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World Music Features

Diaspora Jazz

By David R. Adler
Published June 5, 2008

For many Israeli jazz musicians, home is wherever the music leads them. Such is the case for Anat Fort, Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, Anat Cohen, and Avishai Cohen (photo).

Is there such a thing as “Israeli jazz”? Talk to the growing number of jazz musicians who also happen to be Israeli and you’ll get ambivalent replies. On one hand, these artists are shaped by the sounds of their native country, and they bring that influence to bear on their work. On the other, they’re not neatly unified, nor do they live in a bubble apart from the swirl of innovation around them, particularly as many opt for the bright lights—and big changes—of cities like New York. Sometimes they play Israeli jazz, and sometimes they’re Israelis playing jazz.

It’s a split personality that has its advantages. Israel’s position at the crossroads of Mediterranean, Arabic and Jewish cultures has allowed these players to cultivate an uncommon versatility. “What we share is a certain openness to world music influences,” says saxophonist and clarinetist Anat Cohen, proprietor of Anzic Records and co-leader of the 3 Cohens with her brothers Avishai (trumpet) and Yuval (sax). “I have this joke with [bassist] Omer Avital about ‘Israeli jazz,’ because when I look for a musician who can play straight-ahead jazz but also some Afro-Cuban, Brazilian and Middle Eastern, and who can go for the party vibe and the serious vibe, I’ll say, ‘I need someone to play Israeli jazz.’” Indeed, Israeli musicians have gravitated to a host of jazz subgenres, with impressive results. Guitarist Roni Ben-Hur has apprenticed with bebop pianist Barry Harris, while the younger axe-slinger Gilad Hekselman is tearing up bandstands alongside post-boppers Ari Hoenig and Joel Frahm. Trombonist Reut Regev has earned his stripes with avant-garde icono Anthony Braxton, while Rafi Malkiel, another trombone specialist, has delved deeply into Latin jazz on his recent debut My Island. Expanding into other disciplines, vocalist Ayelet Rose Gottlieb has developed a live multimedia project based on her 2006 Tzadik disc Mayim Rabim (and later this year, she’ll release Up To Here|From Here). On the business side, reed player Assif Tsahar stays busy as a player but also fosters vibrant experimental music on his Hopscotch label and runs the Levontine 7 performance space in Tel Aviv.

Of course, adaptability and change are always part of the journey. “I didn’t necessarily think I was playing ‘jazz,’” says pianist Anat Fort, recalling her transition from reluctant classical student to passionate jazz composer and improviser. “It<