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Tali Rubinstein Redefines the Recorder

The artist expands the instrument's reach and context

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Tali Rubinstein (photo: Noam Galai)
Tali Rubinstein (photo: Noam Galai)

To say that the recorder has no cachet in jazz is putting it mildly. But that never deterred Tali Rubinstein. In fact, the instrument’s status as a tabula rasa in that genre is part of what drives her artistry and development. “I think the fact that it hasn’t been explored very much is exciting because it’s open to discovery,” she says. “There are no rules. There’s no aesthetic for jazz recorder, so you have to be your own judge and develop your own tastes in order to decide what feels authentic.”        

Rubinstein, 36, has caused many to reevaluate the recorder’s station. Breathing new life into these duct flutes, she echoes the boundless enthusiasm that initially set her on this path some 30 years ago while growing up in Israel. “I started playing recorder at six or seven,” she recalls, “and it quickly became my passion. My mom signed me up for after-school classes and, after going two times, my teacher, Ilana Hiller, recommended private lessons. So I transitioned into that pretty early.” 

Although most children quickly move on from the recorder, given its widely accepted role as an instrument of mass instruction serving as a bridge to other winds, Rubinstein felt no pressure to change. “Nobody told me I should do anything else or that there was anything wrong with playing recorder,” she explains matter-of-factly. “It was just the most natural thing. Music was very important in our house. It had a lot of value to everyone; we were always listening to music. So playing was obviously encouraged. I didn’t feel that my instrument was any different than what my siblings were playing—piano and cello and violin and clarinet.”  

Supported and encouraged by her parents, Rubinstein matured under the wing of celebrated recorder player and mezzo-soprano Bracha Kol, developed an appreciation for early music, attended the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, and eventually went on to Tel Aviv University to study classical music and math. But it only took one year of higher education for her to realize a change was in order. “Things weren’t working for me, so I took a break and went to study at the Rimon School of Music, which is an institution that partners with Berklee College of Music. The plan was to just take a year off—improvise, have some fun—and then get back to something ‘serious’ that I could make a career out of,” she notes. “Of course, that second part never happened [laughs].”  

Jazz and creative music, previously filtered into Rubinstein’s ears at home through her younger sister’s piano studies, finally entered the picture. And with them came a whirlwind of changes and discoveries about personalized expression. Rubinstein took a deep dive into theory and history, recorded her first album—2012’s Lullaby, a genre-blind duo date with bassist Noam Shacham—and made the jump to Boston, where she became the first recorder player to matriculate at Berklee. 

Once there, she made an important connection with Javier Limón, artistic director of that college’s Mediterranean Music Institute. He would go on to champion her work by fostering the creation of 2014’s Tal y Tali, a meetup with pianist Tal Even-Tzur that highlighted original thought and Hebraic roots; extending an invitation for Rubinstein to appear as a featured guest on two flamenco-related projects (2013’s Promesas de Tierra and 2015’s Latin Grammy-winning Entre 20 Aguas: A la Música de Paco de Lucía); and serving as producer for her forthcoming singer/songwriter debut, Mémoire. Adventures with a wide variety of other musicians—including appearances on record with guitarist David Broza, pianist Alain Mallet, and style-splicing German band Wildes Holz, plus a dynamic collaboration with pianist and harpsichordist Apollonio Maiello that culminated with the release of 2021’s Cybird—have only furthered Rubinstein’s reputation as an artist who capably pushes boundaries.              

While she has yet to record a jazz album, Rubinstein acknowledges that it’s high on her to-do list. In the meantime, she’s had no trouble drawing admirers in that arena through live appearances (pre-COVID) and social media, where she can be seen playing classics like Thelonious Monk’s “Think of One” and Benny Golson’s “Stablemates.” Rubinstein’s work in this realm still occasionally raises eyebrows, mirroring the surprise that once greeted her when she would take her recorders out at Berklee and at jam sessions in New York. But negativity never really surfaces, and any skepticism is quickly erased by her performance. “Most of the doubts I encounter happen before playing the music. And I don’t mind. I don’t expect people to know because I didn’t know before I tried it. So I’m never offended if someone thinks it’s a joke or doesn’t understand. I actually look at it as an opportunity.” 

Learn more about Cybird on Amazon!

Dan Bilawsky

Dan Bilawsky has been involved in jazz journalism for 15 years. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, JAZZed, and All About Jazz, among other outlets. In addition, he’s penned liner notes for artists on Red, Capri, HighNote/Savant, Ropeadope, and other respected imprints. A band director with 20 years of teaching experience, he holds degrees in music from Indiana University, the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, and Five Towns College.