Jazz from the Promised Land

Aryeh Tepper

Aryeh Tepper

Director of Publications and Online Educational Programming, American Sephardi Federation; Academic Director, Glazer-BGU Israel Studies Seminar for Chinese Students

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In the last three decades, the Jewish state has become one the world’s leading sources of jazz musicians, both in Israel and around the world. Trumpeter Itamar Borochov is one of its leading lights. Photos: Aviram Valdman

When American jazz great Lionel Hampton walked into Tel Aviv’s Dan Hotel in 1955, the local Israeli house band serenaded him with a rendition of his hit, “Flying Home.” After they finished playing, the musicians approached Hampton to get his take on their style. The jazz master replied, “You don’t fucking swing for shit.”

A little less than 60 years later, Israelis are swinging hard. As Jazz Times trumpeted in 2008, “When it comes to jazz, Israel is the source of an almost miraculous outpouring of talent.” From the dynamic bassists Avishai Cohen and Omer Avital to the three reed-playing Cohens—Avishai, Anat, and Yuval—to saxophone colossus Eli Degibri, Israelis stand in the front line of the international jazz scene; so much so that the first-ever festival of Israeli jazz was curated in New York City in 2010 by a non-Jewish Cuban who quipped, “someone had to do it.” Indeed, Tel Aviv is an internationally recognized breeding ground for serious jazz talent. According to Larry Monroe, vice president for academic affairs and international programs at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, “If I had three days to find 10 really hot jazz musicians, I’d go to Tel Aviv before any other place on the planet.”

True to Monroe’s word, a new generation of musicians is expanding the Israeli take on the jazz tradition in fascinating ways. Prominent among them is the Israeli-born, Brooklyn-based trumpeter, Itamar Borochov. His inaugural album, Outset, is to be released in June 2014.

Truth be told, the 30-year-old Borochov isn’t so new to the scene. A student of trombone great Curtis Fuller and trumpet virtuoso Charles Tolliver, Borochov has been patiently waiting for the right time to make his own musical statement. After moving to New York in 2007, Borochov played straight-ahead jazz while participating in Omer Avital’s multicultural projects Debka Fantasia, Yemen Blues, and The New Jerusalem Orchestra—jazz-infused explorations of Arab music, as well as Jewish Yemenite and Andalusian liturgical music called piyyut. Fellow musicians have long urged Borochov to release recordings of his own. Now, it appears, the time is right.

Yemen Blues (featuring Itamar Borochov on trumpet), 2010

In making Outset, Borochov consciously kept the recording process old-school. Today, recording often takes place with musicians playing at different times, wearing microphones and tucked away behind screens, a process that allows mistakes to be edited out and produces a relatively clean sound. Borochov, however, isn’t afraid of rough edges. With long-time friends Hagai Amir on alto sax, Avri Borochov (Itamar’s brother) on bass, and Aviv Cohen on drums, Itamar wanted his quartet to record with the same immediacy as their gigs and rehearsals. They play their music from start to finish in one room in one take, with the members of the group seeing each other’s faces and responding in the moment.

For Borochov, that’s the way jazz is supposed to be made.

Our masters never had the “safety net” you have when recording isolated tracks; and that’s part of the reason they were able to get to a level where, every time they played, they created the highest art on the spot—you just have to, because if you mess up, it’s on the record, and that’s that.

The “masters” Borochov refers to are jazz legends Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane.

Nowadays when you hear a record everything might sound perfect—but was it really so, or is it just like a Photoshop-retouched image of a model on the cover of a magazine? These guys didn’t have isolated sound, the ability to edit and fix things in the mix, and you had to be strive to be as close to perfect as humanly possible. So what I mean is that, by having that “pressure,” you learn to rise to the occasion. The other way would be like riding your bike with training wheels—you may never learn to ride!

Borochov speaks the language of a true jazz artist striving for the vital union of emotion and technique; a remarkable fact when you consider just how irrelevant jazz was in Israel not so long ago; when, as Lionel Hampton put it, local musicians didn’t know how to, well, swing.

So how did jazz become a part of the Israeli landscape?

