in Boston. He earned his master’s at the conservatory before leaving for New York in 2007. All the while he was building a Rolodex that, by the time he reached New York, had yielded a contact who invited him to a hummus feast that Avital was hosting. That led to membership in the Band of the East and the New Jerusalem Orchestra, both of which draw liberally on Israeli, Moroccan, Yemeni and other Arabic traditions.


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