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The Three Waves Of Israeli Jazz Musicians

The Three Waves Of Israeli Jazz Musicians

MiDor LeDor; Meet 12 Israeli jazz musicians who have washed ashore here, making a rhythmic and melodic mark in NYC.


Avishai Cohen, Bassist

Declared one of the 100 Most Influential Bass Players of the 20th Century by Bass Player Magazine, Cohen, 46, has been hailed by DownBeat as “a jazz visionary of global proportions.” Like several of his contemporaries, his signature sound blends Middle Eastern, Eastern European and African-American musical idioms. The New York Times describes it as a “heavy Middle Eastern groove with a delicate, almost New Age lyricism.”

Welcome to New York: Cohen moved here in 1991, at 22, to study jazz in The New School. [Its jazz program would prove to be a big lure for Israeli musicians.] The beginning was rough. “I was performing on the streets and working in construction just to get by.” Luckily, he had an old aunt living in the city who “took care of me and gave me always a good lunch. You know New York is rough, but I just had to be there at that time. It changed me completely as a musician.”

Breakthrough Moment: Cohen’s luck changed in 1997 with a call from the legendary pianist Chick Corea. “I had passed one of Chick’s friends a demo tape, without particular hope of being noticed,” Cohen says. “Chick called me back a few weeks later and told me he listened to it in his car and was ‘blown away by its freshness’.” Cohen soon became a member of Chick Corea’s New Trio and an original member Corea’s young guns ensemble, Origin. He would play with him for the next six years. “Performing with Chick played an important part in shaping my musicianship … for me Chick is a teacher, colleague and friend.”

The Scene Back Then: New York of the ’90s “had a significant jazz and Latin scene, but not too many musicians from Israel.” Cohen believes that his own success over the past two decades, along with that of his compatriots, had much to do with spurring the proliferation of Israelis in jazz today. Cohen moved back to Israel in 2005 but still plays here regularly. (His trio will be playing the Highline Ballroom on June 28.)

Amos Hoffman, Guitarist/Oud player

Hoffman, 46, plays modern jazz with a heady Middle Eastern accent. After graduating from the High School of the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem, his search for new musical experiences led him first to Amsterdam and then to New York City, where he performed with the likes of pianist Jason Lindler, bassist Avishai Cohen and vocalist Claudia Acuna. Hoffman has recorded five solo albums, and in 2013 was awarded one of Israel’s most prestigious prizes: The Landau Prize for Arts and Sciences for outstanding achievement in jazz.

Welcome to New York: Hoffman moved here when he was either 21 or 22, “sometime in the early ’90s … maybe ’92? That whole period is a little foggy,” he apologizes, “it was right after a year in Amsterdam.” New York of the ’90s was easy enough to get by in: “I was renting a two-bedroom on the Upper East Side with a roommate and could cover the rent with four $50 gigs a month,” he recalls.

The Scene Back Then: Arriving at the same time as Israeli bassists Omer Avital and Avishai Cohen, Hoffman describes a jazz scene that was wide open and largely un-institutionalized. While there was no Israeli presence to speak of yet — “If you said you were Israel, that wouldn’t mean anything to anyone” — one could play with some big names at various jam sessions. (Smalls, in the West Village, which became a home base for some Israeli players, opened several years later). Soon after Hoffman arrived, he took up playing in the subway with singer Evelyn Blakey, daughter of famed jazz drummer Art Blakey.

Breakthrough Moment: Hoffman had played the oud since childhood, but considered it more of a private hobby than a calling. One night, though, an American peer came to visit and convinced Hoffman to bring the oud out with him. “Suddenly I saw people go crazy for this instrument, how it fit in. … It was a sound that didn’t exist [in jazz circles] before, you know?” Later that year, bassist Avishai Cohen invited Hoffman to play oud and guitar on his debut CD; Omer Avital soon followed suit with his own brand of jazz/Middle Eastern fusion.

Israeli Sound in Jazz: No such thing, says Hoffman — not really. “If you think about the original Israeli music, we’re thinking about a mixed group of composers that drew from many traditions, like classical, European and Eastern European music.” The Israeli sound in jazz, he suggests, “is still new and still coming into its own.”

