Israeli musicians rejuvenate jazz scene

Three Cohens represent a new wave of Israeli musicians dotting the jazz music landscape.

By Jake Weisman, Ladue Horton Watkins High School

Israel is constantly in the news, frequently brought up in political discussion, and often discussed among Jewish teens as a vacation hotspot. But now, Israel has gained recognition for the vast output of jazz musicians in recent years.

“[I think that] there is a connection between Israel and jazz music. Jazz is about improvisation and you get that feeling while in Israel. Jazz is a universal art; it’s accepting of all types of people and so is Israel,” bassist Omer Avital said.

Avital is one of many Israeli jazz musicians, and lives in New York when he is not touring. Another Israeli musician, Gilad Hekselman, came to the United States in 2004 to study at the New School of Music in New York. The guitarist has been getting a lot of acclaim from jazz critics and musicians.

“At this point there are about 20 Israelis at the New School, which is a lot out of a program of 500 people,” Hekselman said. “It’s not a coincidence that Israeli jazz musicians are getting recognized because there is a very good education system in place for jazz in Israel. I had great teachers and mentors growing up who told me what to play and who to listen to. I formed my first jazz trio while I was still in high school. I moved to New York because I was ready for something different and because it’s the best place for jazz in the world.”

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Anat Cohen, along with her brothers Avishai and Yuval, were recently featured on the front cover of Downbeat magazine. Cohen plays clarinet and saxophone, focusing on tenor and soprano.

“It’s an enormous honor, given the history of the magazine [with roots dating back to 1934] and the artists that have been on it. It’s hard to believe it was the three of us really,” Cohen said. “I studied at a conservatory in Jaffa, Israel, which included all different styles of music: New Orleans, big band, and ensembles. I loved the way swing felt. It was always something more than the music; it was deep and beautiful and I couldn’t get enough of it.”

Cohen is inspired by jazz legends such as Dexter Gordon, Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker, and notably John Coltrane. Cohen maintains her dedication to the music, listening and playing jazz on a daily basis. It is a testament to the longevity of the music.

“People need to take the effort to listen and feel something,” Cohen said. “Swing is a feeling; it’s art. You can go to a museum and stand there or you can really get the impact of something. Once a person really digs deep to figure out the music and history, it is very rewarding.”

According to Downbeat, at least a dozen Israeli jazz musicians attained a high level of recognition in recent years. Although they have gone their separate ways, these musicians knew each other in Israel and remain in close contact.

“I knew Anat’s brother, Yuval, in Israel. We were in a band together. Gilad was just a kid and I saw him when I came back from New York to visit Israel. We all went to the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, a high-level performing arts school. There is definitely an affinity or bond that we have toward one another,” Avital said.

Hekselman notes that while there are a number of Israeli musicians, it’s a stretch to say there is such a thing as “Israeli jazz.” With Israel being a country just over 60 years old, jazz is relatively new to the country. This music was created in U.S in the early 1900s, which is an important distinction to be made.

“The music we play has a Moroccan and Arabic influence to it,” Hekselman said, laughing. “Sometimes we joke and say that it is ‘falafel jazz.'”

This wave of new musicians should serve to inspire and show the growth of culture in Israel. Just as teens see popular figures in American culture as icons, Jewish teens should relate to their Israeli counterparts.

Between their obligation to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, leaving their families in Israel to study in New York and living the life of a jazz musician, it is safe to say that these artists have not had an easy journey. Regardless of labels such as “falafel jazz,” these artists are no joke when it comes to making serious music.