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The Israeli Jazz Wave: Promised Land to Promised Land

Anat Cohen
(L-R) Ziv Ravitz, Omer Avital and Omer Klein
Omer Avital
Omer Klein

Israel is always in the headlines, and the news is invariably bad. The plight of the Palestinians, apocalyptic threats from Iran’s president, suicide bombings and rumors of war generate a constant current of anxiety that radiates around the globe. But when it comes to jazz, Israel is the source of an almost miraculous outpouring of talent, a tidal surge that seemed to break over the New York scene last year. At least a dozen players attained an enviable level of recognition, including bassist Omer Avital and the Cohen siblings: saxophonist Yuval, reed player Anat and trumpeter Avishai (not to be confused with the bassist of the same name, who declined to be interviewed for this piece).

While many Israeli players are dedicated to jazz’s straightahead mainstream, some are forging a highly personal approach with a vibrant palette of Middle Eastern and North African sounds. Between the burgeoning number of notable musicians and the rising influence of their evolving world jazz concepts, New York’s Israeli contingent clearly reached a watershed in 2007, and the phenomenon seems to be gathering force, as every month brings word of another promising young player from the Promised Land.

Nothing has set the musicians’ grapevine buzzing quite like the sudden emergence of Anzic Records. While the new Israeli wave had been building for almost two decades, it took a savvy and well-financed label to transform the swell into a phenomenon. With backing from Colin Negrych, a principal at the high-powered Wall Street hedge fund Barclay Investments Inc., Anzic released nine CDs last year, including highly acclaimed albums by trumpeter Avishai Cohen, pianist Manuel Varela, pianist Jason Lindner and saxophonist Joel Frahm. With a portmanteau moniker created by combining the first syllable of her name with the last syllable of “music” (make that “muzic”), and half the label’s output so far devoted to her projects, Anat Cohen is inextricably linked to Anzic’s creation. But despite the fact that many of Anzic’s CDs showcase Israeli musicians, the label wasn’t created as an ethnic outlet.

“It’s definitely not the mission of this label,” says Oded Lev-Ari, Anzic’s general manager. A product of Tel Aviv’s prestigious Thelma Yellin High School for the Arts, Lev-Ari is also a respected arranger responsible for the charts on Anat Cohen’s lush Anzic session Poetica. As a boutique operation moving from a philanthropic to a more commercial model, Anzic is designed to seek out and promote a small group of highly creative artists in danger of being overlooked, according to Lev-Ari.

“We started out saying we specialize in jazz and world music, but I like to say we specialize in good music,” he says. “The mission is to bring great music that’s having a hard time getting exposure to the right audience. We have artists who are not Israeli, but the whole Israeli angle has been an advantage. Something we’re learning about bringing music out is that there’s a need for a story, and if someone’s from a different place, that’s a story. Sometimes those origins are reflected in the music, though that’s not the first thing you would say about some of our artists’ music. But there was a group of musicians here in New York who created a sound, and some of them were Israeli. Musically that’s an interesting thing to talk about.”

The success of the Israelis and the support they provide each other has not gone unnoticed. Like in any art scene with limited opportunities and an audience of aficionados, the Israeli wave has generated some jealousy from non-Israeli colleagues. For Oakland-born trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, the Israelis’ solidarity offers a model to be emulated rather than scorned. “A lot of people in New York have this everyone-for-themselves attitude, and it’s beautiful that they stick together,” says Akinmusire, a rising star who won last year’s Thelonious Monk International Trumpet Competition. “It’s one thing if they weren’t deserving, but they’re definitely deserving, so there’s no ill feeling. Avishai Cohen is one of my favorite trumpeters, though I think they’re getting press because of the backing.”

