Shimrit Shoshan: Movin’ on Up

Israeli-born pianist Shimrit Shoshan reflects on her hard-won burgeoning career

Before reaching a level where she could close opening night of the 2011 Winter Jazzfest in Greenwich Village, Israeli-born pianist Shimrit Shoshan had worked a slew of odd jobs to make ends meet: dealing precious stones in Manhattan’s diamond district, plying her dance skills in the background of music videos for Seal and Thalía, selling real estate, and at one point even slinging sandwiches on the streets. It’s been a hardscrabble road, but when Shoshan set her sights on a pilgrimage to the holy land of jazz, she never expected a parting of the Red Sea.

Shoshan recently self-released her debut, Keep It Movin’, which features top-notch personnel in drummer Eric McPherson, bassists John Hébert and Luques Curtis and saxophonist Abraham Burton. As the project’s title makes clear, she’s not playing the waiting game. “Sometimes I feel like I should regret that time where I worked in different things. But, thinking about it, I don’t regret it, because there’s so much that I learned, and those experiences come out through the music. I feel like I was slow cooking,” Shoshan, 27, says of the album.

A prolific composer, Shoshan wrote all but one of the eight tracks. “I go to the piano, close my eyes, and try to feel what I’m hearing,” she says, sitting in Harlem’s Jumel Terrace Books, a shop run by antiquarian librarian and jazz acolyte Kurt Thometz. “I’ll pursue it until I find something that resembles that sound. From there, I get very obsessed.” The store is located around the corner from her Sugar Hill apartment on Paul Robeson Boulevard, where countless luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, including the iconic baritone, Duke Ellington and Count Basie, once lived.

Steeped in this rich history, Shoshan smoothly integrates the jazz piano totems with a lithe, Mediterranean sound, her unique style peppered with hints of Herbie Nichols, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. Here, Joanne Brackeen meets the Golan Heights. This is a jazz confection with a cosmopolitan edge, as Shoshan guides the listener through a harmonically sophisticated maze of odd time signatures and inversions, never settling for the obvious resolution. As she puts it, “I feel like I have a Bud Powell left hand and a Moroccan-Israeli right hand.”

To get to this point, Shoshan’s life has been a tale of bootstrapping ambition and perseverance. Shimrit, roughly “saved” in Hebrew, got her name when her mother developed pneumonia prior to her birth, and doctors gave her the grim choice between saving herself or saving her daughter. She took a leap of faith and, miraculously, both survived. Shoshan grew up in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, the daughter of a Moroccan-Jewish fisherman who owns a fishing tackle shop where her mother also works. Shoshan herself eventually became a licensed deep-sea diving instructor.

Self-taught on the piano until she was 13, she auditioned for the prestigious Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, an Israeli jazz breeding ground whose notable alumni include Omer Avital, Omer Klein and Anat Cohen and her brothers. When Shoshan showed up with her Casio keyboard, the audition committee instantly recognized her potential—she has perfect pitch—and admitted her on one condition: She learn how to read music.

After graduating, Shoshan entered the Israeli army, serving as a touring musician in the army jazz ensemble, where she performed for the Israeli prime minister, gatherings of soldiers and various dignitaries around the world. Following her service, Shoshan began working at book and music stores, saving money to move to New York. In 2002 she enrolled in the jazz program at the City College of New York, later transferring to the New School, where she studied under Benny Powell, Reggie Workman and Charli Persip, among others. She found their wisdom liberating. “Before that,” she says, “I’d never had somebody tell me, ‘Maybe you don’t write like everybody, but it’s OK. Keep on digging in. Develop your own sound.’” Soon she was holding court at late-night jam sessions at Fat Cat, Smalls and other clubs throughout the city.

Beyond performing, Shoshan teaches at the Eagle Academy for Young Men in the Bronx, and through the Harlem-based Music on Wheels, an outreach program for underprivileged youth, in addition to taking on private students. She is also a muse for Israeli fashion designer Victor Bellaish, and appears in print ads for his recently opened store in Chelsea’s meatpacking district.

With the album release behind her, Shoshan is focused on recording a trio disc with Persip and bassist Ben Street and polishing compositions for her next outing as a leader. “It takes a long time to release something very personal to you. A lot of mental work is, am I ready to do this?” Shoshan says. “Now, it’s like, I’m unstoppable! When’s the next project? Little things are happening, and, hopefully, bigger things will happen.”

Originally published in April 2011

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