Jazz in Israel – the nightingale sings

May 17, 2009 by

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I normally say that the only thing I miss about England is the soccer. But that is only a half-truth. After 13 years in Israel I also miss the jazz.

Being a Brit, as well as growing up on a rich diet of what we call football, I had also spent 7 years in London supping on top quality international jazz. My brother and I would pay for membership to Ronnie Scott’s club every year, a membership that allowed you to sit at tables in the smokey atmosphere (yes, smoke in a public place!), enjoy the same old jokes from Ronnie Scott himself, and glide on high to the sounds of the best jazzers in the world. Though I enjoyed the space less (ceilings too high), the Jazz Café in Camden was also a regular for me.

But Israeli jazz just didn’t do it for me. Something like the soccer here, it felt full of well-meaning replicas. People playing jazz how they imagined it should be played, rather than giving voice to the surprising uplift of talent and soul. Admittedly I’d been spoiled over the years. Just as growing up at Manchester United’s Theatre of Dreams can lead one to sniff at my local Bnei Sakhnin, so spending one’s birthday at the table closest to the stage while Hugh Masekela keens Stimela, or Andy Sheppard blows circular, tends to raise expectations unnaturally.

But then Daniel Zamir came home. And my life began to change.

An Israeli Jazzer, soprano sax, returned from a few years blowing his horn around New York. Kippah, whispy beard, warm tone and great technique, this man returned my faith in the ability of jazz to surprise. Soon after Zamir, I was introduced to the music of Avishai Cohen, the bassist who had also returned from a spell in New York cutting his spurs. These two know what real jazz is about. And they brought with them a whole cadre of musicians who were, I guess, always around but I’d never noticed them. Suddenly Israeli jazz had a jaunt in its step.

Not only have Zamir and Cohen affected the Israeli jazz scene, but Israel has deeply affected their jazz. Avishai Cohen, silent bassist, found his voice and began to sing. Crossing between jazz and middle eastern pop, his Israeli album “Sensitive Hours” not only samples his grandfather’s praying, but also draws out Cohen’s warm voice singing a very cool jazz version of Shalom Aleichem together with some ethereal love songs.


Straight after “Sensitive Hours”, Cohen got signed up to Blue Note, and now he’s all over the world. Zamir also found his voice in Israel – from the astonishing version of Hatikvah he created last year, he’s gone on to “One”, which is full of his echoing voice in a suite he wrote for imprisoned Gilad Shalit. Check it out: only in Israel does Zamir, Hebrew for nightingale, take on its true meaning… Don’t you love it?

And then last night everything came to a head. As part of their short Jazz festival, Givatayim Theatre brought Avi Lebovich’s astonishing big band Orkestra, together with funk-rap superstars HaDag Nachash for a one-off party. Lebovich, a tall unassuming trombonist, is another hugely-talented Israeli who spent 10 years playing with the best around the world before returning home. As well as coordinating Orkestra, which seems to be the dream-team jazz band made up of the best brass section I’ve ever seen, Lebovich is an astonishing composer. The mesmerizing mixture of Middle East, Jazz, and funk, that adds such mystery and soul to Shaanan Street’s (lead singer of HaDag Nachash) solo disc “Passing flash of light”, was all Lebovich’s work. (My favorite track is Nafshi, performed with Chava Alberstein.)

So onto a stage already full of four saxophones, five trombones/trumpets, double bass, guitar, and keyboards, into an evening that has already been filled with such wonders as an entire composition built around a trombonist who plays a mean sea-shell collection of conches(!), wander cool HaDag Nachash. They did not disappoint.

Together HaDag Nachash and Orkestra gave the sold-out crowd a night to remember. From the moment where the Dag Nachash saxophonist Shlomi Alon shows he’s more than a skinny charismatic funkster when he blows a wild solo, to the “could have been harmony here” bit in “Lo Frayyerim” which builds beyond the famous vocal harmony to an ever-ascending surprising unity of trumpets and saxophones, to the moment where Shaanan Street cannot control his joy at such a musical banquet and sets off on an ecstatic primitive dance – it was a wild night.

I even forgave the guy behind me who couldn’t stop talking. He’d obviously not been intimidated for life by the Jazz Café’s famous sign: “STFU when the music’s playing”. Walking out of Givatayim Theatre with a grin plastered all over my face I admitted that overseas jazz experiences may have transformed the Israel jazz scene, but you can’t import or translate everything…

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