Israeli Musicians Blue Over Cornelia Street’s Demise
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Israeli Musicians Blue Over Cornelia Street’s Demise

Guitarists Gilad Hekselman (left) and Yotam Silberstein in Cornelia’s Israeli Spotlight festival, on Jan. 12, 2016.
Guitarists Gilad Hekselman (left) and Yotam Silberstein in Cornelia’s Israeli Spotlight festival, on Jan. 12, 2016.

The news that the Cornelia Street Café, the iconic 41-year-old West Village club, is closing its doors at the start of the new year moved through the Israeli jazz community like a minor key blues.

Like so many other beloved spots in the city, the club has apparently fallen prey to soaring rents ($33,000 a month, according toThe New York Times). The club announced that it will shut down on Jan. 2.

Cornelia Street’s narrow basement room was home to many young Israeli jazz musicians, a number of whom launched their careers in the city at Cornelia’s “Israeli Jazz Spotlight,” a monthly series showcasing Israeli-American musicians both acclaimed and up-and-coming.

“The Israeli Jazz Spotlight was how I got my first gig in Cornelia,” recalled young vocalist and composer Gaya Feldheim Schorr, who first appeared in the series last year. “That was my jumping board to the clubs I play now, and the people I play with. It [the series] filled a crucial role for me, as I think it did for most young Israelis just arriving in New York.”

Though she didn’t perform as part of the Israeli Spotlight series, Cornelia was also a launching pad for noted vocalist and composer Tamuz Nissim, who arrived here three years ago. “It was one of the first places I performed in New York. … My second CD formed largely through my performances there,” she told The Jewish Week.

“What’s special to me about this place is its openness — to different languages, to different nationalities, to different musical styles,” Nissim continued. “You can experiment there. Audiences come wide open, and with a healthy curiosity.”

For acclaimed guitarist Gilad Hekselman, who took the top spot in the Rising Star-Guitar Category in the 2017 DownBeat Magazine Critics Poll, Cornelia was a place to musically let his hair down.

“When you reach the stage in your career where you’re playing these serious, heavy venues, you lose some of your casualness, some of your freedom,” Hekselman observed. “Cornelia was a spot where I could still experiment, play with new ideas, new groups. It was loose, but the audience was still very serious about the music.”

In January 2016, Hekselman curated a three-day mini-festival of Cornelia’s Israeli Jazz Spotlight, bringing together a diverse group of Israeli and Israeli-American musicians, including the Thelma Yellin High School Big Band, silky-toned and thoughtful blues guitarist/vocalist Dida Pelled, fellow acclaimed guitarist/composer Yotam Silberstein, and stylish young pianists Gadi Lehavi and Eden Ladin.

While Hekselman wasn’t attempting to showcase any particular sound, certain common denominators did emerge. “Often, when you group Israeli artists together, the music flows to these typically lyrical places,” he said. “It wasn’t something on my agenda; it’s just something that happens organically.”

Or Bareket, the Israeli Jazz Spotlight’s curator through 2017, had observed the same phenomena. “Leaving your country does something to your music,” he told The Jewish Week in a 2017  interview. “It becomes something you can hold on to. Melody and rhythm and feeling become an existential need, an anchor. … They become your identity.”

So does losing Cornelia feel like losing a home, again? Perhaps to the young musicians, but veteran guitarist Yotam Silberstein approaches the matter with a typically Israeli philosophical shrug. “I had a lot of good experiences there, but this is New York, places come and go. A new place will come.”

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