Anat Fort, Pianist

Combining jazz and classical elements with subtle hints of her Middle Eastern background, pianist Fort, 46, has been hailed for her “reflective yet probing style” (New York Times) and her “deceptively simple-sounding tunes, that are usually elegant and frequently exquisite” (The Guardian). She began studying classical music at 5, and a lifelong fascination with improvisation led her to enroll in the jazz program at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J. Following her graduation in 1996 she moved to New York, releasing four albums to date on the prestigious German label ECM. Fort moved back to Israel in 2009, but is scheduled to perform excerpts of her 2016 album, “Birdwatching,” on July 8, at the Rubin Museum.

Welcome to New York: Fort moved from Israel not to the city, but to “somewhere way out there in the suburbs of New Jersey,” near William Paterson. She was the only Israeli on the faculty. “I was far away, in every way possible, from anything Israeli and from everything I grew up on,” she recalls. “Sometimes this was exhilarating, other times it was really hard … but it was how I wanted it. It was my choice.”

The Scene Back Then: Though she eventually settled in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Fort remained an independent agent, removed from the budding Israeli jazz scene centered around The New School and venues like Smalls. “We’re of a very different aesthetic. … I just played a different kind of music, in different venues.” Aided by her classical training, she was able to cobble together a living by teaching piano and accompanying classes in acting studios.

Breakthrough Moment: In 2004, Fort realized a years-long dream and began a collaboration with drummer Paul Motian, one of her earliest and fondest influences. Motian recorded with her and also introduced her to ECM (trumpeter Avishai Cohen also records on the label), it granted her the type of broad exposure that can make a jazz artist’s career.

Israeli Sound: While her music has no obvious Middle Eastern/Israeli characteristics, Fort says that they are there for the discerning ear, along with echoes of ’80s pop songs. “It’s in my roots, and I believe that’s how a person express himself in his art — through all the combinations of things that made him who he is.”

Omer Avital, Bassist

Big-toned bassist Omer Avital, 45, is among the most celebrated musicians to migrate from Israel to New York. Drawing both from the jazz idiom and from his own Moroccan-Yemenite heritage, Avital’s music forges “a deep organic fusion of Middle Eastern and North African music with cutting-edge jazz … [with] incantatory melodies and throbbing rhythmic patterns that are foreign until you feel their universal human celebration,” as JazzTimes Magazine put it. Avital, who has been compared to the great jazz bassist Charles Mingus, was an early pioneer of the jazz/Middle Eastern fusion.

The Scene Back Then: Arriving here in 1991, “there was nothing here” when it came to Israelis in the jazz scene, Avital said. “The atmosphere was that no Israeli could make it in New York, that the two cultures were too different,” he told The Jewish Week last year. Yet as the first wave of Israeli-born musicians began to gain recognition, “People back in Israel started to get interested. … We started going back and forth between New York and Israel, bringing the music back in the form of shows and teachings, and I could see we were having a serious effect on young musicians. It started the whole idea that making it in New York was a real possibility. A sort of community started to form.”

Personal Journey: The exposure to New York’s multicultural, multi-ethnic music scene ignited Atival’s search for his own musical heritage. People here, he said, “took pride in their heritage: everybody knew where they came from. That got me asking myself, who am I? What is my heritage, and where is my music arriving from? He began studying Moroccan music, which lead him to African and Sephardic music and eventually, in 2003, back to Israel, where for three years he studied classical composition, Arabic musical theory, oud, traditional Israeli and traditional Palestinian music. “Jazz, I knew how to play; but if you want to incorporate something, you need to know it inside out.”

Israeli Sound: Is there such a thing as “Israeli jazz?” Not quite, says Avital. “Music from Yemen is Yemenite music, music from Germany is West European music, etc. — but Jewish music came from very different places,” from Morocco to Poland. “We, the Israelis, are just the beginning of the attempt to make something out of this mix.”

