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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For Gurvich, a veteran of top clubs and concert halls who is among the more visible members of the Israeli vanguard, Jewish musical elements tend to be interwoven with fragments of folk from other traditions. The Cuban influence reflects the presence of Francisco Mela, a drummer whom Gurvich often shares with saxophone master Joe Lovano, with whom he studied at Berklee. Bulgarian and Argentine influences also creep into the mix, courtesy of other Gurvich band mates. But the music’s core sources are Israeli. Drawing on them, Gurvich said, represents a bid for authenticity, and his alto sax’s melodic wails, which recall those of the cantor, become the signature element on tunes like “Joseph the Storyteller,” the centerpiece of “The Storyteller,” Gurvich’s debut CD on John Zorn’s Tzadik Records.

“For me,” Gurvich said, “it’s almost the correct thing to do, trying to incorporate jazz with the Israeli music I grew up with. I feel more connected to that kind of music.”

The connections with Israeli music are more tenuous for some of the younger Israelis. Gadi Lehavi, an on-again, off-again student at the Rimon School, turned heads last year when at the age of 15, he was hired by saxophonist Ravi Coltrane for an engagement at the Village Vanguard. Lehavi, who will follow up in September and October with his own dates at the Blue Note, said that at this early stage in his development, he is trying not to “close himself off” to any influence.

Israeli bassist Tamir Shmerling, 24, a Berklee alumnus who performed with Remez at such clubs as The Beehive, in Boston, says his primary influences are not Israeli but largely American practitioners of post-bop, hip-hop and rhythm and blues. He has collaborated with funkmaster Terri Lyne Carrington, the onetime Herbie Hancock drummer with whom he will tour in the fall, and on laidback, bluesy originals like “The Mess,” which he performed at last year’s Toronto Jazz Festival.

“The latest Middle East flavor,” he said, “I’m not much in favor of.”

But while neither he nor Lehavi openly embraces Israeli music, both are connected to it and are, by their rising presence on the scene, advancing it. Shmerling, in fact, acknowledges that the Israeli influence “subconsciously affects me,” citing Avital as an inspiration for his bass work and for carving a role among the fraternity of hardened New York jazzmen.

For his part, Avital is philosophical about the new wave of Israeli players. He accepts that their attitudes toward Israeli music are complex, and that they will never be transformed by an experience quite like the one he underwent at Smalls back in the day. At the same time, he recruits them as needed: Remez will be among an eclectic assemblage of 20 or so instrumentalists and singers that will join him in September for what promises to be two nights of uninhibited concretizing with the New Jerusalem Orchestra at the Tower of David, in Jerusalem’s Old City. Like Remez, many of the performers will be on an upward career trajectory — and Avital takes satisfaction in his generation having improved its prospects by altering expectations in the marketplace.

“It’s never really that easy to play music and make money,” he said, “but being from Israel and playing jazz is definitely considered a little more normal. In that sense it’s much easier.”

Phillip Lutz writes on music in the New York region for The New York Times.


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