Born in Israel

Randy Weston can’t be mistaken for anyone else. As he once said, “I don’t like the electric piano because my sound is my voice, and my voice is what makes me unique. A personal sound is the most difficult thing to achieve—it’s an extension of yourself.”

I have been listening often to the unmistakably personal voice of pianist/composer Anat Fort on her recently released ECM CD, A Long Story. Like Anat Cohen and other Israeli musicians who came here from the lively Israeli jazz scene, Fort has worked New York clubs. As of this writing, an evening with Fort is scheduled at the Rubin Museum of Art on June 27 as part of the JVC Jazz Festival.

Fort assures me that she also does not play electric piano, and she feels constricted by the term “jazz.” So did Charles Mingus, who insisted he played “Mingus music.” On her CD, while there is much deeply intimate and reflective lyrical music, there are bursts of forceful swinging. All but one of the tracks are her compositions, and each is an extension of her personal voice.

Born near Tel Aviv, she started on the piano when she was 6, and though classically trained, Fort was always driven to improvise. “It drove my teachers mad,” she says. “But I was far more into improvising on Chopin’s music than just playing it straight. Some classical players are afraid of improvisation, but that’s what makes me buzz.” It wasn’t until her late teens that she truly found her jazz calling. “I was listening to the radio [at] about three in the morning, and I heard John Coltrane playing ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is.’ I couldn’t go back to sleep.”

I asked why Coltrane had so jolted her. “The sound was such a unique voice, so much like himself because it sounded like no other voice. It really spoke to me! It got me where it really mattered.” The next day she bought the recording at a Tel Aviv music shop. Inevitably, Fort came to the United States to study jazz. Her teachers have included Rufus Reid and Harold Mabern, and a vital part of her education in this music of autobiographical improvisation came from her studies in the jazz program at the William Paterson University of New Jersey. (In a future column, I’ll try to indicate why that is one of the premier immersions into this music of insistent self-discovery. Clark Terry is vividly associated with the program.)

Although Fort’s reputation keeps growing on the New York scene, where she has been based since 1996, she is binational, often going back to Israel to perform and to fulfill composing commissions, like her arrangements of Israeli songs (“my standards, in a way”) for the Tel Aviv Opera House, where she also performed last year. Her American influences, she notes, include Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett and Paul Bley. (One day I’d like to see a penetrating study of Bley’s impact on many players’ lives over the years. His playing and writing are still underappreciated.)

For Fort, a key figure in jazz has been Paul Motian since she first heard him on a Bill Evans record. “I was blown away,” she recalls, “and I dreamt of someday playing with him.” Bassist Ed Schuller turned out to be the matchmaker when, in New York, she started working with Schuller, who had been in many of Motian’s bands.

Now was the time to find out if her dream could come true. When Schuller called Motian to be part of Fort’s ECM CD, “My first reaction,” says Motian, “was to say ‘no’ because I didn’t know her music.” But Schuller persuaded him to come to the date anyway. And as in an Anat Fort dream, Motian was so surprised and pleased that, he says, “I liked the music so much that I recommended it to ECM. And I love the way the album came out.”

So do I. Along with Schuller and Motian, yet another singular jazz voice is present: Perry Robinson on clarinet and ocarina. As Richard Cook writes in his invaluable Jazz Encyclopedia (Penguin), “Robinson is one of the very few to make a go of creating a place for the clarinet in the jazz avant-garde.” Actually, whatever “avant-garde” means in the flow of fashion, Robinson plays what I call “soul music.”

In Steve Lake’s excellent liner notes for A Long Story, he says Fort “is an intuitive musician firstly … Israel being a complex melting pot, [her] memories may also include glimpses of an older Eastern European heritage.” And Fort adds: “Sometimes I’ll listen back and hear echoes of Gypsy music or Russian music.” Also in her personal roots are echoes of klezmer improvisers that bring me back to the music I first heard as a child at Jewish weddings. One afternoon, after expressing delight to the clarinetist in the swinging klezmer band, he winked at me and asked, “Where you think Benny Goodman came from?”

Hearing Fort tell of how Coltrane’s transformation of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” changed her life, I also remembered what changed mine when I was 11 years old. Until then, the only music that had gotten me where it mattered was the improvising cantors in the synagogues and the klezmer players. But one afternoon, on a Boston street, coming from a record store, I heard Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare” and yelled aloud in joyous pleasure. Years later, I found that Shaw had based “Nightmare” on a ningun, the kind of melody that the cantors used to improvise on. In Anat Fort’s music, I also hear an imperishable flavor of ninguns and, as Dizzy Gillespie used to say, the endless, flowing music of the universe.

Originally published in July/August 2007

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