Avishai Cohen, Trumpeter

For four years running, trumpeter Avishai Cohen, 38, has been voted a Rising Star-Trumpet in the DownBeat Critics Poll. Along with leading his Triveni trio with Omer Avital and Nasheet Waits, the trumpeter has been a member of the prestigious SF Jazz Collective for six years. He also records and tours the world with The 3 Cohens Sextet, the hit family band with his sister, clarinetist-saxophonist Anat, and brother, saxophonist Yuval. All About Jazz declared that “to the ranks of the Heaths of Philadelphia, the Joneses of Detroit and the Marsalises of New Orleans, fans can now add the 3 Cohens of Tel Aviv;” The New York Times called him “a multicultural jazz musician, among whose ancestors is Miles Davis. Like Davis, he can make the trumpet a vehicle for uttering the most poignant human cries.”

Cohen (not at all related to bassist Avishai Cohen, incidentally) began performing when he was ten years old, touring the world with the Young Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. He moved to Boston in at the age of 18, to study in the Berklee School of Music, and in 1997, after winning third place at the Thelonious Monk Jazz Trumpet Competition, relocated to New York. Cohen retuned to Israel 5 years ago.

Welcome to New York: Upon coming to New York, in his early 20s, Cohen decided that no matter what gigs he takes to do to pay the rent, it won’t be weddings. “I prefered having a day job than ruining music for me,“ he recalls. “Coming home after a wedding and not wanting to lay eyes on the trumpet again… that’s just not good.” He ended up working construction for Shayke, the brother of a girlfriend of a friend who well known for employing, at one point or another, the NYC’s entire Israeli jazz elite. “Me, [trombonist] Avi leibovitch, Amos Hoffman, may more… we all worked in construction for this guy.”

“It was the first time and only time in my life I had a dayjob, and it was kind of amazing to suddenly become part of the world like that,” Cohen adds, “To wake up in the morning and go t work the same time as everyone else, then come back from work the same time as everyone else… it was interesting.” Within a few months, though, he had enough gigs in clubs and bars to secure his rent.

Breakthrough Moment: Cohen considers his path to be one following a measured upward climb, with no sudden peaks or jackpot moments worth mentioning. Winning the Thelonious Monk Jazz Trumpet Competition was a career milestone, as was joining the SF Jazz Collective and recording his first record, “but there's no one point in which I can say, ‘this is it, this is what made me.’” Perhaps one important corner turned, he muses, is the fact that he now feels that he can record with major labels, such as ECM, without fearing that commercial or foreign considerations might taint his music.

Israeli sound: Cohen agrees that “there might be something” to the observation that Israeli jazz musicians, in general, have a tendency toward melodiousness. “There’s something about the songs we all grew up on, you know, those ‘our good old Israel’ songs… that’s a sound you won’t hear in the U.S., for example. These songs have beautiful harmonies and a lot of sophistication but also a strong focus on emotion. Many Israeli musicians I know — like Silberstein, Hekselman, my brother, my sister saxophonist Eli Degibri — feel the melody, the emotion, is perhaps the most important part… it’s why we make music to begin with.”


Yotam Silberstein, Guitarist

At 21, Tel Aviv native Silberstein won the coveted Rimon School of Music’s “Israeli Jazz Player of The Year.” In 2005 he received a scholarship to The New School and relocated here. Since then, he’s released three albums and collaborated with the likes of bassist Avishai Cohen, James Moody and Roy Hargrove. About Jazz summed up Silberstein’s 2009 release, “Next Page,” as an “unadorned hollow-body guitar work [that] freely invites comparison to releases from the heyday of Blue Note Records.”

Welcome to New York: During his first visit here, when he was 17, Silberstein was hit by the revelation that here “you can actually live a life centered on music.” By the time he made it back, though, at 25, he was leaving behind an already established life and career “to become a complete unknown, living in a pretty crummy apartment in a pretty crummy neighborhood.” His first two years, he said, were mostly just lonely.

