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Israel’s Jazz Messengers

No one who has bought a Pesek Zman chocolate bar in the East Village or eavesdropped on a Hebrew conversation on the Upper West Side would be surprised to learn that New York City has a healthy Israeli expatriate community. But how many know that Israelis have come to occupy a prominent place on the city’s jazz scene?

Bassists Omer Avital and Avishai Cohen; saxophonist Anat Cohen and her brother, trumpeter Avishai Cohen (yes, there are two of them, and no, they are not related); pianists Omer Klein and Anat Fort, and guitarist Gilad Hekselman are just a handful of the Israeli jazz musicians who have entered the spotlight in recent years. Though hardly a clique, they do often work together, and many perform regularly at the city’s top jazz venues.

The reasons for this are not obvious. Unlike South America, Europe or Japan, Israel did not develop a sizable jazz scene until fairly recently, and historically, Israeli players have not been well known to the international jazz cognoscenti. So what’s driving the Israeli invasion of the jazz capital of the world?

Avital shoulders much of the blame. Born and raised in Givataim, just outside Tel Aviv, Avital came to New York City in 1992 with fellow bassist Cohen and trombonist Avi Leibovitch. The trio crashed at an apartment belonging to the family of Danny Rosenfeld, an American Jewish bandleader whom Avital had met in the Israeli army.

All three quickly insinuated themselves into the local jazz community. Cohen eventually joined Chick Corea’s band, while Avital became a stalwart of Smalls, a Greenwich Village club that for many years enjoyed a reputation as a hothouse for the development of young musicians.

“You knew that if you went there, you were going to hear swing and the best of traditional jazz,” Anat Cohen told the Forward.

Avital soon formed a sextet that combined straight-ahead jazz with Middle Eastern rhythms and melodies. Recognized today as one of the most significant groups to have emerged on the New York jazz scene in the mid-1990s, the Omer Avital Group foreshadowed the growing trend toward jazz-world fusion.

“You had several people like Omer Avital and Avi Leibovitch who were exploring music that sort of melded together jazz and Middle Eastern and African music and odd time meters, and that you might locate at the center of the modern jazz style today — a very fluid and eclectic style,” said Luke Kaven, whose label, Smalls Records, has released a number of albums by Israeli musicians.

A charismatic performer and bandleader, Avital turned Smalls into a magnet for Israeli players. At the same time, the Israel-New York pipeline was now being fed by an increasing number of well-trained musicians.

In Avital’s opinion, the Israeli jazz scene was practically nonexistent when he left in the early 1990s. “Basically, there was nothing going on,” he recalled. That changed, however, during the period between the first and second intifadas. Several strong jazz education programs, like the one at the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Givatayim, came into being. And a growing number of Israeli musicians were arriving in the United States to study jazz at the college level.

Some returned to Israel to play and teach. But others settled in New York City, drawn by the city’s unparalleled jazz scene, by the presence of a large Jewish community (“It’s not Israel,” Avital said, “but it’s not like living in Holland or Poland”), and by a growing network of personal and professional connections.

That network has proved to be extremely productive. Avital and trumpeter Cohen have teamed up with saxophonist Yonatan Avishai and drummer Daniel Freedman to form the band Third World Love; the band’s first album, “Sketches of Tel Aviv” (Smalls), came out this past summer. Cohen and Leibovitch collaborated with Avital on his latest album as leader, “Arrival” (Fresh Sound). And Avital joins a fistful of Cohens — Anat, Avishai and their older brother, saxophonist Yuval — on “Braid,” released earlier this month on Anat’s own Anzic label.

Yet the apparent incestuousness of the Israeli expat jazz community belies its musical diversity. Several members, including Klein and drummer Ziv Ravitz, who play in Avital’s Band of the East, share an interest in traditional Middle Eastern music. (Klein and Hekselman are also fond of tunes by such contemporary Israeli songwriters like Matti Caspi, Boaz Sharabi and Zohar Argov.) Avi Leibovitch, meanwhile, works with Chilean singer Claudia Acuña, and Anat Cohen leads her own Brazilian choro outfit.

“Israel is a country of immigrants coming from many different traditions, so I think Israeli people are naturally open to world music,” Cohen explained.

And New York, long a haven for immigrants, has welcomed Cohen and her compatriots with open arms. It’s a relationship that appears to have benefited both.

Alexander Gelfand is a writer living in New York City.

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