When rockets are falling on your hometown and you’re half a world away, it’s hard to concentrate on music. Alon Nechushtan’s family is in Rishon LeZion, “in rocket range, just north of Rehovot,” the pianist-composer says with a wan smile. He is in New York City with his wife and child, pursuing a burgeoning career as a jazz musician. He doesn’t want to talk about this subject, other than to drily observe that “these are toxic times.”
It’s a weekday in a rather ordinary office building near Penn Station, but when you get upstairs you suddenly become aware that this building, so much like the dozens of others on the block, actually houses a beehive of rehearsal studios for Broadway shows and major dance companies. It’s the latter that brings Nechushtan here, working a day job (literally) as a pianist for workshops of the Joffrey Ballet.
He chuckles and explains, “I’m a pianist and a pianist has to make a living somehow.”
In his late 30s, Nechushtan is slender, almost skinny, with a beard beginning to go gray, dark red hair and glasses. He has a wry, easy smile and an ironic manner, which somehow goes well with his new CD, “Venture Bound” (Enja). He will be performing music from the album on July 25. A collection of nine original tunes, the album is a splendid showcase for the Israeli’s slippery, slithering melodic lines, and the sparkling, clever playing of tenor saxophonists Donny McCaslin and John Ellis, among others.
Like many other Israeli musicians, Nechushtan came to the States to study at the New England Conservatory of Music. His original training was in classical music, and when he went to the NEC in 2000 he had, by his own admission, “never studied jazz in a professional way.”
And then at NEC he became part of the contemporary improvisation program, studying with Ran Blake and, significantly, Hankus Netsky. For a guy whose primary improvisational interest was late-period John Coltrane, it was a revelation.
“We weren’t interested in klezmer in Israel,” Nechushtan says. “So the ‘Jewish idea’ was unfamiliar to me. Hankus would say, ‘What if we take these traditional models and improvise on them [in a jazz context]?’”
He met and played with Frank London, Alicia Svigals, Matt Darriau and many others who had already been immersed in the klezmer-jazz nexus.
“These people can do the inside of that style so well, then they can step back and make it their own thing,” he explains. “I had to be looking at my peers constantly.”
He must have an excellent set of eyes to go along with his gifted ears, because John Zorn invited him to do an album of Jewish themes for Tzadik.
“I wanted to do a concept album, to tell a story,” he says. “There are a lot of modes, Jewish modes like the freygish and Ahavah Rabbah, on the album. We wanted to keep the danceability that you have in klezmer.”
The album, “The Growl,” released in 2007, was the culmination of hundreds of gigs the pianist played with Marc Mommaas (saxophones), Matt Shulman (trumpet), Matt Pavolka (bass) and Jordan Perlson (drums).
Nechushtan still likes the album but admits that by the time it was released he was ready to move on to the next thing. “I wanted to do something a little broader,” he says. “I mean, what if I wanted to play something bluesy or even Israeli?”
He makes little distinction between his jazz recordings and compositions and his work with prominent choreographers like Paul Taylor and Mark Morris or his classical compositions.
“It’s basically me as a juggler,” Nechushtan says. “Look, my take on jazz playing is different — I’m not born in this country, I grew up in a very different place, so I’ve been learning a style and trying to make it my own. I’m just trying to chisel something, like any craftsman. The process can take a minute or it can take a year. But I’m doing the same work regardless of genre.”
Alon Nechushtan will be performing at Nublu (62 Ave. C, between Fourth and Fifth streets) Friday, July 25 at 10 p.m. For information go to www.nublu.net.