The Scene Back Then: By 2005 the handful of “first wavers” had already established themselves. Still, their presence “was about 20 percent of what it is today,” says Silberstein. Today, “there are more names than I can remember.” He attributes much of this proliferation to The New School scholarship program.

Israeli Influences: Though his compositions don’t sound particularly Israeli — if anything, he’s known for his Brazilian sounds — Silberstein says he draws much of his inspiration from the mix of imported influences that make up mainstream Israeli music. In fact, his interest in Brazilian music comes from his love for Mati Caspi, a still-popular Israeli musician who translated “Carnival” songs into Hebrew.

Breakthrough Moment: Trumpeter Avishai Cohen was among the Israeli musicians who welcomed Silberstein to town, inviting him to play several gigs. But it was Silberstein’s 2007-9 stint with the great saxophonist James Moody — “someone who I never even dreamt to be in the same room with” — that catapulted him. Moody, he said, “was the reason I wanted to play jazz to begin with.”

Gilad Hekselman, Guitarist

Born in Israel in 1983, Hekselman performed regularly through his teenage years with the band of a weekly children’s TV show. After graduating from the jazz department of Thelma Yellin high school for arts, he received an America-Israel Cultural Foundation Scholarship to attend The New School, where he completed his BFA in performing arts in 2008. One of the more sought-after guitarists on today’s jazz scene, Hekselman has released five albums as a leader; All About Jazz said he “has a pristine, crystalline sound … with a quiet assertiveness and expertise that is winning throughout.”

Welcome to New York: A 2004 grant from AICF and a partial scholarship from The New School made his dream of moving to New York possible. But living off random gigs in pre-gentrified South Slope, Brooklyn, was anything but glamorous. “My next-door neighbor was a drug dealer, my other neighbor had served time for murder and there was a junkie sleeping in the hallway in front of my door. But I was doing what I wanted to do, so I just went along with it. … I’d check that he was alive and then step over him.”

The Scene Back Then: The first wavers had created a New York-Israel corridor; those musicians were also “coming back to Israel and bringing us the word, so to speak, teaching us this New York sound,” says Hekselman. It was clarinetist Anat Cohen who opened the door for him, inviting him to play with her ensemble the moment he landed. Another important connection from his earlier visit was the manager of Smalls, who threw gigs his way early on.

Israeli Sound: Apart from what Hekselman terms “falafel jazz” — a term of derision for a kitschy infusion of Middle Eastern rhythms into popular jazz — Hekselman feels there actually is an Israeli jazz sound. “One thing that might be seen as unifying Israeli jazz is a tendency toward lyricism,” he notes. “One of the things I aspire for in my music is a certain earnestness, to create an emotion. … I see this same drive with many Israeli musicians.” Gravitating towards the simple and the direct, he adds, might just be part of the Israeli culture.

Eyal Vilner, Saxophonist/Bandleader

Composer, arranger, saxophonist and big-band leader Eyal Vilner, 31, moved to New York in 2007 to continue his studies at The New School. After touring Israel in the summer of 2008, he decided to establish a New York version of his all-star Israeli big band. Composed of 17 musicians, Vilner’s big band threads swing and vintage ballroom jazz. Said Allaboutjazz: “Vilner offers clever charts, excellent musicianship and an exciting new sound in the finest tradition of contemporary big band music.”

Welcome to New York: After declining a scholarship from the Berklee College of Music in Boston to be here, Vilner arrived “with a saxophone and one suitcase” and just enough cash for exactly a year of tuition. He was half expecting to have to “close up shop and go home” before it was over.

The Scene Back Then: When he arrived in 2007, “there was already some hype” about Israelis in jazz, Vilner recalls. “If I said I was Israeli, people would would say, ‘You’re doing something right over there [in Israel]’… being an Israeli got a certain respect.” He could feel it particularly in Smalls, the stomping ground of first-wave Israelis, which became Vilner’s home away from home.

Breakthrough Moment: Young jazz musicians often earn their stripes by apprenticing with more established ones, but Vilner didn’t have that, he says. “I never had the chance to grow under someone’s patronage, since straight out of school I began heading my own project.” He considers his breakthrough moment to be when veteran musicians, like saxophonist Dan Block or John Mosca, manager of the acclaimed Village Vanguard Orchestra, began coming to the big band’s rehearsals, jamming and eventually recording with them.

