Twenty years ago, around the time that he and other improvisers from what was still the Soviet Union became subjects of much amazement in the U.S., pianist Vyacheslav Ganelin surprised everyone by emigrating from Lithuania to Israel—he was fleeing anti-Semitism, but in terms of jazz, it was as if he were exchanging a spot on the dark side of the moon for another not nearly as bright. Much has changed since then. For one thing, the demise of Communism seems to have resulted in an economy entirely based on white slavery and credit card fraud, which ought to be enough to make fans of Ronald Reagan think twice. For another, Israel—of all places—has started producing jazz talent and exporting it here. New York is now home to not one but two young Israel-born musicians named Avishai Cohen, one a bassist and former sideman with Chick Corea, the other a trumpeter and brother to saxophonist and clarinetist Anat Cohen. Though hardly comparable to the legion of hard-boppers nurtured by Detroit and Philadelphia in the ’50s, the list of transplanted Israelis is long and growing—for starters, pianist Anat Fort, guitarist Roni Ben-Hur, bassist Omer Avital, violinist Miri Ben-Ari, and saxophonists Danny Zamir, Ori Kaplan, Eli Degibri, Ohad Talmor (born in France and raised in Switzerland, but of Israeli extraction), and Gilad Atzmon (U.K. jazz’s reigning bad boy, a Palestinian sympathizer who describes himself as “a former Israeli and former Jew”).
Artists everywhere draw on feelings of community and their own alienation—a symbolic Jewish homeland that rivals the U.S. for military aggression would seem to offer its artists ample opportunity for both. But more to the point, it’s the only Middle Eastern country where Western influences are openly embraced, and its otherness from its neighbors would make it a natural melting pot even if being a magnet for Jews the world over didn’t already. Take for example Anat Fort’s A Long Story, which begins with a trio performance of a piece of hers called “Just Now,” featuring Ed Schuller on bass and Paul Motian on drums. The piece is reprised twice, first in a solo piano variation about 20 minutes in, and then with clarinetist Perry Robinson added to the trio at the very end. A chant is implicit in the song’s knuckled, elegiac piano line, but is the echo I’m hearing Eastern European or Muslim? No doubt it’s a conflation of the two, also imbued with the influence of Keith Jarrett’s folksier side. What matters is that it lures you in immediately, establishing a contemplative mood undispelled over the next hour, even as the interplay between Fort and her better-known sidemen gradually becomes freer and more open-ended, reaching a peak with Fort’s length-of-the-keyboard leaps and Motian’s abstract tap-dancing on “Rehaired,” which leads into Robinson’s clarinet gnarls and otherworldly ocarina whistles on the following “As Two/Something ‘Bout Camels.”
Seeing the elusive Robinson’s name on the cover was all that moved A Long Story to the top of the CD stack, given that I don’t recall ever hearing Peel, Fort’s 1999 DIY debut. The lone avant-garde clarinetist who wasn’t a doubling saxophonist for a long time in the ’60s, Robinson has never recorded as much as his talent should warrant. Although present on only five of Story‘s 11 tracks, he doesn’t disappoint: As capable of relaxed lyricism as he is of agitation, he yawns and stretches on “Chapter Two,” a duet with Fort, and floats like Paul Desmond on her near-blues “Not a Dream?” But Fort is a real discovery, a pianist who’s absorbed her influences (Paul Bley and Cecil Taylor, along with Jarrett) and already has a clear identity as a composer. She produced Story herself—though it fits the ECM mold of album-as-narrative, label founder Manfred Eicher became involved after the fact, via label regular Motian. The notes say she planned on including a few standards until Motian, offering counsel as the veteran musician on the date, talked her out of it. Too bad, in a way, because Fort’s own compositions are so songlike, it would have been interesting to get her take on a familiar melody or two. In the end, though, Motian was right: Story feels complete as is, all of a piece to a degree even few ECMs are.
What else pertaining to Israel is in the pile? Anat Cohen plays only clarinet, her best horn, on Poetica, which spotlights her with a rhythm section plus a string quartet arranged by bassist Omer Avital on six of 10 tracks. Four graceful Israeli melodies rest comfortably amid Coltrane’s “Lonnie’s Lament,” a Jacques Brel tune, and gently surging originals by Cohen and Avital. Heard a track at a time, Poetica is beguiling, but one after another, all those pensive, slow-to-medium tempos begin to wear on you. Noir, a companion release also featuring Cohen on booting tenor, soprano, and alto saxophones—and crescendoing orchestral arrangements by Oded Lev-Ari—offers more variety and more pure joy. Its accents are from South America, though fluidly Brazilian rather than that choppy Manhattan-Latin take on Afro-Cuban rhythm currently in vogue in jazz (and on tedious display throughout much of As Is . . . Live at the Blue Note, the latest release by the Avishai Cohen who plays bass). Pixinguinha’s “Ingênuo” and Ernesto Lecuona’s “La Comparsa” are the most buoyant of Lev-Ari’s Gil Evans–worthy transformations of what used to be called “light” classics, and the older pop tunes here are ones you don’t hear everyday—Lev-Ari pulls out all the stops on “Cry Me a River” (that torch song to end all torch songs), and so does Cohen on clarinet, soaring from chalumeau to piping in a blink.
And let’s not overlook Roni Ben-Hur, a guitarist in his mid-forties with a veiled tone and hornlike attack like vintage Kenny Burrell, who’s about a decade older than either Cohen or Fort and has been in New York longer. With pianist Ronnie Mathews and drummer Lewis Nash on hand—and the leader himself no slouch at crisp, idiomatic bebop phrasing—it’s not surprising that Monk’s “Think of One” and Elmo Hope’s “One Second Please” are among the highlights of Ben-Hur’s new Keepin’ It Open. But the album’s stunner—and an example of the sort of thing that would have once sounded exotic, but is increasingly common—is “Eshkolit,” a traditional Sephardic melody featuring brooding, suspenseful solos by Ben-Hur and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt. You never know where the next tune is coming from these days, nor the next batch of players.
Anat Fort performs at Cornelia Street Café May 17, corneliastreetcafe.com.