One reason the Israeli wave has garnered considerable attention is because it seems so unlikely. A tiny country with a population of 7 million packed into a territory smaller than New Jersey, Israel can claim few direct ties to the New World’s African diaspora. Yet after Cuba, no foreign country’s citizens are playing a more visible or essential role on the New York scene these days. The causes are many and complex, from immigration patterns and Israel’s hardboiled culture to the country’s vaunted education system, which has embraced jazz to a remarkable extent. Just about everyone associated with the Israeli scene harbors a theory or two explaining how and why the country has become such a vital outpost for jazz talent, though even the musicians themselves are somewhat puzzled by the way the music has flourished thousands of miles from its point of origin.

Trumpeter Avishai Cohen, whose Anzic album After the Big Rain was included on many 2007 Top-10 lists, summed up several explanations in widespread circulation, attributing Israel’s success in cultivating promising jazz musicians to its singular position in the Middle East. As both a pariah to its Arab neighbors and a safe harbor for a globe-spanning array of immigrants, Israel is a pressure cooker containing a dazzling array of cultural ingredients. And with its expressive power, jazz is an ideal outlet for a people who go to sleep wondering whether they’ll wake up at war.

“With all the tension, it drives people a little more to the edge, as far as saying what you want to say,” says Cohen, who performs with Anat and Yuval in the band 3 Cohens. “And in Israel, people arrive from all over the world. You’ve got people from Eastern Europe, and all the influences from Russia, Germany and Poland, which mix with rhythms of the Sephardic side, the 6/8 Moroccan grooves. Still, I don’t think jazz is an obvious direction to go. Even though we have great jazz musicians in Israel, it’s not music that you hear on the radio or that any government office pushes. I think it became the choice for many young musicians thanks to a few people who made it available in high schools.”

Like the vast majority of Israeli musicians now living in New York, the Cohens benefited greatly from the experience of the previous generation. One can trace the roots of the new wave back to the 1960s, when Israeli musicians started matriculating to Berklee College of Music. A few, like Manhattan Transfer pianist Yaron Gershovsky, pursued successful careers in the U.S., but most ended up moving back home, where they spread the gospel of jazz in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. By the time guitarist Roni Ben-Hur moved to New York in 1985 to study at pianist Barry Harris’ Jazz Cultural Theater, gifted young Israeli musicians saw jazz as a creative alternative to the European classical tradition.

“At that time, a lot of Israelis were coming to the U.S. and going to Berklee,” Ben-Hur says. “The character of the music speaks to the Israeli spirit. It’s very rhythmic and challenging and there’s a lot of freedom involved. You have to realize that Israel is a real melting pot, like New York. My family came from Tunisia, and where I grew up there were a lot of Tunisians, Moroccans, Polish and Romanian [Jews]. A lot of Israeli pop musicians incorporate those rhythms and styles. Israelis always deal with mixing things up. It’s a very free society and that kind of spirit, saying what you think and doing what you like, is sort of ingrained in us. We’re encouraged to be individualistic and expressive.”

Israelis not only share the American ethic of individualism, they also celebrate a national identity built on welcoming immigrants. While the vast majority of American Jews are Ashkenazi, tracing their ancestry to Eastern and Central Europe, about a third of Israeli Jews are Mizrahim, or Eastern Jews, from families that fled Arab countries, particularly Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia, Iraq and Syria. Many others hail from ancient communities in Iran, India, Ethiopia, and Central Asia. On top of the internal ethnic diversity, the Israeli popular-music scene pulses to samba, reggae and Afro-Caribbean grooves, while Arabic and Turkish styles can be heard everywhere. Few societies could better prepare a young musician for New York’s polyglot onslaught.

Saxophonist Larry Monroe, Berklee’s vice president for academic affairs/international programs, has watched the rise of Israeli players at the college for over five decades. He’s given a great deal of thought as to why Israelis are so disproportionately represented among Berklee’s best students. “The Israeli teachers are sterner and more demanding. They have some tremendous art schools, and a conservatism that says before you play free or contemporary you have to learn bebop and swing first. You find 15-year-old kids playing obscure tunes from the ’40s. Where the hell did you find it? They’re on the other side of the world; they know they have to do more than the average if they want to study in the U.S.”

He also notes that the first wave of Israelis who came to study in the U.S. mostly returned to Israel after a few years, and many ended up teaching. By the 1990s a critical mass of fans and musicians had emerged in Israel, feeding a thriving scene. With institutions like Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, aspiring Israeli players can receive a world-class musical education that now includes a thorough jazz foundation. “If I had three days to find 10 really hot jazz musicians, I’d go to Tel Aviv before any other place on the planet,” Monroe says. “It’s a table-top country, everybody knows everybody and all the best players interact from grade school.”

It’s not just a tight-knit scene and a reverence for education that explain the high level of musicianship. Monroe notes that most Israelis come to the U.S. to study after finishing military service, which means they’re several years older than their undergraduate peers, and a good deal more seasoned than the average freshman. Like Avishai Cohen and Ben-Hur, he sees cultural factors at work too. To the extent that any nationality can be characterized (OK, stereotyped), it’s safe to describe Israeli culture as blunt and outspoken. After six decades of life in a militarized society prepared for the outbreak of war, Israelis aren’t known for mincing words or shrinking from conflict. Coupled with discipline, talent and access to information, these qualities seem to allow many Israeli players to thrive in New York’s creative hothouse.

“I don’t think you defeat Israelis with criticism,” Monroe says. “And they’re not defeated by New York. The climb to prominence is a series of hurdles that not everybody makes. There’s a weaning process, and Israelis have things in their background that help them endure. I’ve always enjoyed teaching Israelis. Some teachers don’t like it because the students are demanding. You can’t puff them up and tell them they’re great. They not only work together, they can criticize each other constructively without bruising each other’s egos. One of the great challenges for a youngster is that you must develop the ability to be genuinely self-critical, to go into a little room and practice all day long and be able to say, ‘I didn’t get it.’ Israeli students hate being told that they sound good: ‘I’m a 19-year-old kid, what do I know? Give me something to work on!'”

Israelis didn’t create a vibrant jazz scene in the Middle East by themselves. Several American musicians played a crucial role, none more so than Arnie Lawrence, the charismatic saxophonist and educator who launched the innovative jazz program at New York’s New School. Married to an Israeli, he moved to Israel in 1997 and before long founded the International Center for Creative Music in Jerusalem. A dogged idealist, he created a space where Jews and Arabs could perform together, not so much for political reasons but out of a soul-deep humanist sensibility.

“He honestly believed the bumper sticker ‘Peace Through Music,’ and in his world it was true,” says Arnie’s son, Erik Lawrence, a fine saxophonist in his own right who tours with the Band’s Levon Helm and leads Hipmotism, a quartet featuring trumpeter Steven Bernstein, bassist Rene Hart and drummer Allison Miller. “One summer I was teaching at a jazz camp with bassist Mike Richmond, and I mentioned that I was going to play in Jerusalem. Mike was playing with [Palestinian oud and violin master] Simon Shaheen at a club in Ramallah. When I told my father, he loads up his car, a 1982 white Jaguar sedan, a piece of junk that he had shipped to Israel, and drives to Ramallah with his students, and sits in with Shaheen. After that, his students started playing in the club weekly.”

If Lawrence’s musical campaign to bridge the bitter political differences between Israeli Jews and Arabs didn’t bear fruit, his efforts to sow the seeds of jazz in the Middle East produced some extravagantly talented blooms. Working out of his Jerusalem club, Arnie’s Jazz Underground, he welcomed any musicians who walked in and encouraged them to play. Among the musicians he mentored were the Cohen siblings, particularly Anat. In a beautiful Diaspora twist, it took a Jew from New York to bring jazz’s spiritual power to the Holy Land.

“Arnie was very important to me,” Anat Cohen says. “He brought the New York vibe, but not with harsh elbows. The vibe I got from Arnie was first that we’re all equal, which I can’t say is the typical New York approach. He expressed it in his kindness to every person he met, as well as musically. But the main thing I got from Arnie that I never encountered before was the whole spiritual approach to music as a form of communication with others. I learned to look for and find the beauty in music. He talked about how I shouldn’t be intimidated, how it’s important to be secure about yourself. He was very deep and very supportive. I owe him so much.”

Tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding, best known for his long association with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, is another American transplant who helped turn the Israeli jazz scene into a world-class proving ground. Like Lawrence, Blanding’s marriage to an Israeli brought him to the Middle East. They moved to Israel in 1995 and before he moved back to the U.S. in 1999, he became an Israeli citizen. Based in Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city and cultural capital, he taught at four schools and launched a popular concert series with the support of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art that presented leading players such as Michael Carvin, Wycliffe Gordon, Louis Hayes, Vanessa Rubin, Marcus Printup, Marlon Jordan and Eric Reed.

“I ended up on almost every single television show,” Blanding recalls. “And I met a lot of great people and musicians, like the Cohens, Anat, Yuval and Avishai; the bassist Avishai Cohen and trombonist Avi Lebovich. I think so many have come to New York in part due to the connection between Israel and America. They really believe in educating their children about culture from all over the world, and there’s strong support for learning about the arts, which has something to do with their acceptance and appreciation of jazz. Education is the key to everything.”

Education and ambition provide the fuel, but without a venue as a launching pad, a scene can’t get off the ground. Before the early 1990s, Israeli musicians like Roni Ben-Hur mostly had to make their way on the U.S. scene without help from other Israelis. But not long after bassist Avishai Cohen, Omer Avital and Avi Lebovich arrived in New York, the West Village club Smalls opened and quickly became the headquarters for a rising generation of players such as saxophonists Mark Turner and Josh Redman, guitarists Kurt Rosenwinkel and Peter Bernstein, drummer Brian Blade and pianists Brad Mehldau, Aaron Goldberg, Jason Lindner and Larry Goldings (as well as some underappreciated veterans like Frank Hewitt, Tommy Turrentine and Jimmy Lovelace). The fact that several Israeli musicians were key participants turned Smalls into a magnet for aspiring Israeli players, while a few American artists, particularly Lindner and drummer Daniel Freedman, were inspired to start incorporating Middle Eastern modes and rhythms into their music.

“Smalls was a central place for this generation and we happened to be a pretty big part of it,” Avital says. “That’s where you could hear this music. Anat Cohen would come down from Berklee and her brother Avishai was a little kid when he first came down. Back then the jazz scene in Israel wasn’t that developed. When Avi Lebovich moved here with me, there were a few people from our generation and before, but it wasn’t like a cohesive group of people. That happened slowly. Our generation sort of brought that about, once we got a bit of a name for ourselves.”

With the Israeli scene gradually gathering momentum, the success of a handful of players in New York seemed to mimic the classic immigration pattern in which pioneers establish an anchor community that attracts new arrivals. It’s a self-reinforcing process similar to the famous, fraternal musical waves that flowed from postwar Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and Memphis to New York, where the early Gotham settlers employed and opened doors for their homies. Now, Israeli players often arrive in town ready to plug into a network that’s already in place. Guitarist Gilad Hekselman, for instance, moved to New York to study at the New School in 2004 and immediately started working with Anat Cohen. “I had a pretty soft landing,” says Hekselman, who released an impressive debut CD, SplitLife, in 2006 on Smalls Records. “I started playing with Anat and meeting more people, playing in different venues.”

A gig with Avital at Smalls after the club reopened provided an introduction to the venue’s founder Mitch Borden, which led to Hekselman’s own gigs at Smalls and the Fat Cat, Borden’s other venue, and the album. Besides the support and gigs provided by the ever-growing Israeli network, Hekselman believes that the strong reputations established by Israeli players create an assumption of competence for new arrivals. “You say, ‘I’m from Israel,’ and maybe other musicians’ ears are slightly more open,” Hekselman says. The result is a torrent of talent flowing from Israel to Manhattan. “Just at the New School, every year there are more and more Israelis,” Hekselman says. “People always contact me, asking about coming to New York: Should I go to school, or just move here? It seems like it’s growing and growing. At this point there are about 20 Israelis at the New School just studying jazz, which is a lot out of a program of about 300 people.”