After the founding of the state in 1948, the overwhelming majority of jazz musicians in Israel—and there weren’t many—were foreign-born. If you wanted to hear jazz, you listened to Radio Ramallah, broadcast from Jordan. To be fair, what was true for jazz was also true for rock n’ roll; because for the country’s first few decades Israeli radio was a state-run institution dedicated to educating citizens in the ways of the Zionist collectivist ethos. Personal sacrifice was celebrated. Refrigerators were luxury items that were taxed accordingly. Jazz was considered frivolous.

Stubborn individualists who nevertheless wanted to hear jazz during the 1950s headed out on Friday afternoons to the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) House in the heart of Tel Aviv. Jazz is, after all, a 20th century American invention; and, not surprisingly, it was an American transplant, Mel Keller, who led the sessions at the ZOA House. In the early ‘60s, Keller founded Israel’s first full-time jazz outfit and staged performances around the country during which he periodically stopped the show to explain the foreign music to the audience. Danny Gottfried, a native Israeli pianist who fell in love with jazz, linked up with Keller. In time, Gottfried would found the Jazz Faculty at the Jerusalem “Rubin” Academy of Music and Dance, the Jazz studies department of the Thelma Yellin High School of Art, and the yearly Red Sea jazz festival in Eilat.

Jazz started showing up in Israeli clubs in the latter half of the ‘60s, when Israeli society as a whole became more open—television was introduced in 1968—and the first jazz records were made at the end of the decade. In the early ‘70s, jazz musicians around the world started to mine non-Western musical traditions for material and inspiration, and Israeli jazz artists began exploring various kinds of local ethnic music.

Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

In one of the more fascinating and largely forgotten episodes in Israeli cultural history, American jazz legend Stan Getz enthusiastically embraced the mizrahi (Eastern)-rock-jazz fusion of Israel’s Piamenta brothers. Getz and the Piamentas performed and recorded together, but apparently the musical collaboration was too avant garde for its time, and the recording was never released. Mizrahi music was held in contempt by Israel’s cultural elites and the collaboration aroused little interest. Today, the fusion of jazz and ethnic music is a signature element of Israeli jazz.

Israel’s first international jazz festival took place in 1979, two years after Israel’s Labor party fell from power; and, during the ‘80s, jazz stars such as Chick Corea, Bobby McFerrin, John McLaughlin, Jan Gabarek, and Pat Metheny started appearing on the Israeli scene. As Israel started to privatize its economy and personal freedom emerged as a value alongside dedication to the collective, jazz received official recognition and institutional support. Aside from the Rubin Academy and Thelma Yellin High School, the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music opened its doors in 1985 and entered into a fruitful collaboration with the Berklee College of Music.

But all of this, in a sense, is the prehistory of Israeli jazz. The music took off in the early ‘90s when a critical mass of jazz musicians and educators produced a homegrown generation that needed more than what Israel could offer. Haaretz critic Ben Shalev has written that Israeli jazz literally took off on a prosaic day in 1992, when 20-something jazz musicians Omer Avital, Avishai Cohen, and Avi Leibowitz flew to New York City with the intention of making it in the Big Apple. Barak Weiss, the artistic director of the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival and the Israel International Showcase, refers to the trip as “the big bang,” the moment Israeli jazz as we know it today was created.

The Israelis arrived in New York City armed with a strong work ethic matched by a fiercely creative spirit—a rare combination—and after an initial struggle, Cohen was soon touring with no less than Chick Corea; while Avital, setting Smalls jazz club on fire, was featured in The New York Times and offered a record deal with Impulse. Leibowitz, meanwhile, found himself playing with Slide Hampton (no relation to Lionel) at Lincoln Center. With Cohen, Avital, and Leibowitz paving the way, younger Israeli jazz musicians such as Daniel Zamir (soprano sax), Anat Cohen (soprano sax and clarinet), Anat’s brother Avishai (trumpet)—yes, there are two Israeli jazz musicians named Avishai Cohen—and Eli Degibri (tenor sax) soon followed. And just like that, the Israelis created a thriving jazz community in New York. The mutual support didn’t go unobserved. American trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire noted admiringly, “A lot of people in New York have this everyone-for-themselves attitude, and it’s beautiful that they stick together.”

The musical import behind Akinmusire’s words shouldn’t be missed. Jazz thrives on a creative tension between the individual and the collective, with excessive personal freedom being a recipe for solipsistic and ultimately boring music. While the freedom that animates the atmosphere in New York City can be taken to extremes, the communal character of life that Israelis brought with them to New York insulated them from self-indulgence.

Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

But Israelis weren’t only going to America. The cross-Atlantic musical traffic became a two-way street in 1997, when Arnie Lawrence, the Brooklyn-born alto saxophonist and co-founder of the jazz program at New York City’s New School, moved to Israel with his Israeli wife and opened the International Center for Creative Music on the outskirts of Jerusalem. It’s no accident that Lawrence found a home for his school during this period, as Israel was, for better and for worse, racing to open itself up to the outside world. The first Israeli branch of McDonald’s opened for business in 1993, while Israel introduced commercial and cable television into the local market and signed the Oslo accords with the Palestinians in 1994.

The openness that increasingly animated Israeli society was reflected in its music. Beginning in the ‘90s and continuing through the first decade of the 21st century, Israeli jazz musicians were busy integrating various musical elements into their sound. Avishai Cohen (bass) uses Middle Eastern and Latin elements in his music; Avital fruitfully draws on his study of classical Arabic music and Jewish Moroccan and Yemenite piyyut; Anat Cohen feels at home in Brazilian music; Daniel Zamir—a newly religious member of Chabad—plays with Hasidic sounds; Omer Klein elaborates upon North African musical traditions; and multi-instrumentalist Yinon Muallem and pianist Guy Mintus together explore Turkish musical forms and themes. And this is just a short list.

Arnie Lawrence’s center closed its doors after he passed away in 2005, but in eight short years he changed the face of Israeli music; spreading the gospel of jazz with his open, generous spirit, his immense knowledge of the history of jazz, and his personal experience with monumental figures of the jazz tradition. In one delightful instance, Lawrence staged an impromptu jam session with Max Roach in the lobby of the Jerusalem Theater for fans who couldn’t buy tickets to an earlier, sold-out show. A generation of Israeli musicians was touched by the Jewish-American jazzman, including Itamar Borchov, who grew very close to Lawrence shortly before he died.

Borochov’s Outset is informed by all the elements that have shaped the development of Israeli jazz: A thorough knowledge of the jazz tradition, a deep engagement with various kinds of ethnic music, especially classical Arab music—Borochov is one of the few trumpet players who can play the quarter tones used in Arabic scales—and an exquisite tension between the individual and the group.

Outset opens with “Pain Song,” a mood-piece with a kick in the rhythm section that elegantly and intelligently stomps the blues described in the title. Aviv Cohen’s drums and Avri Borochov’s bass create an immediate emotional intensity, and if you listen hard enough you can hear the amen cadence from Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time is Gonna Come” or Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” implied in the song’s refrain.

All through Outset, the piano-less quartet creates a spaciousness that Borochov and alto-sax man Hagai Cohen exploit in order to create dancing, contrapuntal lines; especially on the disk’s second song, “Samsara,” a blues romp in which Borochov amusingly begins his solo by quoting a passage from Bizet’s Carmen.

The third piece on the disk, “B’gida,” meaning “betrayal” in Hebrew, is an extended emotional journey powered by Cohen and Avri Borochov playing the Arabic malfuf rhythm—dum…tak-tak…dum… tak-tak…—until they unabashedly rock out, creating a momentary sense of elation (begin at 5:55 in the video below) before returning to prosaic reality.

The Itamar Borochov Quartet plays “B’gida” at the Israel International Showcase, 2014

Outset is animated by an emotional intensity that can be challenging to some listeners, but Borochov has mercy on his audience with the album’s fourth and fifth pieces—the quirky and deceptively simple “Boston Love Affair,” a song harmonically based on the Cole Porter standard “What is This Thing Called Love”; followed by “Ovadia,” Borochov’s musical nod in the direction of the Israeli band Third World Love and its Mediterranean sound.

Outset’s sixth song, “Introduction,” is the jazz translation of a mawal, the non-rhythmic, vocal improvisation used in Arabic music to introduce the body of a song. In the case of “Introduction,” Borochov’s trumpet intones lilting, melancholy Arabesques over the bass’ one-note drone. Borochov notes that there is a jazz precedent for “Introduction”: The opening to John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” in which Coltrane freely improvises over the one-note drone played on the piano by McCoy Tyner. Borochov, like many jazz musicians, holds a special place in his heart for Coltrane. Unlike many jazz musicians, however, Borochov feels that “Coltrane’s playing resembles an Ashkenazi hazzan.”

