As an aspiring jazz pianist growing up in Israel, it was Anat Fort’s cherished dream to play with the great drummer Paul Motian, who anchored what is considered to be one of the most influential trios in all of jazz.
“The first time I heard him was on a Bill Evans record, one of those trio recordings with Paul and Scott LaFaro on bass,” she said in a Skype interview last week. “I don’t recall which album it was, but there are two versions of ‘Autumn Leaves,’ all this interactive playing, a piano solo and a bass exchange, then this drum … thing. I knew right away that I loved the pianist, I loved the bassist, but who was this drummer? I was completely knocked over.”
Eventually, Fort would come to New York, moving here in 1996 as part of a wave of Israeli musicians who have left a big imprint on the jazz scene here. And not only would she play with Motian, but she would also become a friend of the rhythm master, who had a reputation for nurturing young talent. Motian (pronounced “motion”) died in November 2011, and Fort has been hoping to pay back his friendship ever since. On June 30, she is bringing a new trio of her own, with drummer Matt Wilson and guitarist Steve Cardenas, to the Cornelia Street Café (29 Cornelia St.,  989-9319), where the threesome will perform an evening consisting entirely of Motian’s own compositions.
That seems only fair, Fort said from her kitchen in Tel Aviv, after she wrestled her cat out of the way. “He always did my music when he played with me,” she explained. “But I love his music and never got to explore it with him.”
Asked what it is about his compositions that appeals to her, she clears her throat and lets out a low chuckle.
“The first word that comes to mind is surprising,” she said with a grin. “Sometimes there’s a very simple melody, haunting, with weird harmonies that work. Sometimes there’s a rhythmic kind of theme — but when you look at it closely you see it’s not just that, there’s very intricate stuff, extended forms. There’s scope to his writing. He managed to do something which I think is really important: to keep it simple but not simplistic. His [pieces] sound very natural, but there’s always a twist.”
Being back in Tel Aviv, after a long stretch here, has its advantages for Fort, 44, who has developed into a lyrical and forward-thinking pianist who records for one of jazz’s most prestigious labels, ECM. It’s much easier to fly to Europe, where she is in steady demand, and she has acquired a host of private students. And, to be honest, it’s not New York.
“I don’t miss the daily grind as a musician,” she confesses. “I don’t have to run to four different places on the subway. I’m closer to that group of people we call family and to my old friends. The vibe is different than New York, but frankly, I needed that, and I get to New York often enough to maintain what I need. Music is still what I do.”
And for now, Paul Motian’s music is what she’s doing.