While bassist Avishai Cohen rocketed to national attention through his work with Chick Corea in the late 1990s, alerting many for the first time to the emerging generation of protean Israeli jazz musicians, the Smalls scene remained a mostly local New York phenomenon. Things could have worked out very differently. After Impulse! released the compilation Jazz Underground: Live at Smalls in January 1998, Lindner and Avital signed with the label, a deal that required them to refrain from recording at the club or for other labels. Avital made his first album for Impulse!, but Devil Head never saw the light of day (Lindner’s album ended up being licensed by Stretch and released in 2000 as Premonition). Judging by the music that later surfaced on Smalls Records, Avital’s career could have easily taken off at the time, starting the Israeli tsunami a decade earlier.

But maybe the delay was for the best. The lack of hype in the 1990s allowed the Israeli musicians to simmer in Smalls’ creative environment and develop their music without Next Big Thing pressure. Fortunately, Luke Kaven was immediately struck by the rapidly developing scene and set out to document it, often recording performances at the club. “I believed that what Omer was doing was some of the only fresh and satisfying new jazz that I’d heard in a long time, and I had to preserve it somehow,” says Kaven, who went on to launch Smalls Records. Years later, he released some the music created by Avital’s early bands on Room to Grow and Asking No Permission, fascinating piano-less albums featuring drummers Joe Strasser and Ali Jackson and saxophonists Greg Tardy, Myron Walden, Mark Turner, Charles Owens and Grant Stewart. While his sound has evolved far from these 1990s sessions, Avital was already a commanding bassist with a gift for organizing musicians.

Like most of his Israeli peers, Avital spent his first years in New York working feverishly to break into the scene without any thought of forging a new form of Middle Eastern jazz. But when he started leading his own bands, the bassist almost subconsciously began including sounds he heard growing up with a Moroccan father and Yemenite mother. When the deal with Impulse! turned sour and the release of his first album stalled indefinitely, he decided to return to Israel. Studying composition and immersed in classical Arabic music, he devoted himself to the oud. By the time he returned to New York in 2005, Arabic modes and the Middle Eastern lute had moved to the center of his musical concept, and on his gorgeous 2007 Fresh Sound album, Arrival, he plays as much oud as bass.

“As soon as I gathered my own band, there were definitely some Middle Eastern things I was writing,” Avital says. “It was a very natural organic process over a year, and it took me a quite a while to realize that this was the music that I grew up with. It was only then that I went back to Israel to study classical Arabic music, music that I never knew. It’s all part of trying to realize who you are, and from that point on those influences have been one of the colors in my music.”

Other Israeli musicians are drawing on a different set of influences. Saxophonist Eli Degibri, a brilliant player who is coming into his own as a leader after a two-and-a- half-year stint touring the world with Herbie Hancock, finds inspiration in the music of Israeli singer/songwriters. The son of a Bulgarian-born Holocaust survivor and an Iranian-born mother, he absorbed a wide array of influences growing up in Israel, but he’s not particularly drawn to North African sounds. “Omer Avital, his music is influenced by Middle Eastern styles, my music not so much,” Degibri says. “But the songs by the great composers of Israel are still influencing my music.”

Anat Cohen fell in love with Brazilian music via Matti Caspi, a hugely popular Israeli performer who brought the Tropicalia movement to the Holy Land. Immigrants from South America carried with them various Latin American styles that became part of Israel’s pop scene. It wasn’t until she was studying at Berklee with a Venezuelan teacher that she discovered one of her favorite songs was a Caracas standard translated into Hebrew. The longer she’s been in the U.S., the more the sounds she absorbed in Israel have surfaced in her music.

“You don’t really realize those things until you live away from what you grew up with,” Cohen says. “For a long time you ignore it to learn new music and one day you realize you really miss it. I didn’t have this idea of mixing Israeli music. I had just moved to New York and I came across bassist Avishai Cohen and Omer Avital, the cats already in New York, and realized that they combined all these sounds from Latin America and the Middle East with jazz and I suddenly understood that those melodies are part of me, no matter what style I play, and it’s OK.”