Israeli Sound: Vilner has been reconnecting to his Israeli roots through a new project: the Brotherhood Synagogue in Gramercy Park invited Vilner to do a concert riffing on Israeli Chanukah songs, which he's curently working into an album. The results, says Vilner, were surprisingly diverse: “ ‘Sevivon-Sov-Sov,’ for example, reminded me of Brazilian Choro music, so that adaptation has a lot of Brazilian to it.” In other songs song he detected Ethiopian and African influences, which in his interpretation he accentuated and brought to the surface.

Rotem Sivan, Guitarist

Described by DownBeat Magazine as “a remarkable talent and a welcome new voice on the scene,” Jazz guitarist Rotem Sivan and his trio perform original scores with “style and sound that bring a fresh flair and a remarkable sophistication to jazz” (Jazz Times Magazine.) Born in Jerusalem, Sivan studied in the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music at The Tel Aviv University, moved to NYC to study in the New School and soon became a force on the local scene. Since his relocation, he performed with world-renowned musicians, including Peter Bernstein, Ari Hoenig, Ben Street and Ferenc Nemeth. To date, Sivan has released three critically acclaimed albums: “Enchanted Sun,” “For Emotional Use Only,” and “A New Dance.”

Welcome to New York: Sivan moved to NYC about 7 years ago, at age 23, and initially felt he had stepped “into a different universe.“ “I was quite overwhelmed by the city and the music,” he noted, “Getting accustomed to the culture and pace takes time… it still does.” Living in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint, then in the early stages of its gentrification, Sivan made rent by playing several low-key gigs in restaurants and bars every week. “There is something very different between practicing, rehearsing and playing for people — even if they are not at Blue Note,” he says, “I feel I learned a lot in that process.”

The scene back then: Sivan says the reputation of Israeli musicians preceded him. “It felt people had a very positive conception about Israeli musicians, before one would even play a note”. For him, his compatriots also functioned as a fairly tight-knit support network. “I feel the Israeli scene is very close and we are all helping each other,” he remarks, “It’s a very special thing actually.”

Cultural glitches: Speaking of wires crossed due to cultural gaps, Sivan remembers one near-tragic mistake. “The trio had a tour that was being booked in Costa-Rica and there was a day off…so I contacted a [local] club and we set the date for the trio to play.” A few days later, while inquiring about the club’s whereabouts, Sivan was surprised to discover they were not familiar with any of nearby venues the group was booked for. Finally, they asked: “You know we are in Puerto Rico, right…?”

“I was so embarrassed! I booked a date in the wrong country! Costa Rica and Puerto Ricoare very different places,“ Sivan says. But it all turned out for the best: “actually, out of that mistake, a few months after the trio booked a week tour in Puerto Rico.”

Oran Etkin, Clarinetist

The Israeli-born clarinetist is known for his agile fusion of classical, Jewish and African-derived musical influences. His 2009 album, “Kelenia” (Motema Music), melds traditional Malian and Jewish music with modern jazz, creating what the Boston Globe dubbed a “hypnotic balance between straight-ahead jazz and world music.” He released four albums, each drawing on a different set of influences; in his most recent one, “Reimagining Benny Goodman,” Etkin channels the great clarinetist Benny Goodman, the Jewish 1930s-’40s “King of Swing.”

Welcome to New York: In 2002, at the age of 21, Etkin moved to New York to get his master’s in jazz performance at the Manhattan School of Music. His experience differs than that of his peers in that he actually moved to the U.S. with his parents at 4, making him much more of an American than an Israeli. Still, raised in a Hebrew-speaking household on old-school Israeli musicians such as Chava Alberstein, Yoni Rechter and later Mati Caspi, it was natural that the Israeli jazz scene become his clique — or one of them. He’s equally at ease in the Indonesian or West African music scenes. “There definitely are different scenes in the jazz world,” drawn along the lines of nationality and ethnicity, he notes; but while some feel most comfortable playing within those boundaries, Etkin needs to reference a range of cultures, and cross over, so to speak.

