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.

According to Avital, Remez is one of the “very few serious ones who have the whole package, yet keep on growing and learning.” In the past two years, Remez has led groups at spots like the club Twins Jazz, in Washington, and Philadelphia’s Chris’ Jazz Café, as well as Smalls and, in an early evening set, New York’s Blue Note Jazz Club.

This past May, Remez co-led a group with Avital at the Atlanta Jazz Festival. The group, which featured a cadre of like-minded players who would soon form the nucleus of the Band of the East, was received enthusiastically. A different Remez-led group appeared in June at the Palatia Jazz Festival, a two-month affair staged amid the fresh air and fertile soil of Germany’s wine country. That ensemble — saxophonist Uri Gurvich, pianist Shai Maestro, bassist Haggai Cohen-Milo and drummer Ziv Ravitz — was part of a bill also featuring combos led by two other young Israelis bidding for jazz stardom: pianist Omer Klein and guitarist Gilad Hekselman.

Back in the less pristine provinces of New York, the musicians from Remez’s Germany band have turned up in Brooklyn at the Shapeshifter Lab and the Douglass Street Music Collective, where the intimate rooms have become gathering spots for young Israeli expatriates keen on testing their ideas. The collective’s casual performance space — with its low-rise stage, folding chairs and discerning audiences — has given rise to some heated experimentation resulting in all manner of cultural synthesis.

Remez, for example, has fashioned an aesthetic that, by his own account, combines a fealty to Israeli tradition with an affinity for indie rock, especially as practiced by bands like Radiohead. This blend finds expression in a series of originals on “So Far,” his latest release on Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records.

While most of the album’s tunes do not have explicitly Jewish themes, at least two explore such themes directly: “Lecha Dodi,” a treatment of Ashkenazi and Sephardic melodies decoupled from their Sabbath liturgy, and “The Last Exile,” a sonic picture Remez likens to Jews on a bench positing a postwar future in which they are secure in their own land. The pieces use Remez’s spare guitar to haunting effect.

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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