If Israeli musicians are starting to expand the sonic possibilities of American jazz, it’s only after a long process in which they subsumed themselves in the New York scene. Boston-born pianist Aaron Goldberg met Avital and Lebovich at the New School in 1991, and he recalls that they were intent on assimilating rather than forging a new form of Israeli jazz. “It was really a case of New York influencing the Israeli cats,” Goldberg says. “There was nothing distinguishably Middle Eastern about the way these guys played.”

Goldberg sees the emergence of a distinctly Israeli jazz sound as a reflection of the larger New York scene in the mid-’90s. Just as Cuban and Puerto Rican players sought to create a new synthesis of jazz and various Caribbean styles, a few Israeli players started to look to their own cultural heritage as a path away from the dominant mainstream of hard-bop and postbop. Some critics painted with a broad brush so that any swinging music got tagged as neoclassicist, though there was little retro about Omer Avital’s first band, or Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mark Turner, or Joshua Redman with Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride and Brian Blade.

“In response to being pigeonholed, some musicians started thinking, Let me do something more personal, and looked to their ethnic heritage,” Goldberg says. “There was a kind of identity politics that played itself out in the mid-’90s and critics got excited about it. For the Israelis, I think it was a case of them trying to harmonize their dreams of home while staying in New York and being musically stimulated. I’ve noticed they all go through this period where they’re culturally conflicted. They love New York, but they miss home, so where will they live? Eventually they all come to the realization that they belong to both, and devise a way to go back and forth.”

Some of the recent arrivals, like pianist Omer Klein, have immediately plunged into the process of merging their two primary musical worlds. A graduate of the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, he moved to Boston in 2005 at the age of 23, eager to study with Danilo Perez at New England Conservatory. “I’ll never forget my first lesson with Danilo,” Klein writes via e-mail from Italy, on a break from performing with Avital and trumpeter Avishai Cohen. “I played an Israeli song and improvised on it. Danilo immediately told me, ‘Listen, man, these triads and inversions you play, these are important. They are really you. I don’t want you to ever lose them.’ I remember that day because that was the first time that this language I’m playing was acknowledged and appreciated by a great jazz master whom I admire.”

Within months Klein was performing regularly in New York, forging a particularly strong bond with Avital. Since settling in New York in 2006, he’s continued to develop a highly lyrical approach built on deceptively simple harmonies and gentle Middle Eastern grooves, an approach beautifully realized on last year’s Introducing Omer Klein (Smalls), featuring his all-Israeli quartet with Avital, drummer Ziv Ravitz and percussionist Itamar Doari. It’s a lulling, quiet sound reminiscent of late-career Abdullah Ibrahim in its seamless combination of folklike melodies and thematic improvisation.

“Rhythmically, I use some Middle Eastern beats on the record,” Klein writes. “Itamar Doari adds the traditional color to these grooves with his fantastic percussion playing. Omer Avital was digging that well long before I did, of course, and with the great Ziv Ravitz we are really starting to find our way to play these beautiful, ancient rhythms and express ourselves with them, hopefully in a new, fresh way.”

Now Israeli players who have gained recognition in New York are making a concerted effort to participate in and build the Israeli scene. Bassist Avishai Cohen moved back to Israel in 2005 and his career is flourishing.

Saxophonist Eli Degibri has created his own one-year program for high school students in Tel Aviv modeled after the Thelonious Monk Institute’s prestigious masters program (which he participated in briefly before moving to New York). The students perform as a band, and he meets with them about a dozen times during the course of the year.

“I always try to keep in touch and look out for the new cats,” Degibri says. “They usually come from three famous high schools. Every year there’s another group of amazing musicians. The reason why I think there are so many great jazz musicians coming from Israel, it’s just education. One or two generations before us, they were the ones who set the pace. They opened the doors for us. They came back to Israel, maybe not as successful as they wanted to be, but they came back with a passion and they passed it around. And this is what I’m trying to do.” Originally Published