Israeli Sound: If there is such a thing, Etkin muses, it’s defined not by its singularity but by its multiplicity. “For every style of jazz you’ll have Israelis playing it. You have Israelis channeling Arab influences, African influences, playing traditional be-bop or avantgarde, and you have those who follow the style coined by Avishai Cohen, the bassist, and consider that to be sound of Israeli j. But if anything typifies Israeli musicians, it would be that curiosity that defies borders, that will to explore many worlds.”


Tal Yahalom, Guitarist

Yahalom, 23, co-leads Kadawa, a collective experimental-rock-jazz trio. He is also a member of the Sagi Kaufman Trio, that performs Sagi's rubato-style, jazz influenced original music. Yahalom is the recipient of the AICF scholarship award for excellence in jazz performance for 2014-’15, has performed as a leader at the 2015 Detroit Jazz Festival, 2016 Bern Jazz festival and at various New York venues; next month, he’ll take part in the Montreux (Switzerland) Jazz Festival Guitar Competition.

Welcome to New York: Yahalom arrived here two years ago, at 22, as part of an 8-year-old twinning program between The New School’s jazz department and the Shtricker Center, an extension of the Tel Aviv Conservatorium. The program created musical and social partnerships; his classmates became both his roommates and his band mates. Suffering little of the assimilation pains of his predecessors, Yahalom had his own adjustments to make. “I never had to pay my own rent,” he laughs. “Figuring out how to survive wasn’t obvious.”

The Scene Now: Yahalom is well aware that he’s standing on the shoulders of giants. “It’s enough for me to say I’m Israeli and people say, ‘Wow, then you must be good,’” he notes. He also recognizes the claim that his age group stays too much within their comfort zone, playing with the people they know from back home rather than opening up to the city’s multicultural scene. “There’s something to it,” Yahalom admits, “but I just want to make the music I want to make. If that goal is served best by playing with Israelis, then why not?”

Breakthrough Moment: Winning the guitar player contest in the 2015 Detroit Jazz Festival began opening doors for Yahalom and lending Kadawa a measure of recognition. “I got to hang out with [jazz guitar great] Pat Metheny,” he recounts, “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m in the big kids’ league now.”

Israeli Sound: It’s all over the place by now, Yahalom suggests. But he does agree with Hekselman that there is an overarching tendency towards lyricism. “I think that while American jazz] institutions put a lot of emphasis on technique, Israeli ones put it on expression, feeling and rhythm.”

Ben Silashi, Drummer

In Israel, Silashi, 23, he played with likes of Yuval Cohen, Hagai Amir and Yonatan Voltzok; here he’s been playing mostly in Tal Yahalom’s band (Kadawa), Benny Oyama’s Brazilian ensemble and several other ensembles that still haven’t worked out their name. Silashi was among the three students to represent The New School in the Bern Jazz Festival in Switzerland.

Welcome to New York: Silashi arrived here two years ago, along with his classmates Tal Yahalom and some others, through the same New School program — though he completed his studies in Israel during his army service. Perhaps the hardest aspect of the move was boarding the flight to New York almost straight from the army base, without much time to get organized or “wrap his head” around things. “This is my first time in America,” he admits. “It’s also my first time out of my parents’ house.” Having to adjust to a new country and also learn how to “take care of food, clothes, work, and apartment” was like having “reality slap me in the face.”

The Scene Now: “People that are already established here help you meet the people you need to know,” Israelis or others, notes Silashi. But while he jams in several venues and plays with a multi-ethnic group of musicians, lasting friendships seem to form much easier with other Israelis. Having such a well-established community of Israeli musicians here, “does make for a soft landing.”

Musical Highlight: “There was one time I was jamming in Smalls, and jazz pianist Eric Lewis came up on the stage to play with me. It may have not been something that made my career, but it was one of the most intense and enjoyable experiences I had as a musician.”

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