“Introduction” introduces the disk’s last piece, the slow-burning “One for Uzi.” Borochov plays the trumpet on “One for Uzi” as if he’s improvising on the oud, continually returning to a root note and creating a gravitational pull against which Hagai Amir launches into some incredibly bluesy soloing. The piece is marked by a pulse-like beat and pregnant pauses that end with a climactic return to the blues theme from “Pain Song,” only this time with Avri Borochov stroking a power chord on the bass and using a distortion pedal.

Outset is a remarkable debut from a young artist who is still integrating the various aspects of his musical personality. Jazz purists might have a hard time following Borochov when he starts singing in Arabic on his horn, but naïve listeners who ask themselves the simple question “Does it sound good?” will enjoy the ride. Outset also demonstrates, as if demonstration were necessary, that a new generation of Israeli musicians is ready to take its place on the global jazz stage.

Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

That said, don’t make the mistake of calling Itamar Borochov an Israeli jazz musician. Not that Borochov denies his connection to Israel. Far from it. But he considers himself simply a jazz musician and, like all jazz musicians, Borochov draws on his particular musical experience in making his art.

If Borochov is taken at his word, can there ever be a thing called “Israeli jazz”?

One interesting answer to this question is the “Hebrew Jazz” series founded and directed by Barak Weiss since its inception in 2011. Weiss believes that Israeli jazz musicians have neglected a particularly rich source of material and inspiration—the Israeli songbook: Israeli folk music in all its forms, mizrahi music, and the best of Israeli rock and pop. In the same way as American jazz musicians often reinterpret standards, there’s no reason Israelis shouldn’t do the same with nearly 100 years of native music. To that end, Weiss has been commissioning Israeli jazz musicians to elaborate upon and extend the work of canonical Israeli artists. Recently, this has meant pairing the Nadav Remez quintet with the music of Esther Ofarim for shows in Jerusalem and New York City; while Borochov has been charged by Weiss with reinterpreting “the founding mother of mizrahi music,” Ahuva Ozeri.

What does the future hold for Israeli jazz? In the short term, it looks like Israeli jazz musicians will be doing their thing in three fields: Straight-ahead jazz, ethnic-music fusion, and Hebrew Jazz.

Playing straight-ahead jazz means exploring the possibilities inherent in the tradition that stretches from Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens through big band, bebop, and free jazz. Fluency in this artistic language is a prerequisite for anything else a jazz artist aspires to do; but some musicians such as Avishai Cohen will continue to feel most at home in this arena. That said, it will be an uphill battle for most Israelis to distinguish themselves by playing straight-ahead jazz, which is an already crowded field.

A more viable commercial route enabling Israeli musicians to create a distinctive sound and carve out a recognizable niche for themselves, while still making a sophisticated artistic statement, is the fusion of jazz and ethnic music, or “world music.” In this context, the Jewish musical traditions of the Diaspora are a particularly rich field ripe for reinterpretation.

As for Hebrew Jazz, it is a local and limited development, but exciting nonetheless. Assuming that the project continues to receive funding, Hebrew Jazz will reach Israeli audiences traditionally indifferent to jazz while revitalizing the Israeli songbook. Ultimately, the hope is that Hebrew Jazz will inspire Israeli jazz musicians to explore the history of Israeli music on their own.

Needless to say, even the most optimistic scenario leaves jazz a marginal music in Israel, eclipsed by mizrahi music and Israeli rock and pop. But to put things in perspective, jazz is also a marginal music in the United States, the land of its birth.

Jazz devotees can take comfort in the fact that depth and enduring vitality don’t always show up on the hit parade; and in both Israel and the States, jazz will remain an artistic language uniquely capable of combining different worlds and making them swing together. While Israeli jazz will never become popular music, it will still be the place to go to when you want to hear the amazing diversity of the Israeli experience artfully portrayed in rhythm and tune.


The Itamar Borochov Quartet with special guest Greg Tardy will celebrate the release of Outset with a midnight show at Smalls Jazz Club in New York City on Wednesday, June 18, 2014.

Banner Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower