What does Israeli jazz sound like?
It's experimental and traditional, edgy and relaxed, forward-looking and retrospective.
The music of this cosmopolitan culture, in other words, proves as stylistically wide-ranging as you might hope of a Middle Eastern crossroads, which seems to be the implicit message of the first Israeli Jazz Festival in Chicago. A span of jazz dialects is being spoken at the event, which opened Sunday evening and continues to fan out across the city through Thursday.
In effect, the festival is giving Chicagoans an intensely focused look at a musical milieu we've sampled periodically via past visits from Israeli artists such as clarinetist Anat Cohen and bassist Avishai Cohen (no relation).
On Monday night, a capacity audience crowded the Green Mill Jazz Club to hear the Chicago debut of guitarist Gilad Hekselman, kicking off the second night of the festival. Because the drummer from Hekselman's recent recordings, Marcus Gilmore, could not make this show, the guitarist was playing at a bit of a disadvantage.
Or you would have thought so until Hekselman, bassist Joe Martin and drummer John Davis took the stage. Davis was playing this music publicly for the first time, Hekselman told a listener after the first set, but the drummer finessed Hekselman's sometimes tricky original scores as if he had been playing them for quite a while.
The band struck hard from the outset in Hekselman's "March of the Sad," from his newly released album "This Just In." As soloist, Hekselman crafted beautifully sculpted phrases with nary an extraneous note or gesture. As bandleader, he encouraged free-wheeling interchange, bassist Martin and drummer Davis pushing and pulling the music in directions that suited them. The intimacy with which these three players shared a rhythmic pulse would have been impressive even if you didn't know that Davis was filling in for Gilmore.
It takes a brave soul to play as softly, simply and gently as Hekselman did in a samba by Brazilian guitarist-composer Baden Powell (could the Green Mill bar-tenders please cut back on the ka-ching of cash registers when the music is at a whisper?). Here Hekselman spun sinuous phrases, with bassist Martin offering plush counterpoint down low in his instrument and drummer Davis producing soft, shimmering colors with mallets. Pure poetry.
If Hekselman's lightweight "Flower" veered dangerously close to Pat Metheny at his most trivial, "The Bucket Kicker" showed far more content, Hekselman riding Martin and Davis' great waves of rhythmic energy. And in the set's finale, the title track from "This Just In," Hekselman summed up a great deal about his approach to jazz improvisation, playing tightly coiled phrases punctuated by ample space and presiding over a trio sound of unmistakable transparency.
Not as intense as John Scofield or as harmonically innovative as Kurt Rosenwinkel (who is?), Hekselman nevertheless stands as an increasingly noteworthy figure in jazz guitar. Having lived in New York for nearly a decade, his Middle Eastern roots may not be so obvious in his music, but his rising profile signifies the heightened impact of Israeli jazz.
The Gilad Hekselman Trio plays 7 p.m. Tuesday at Anshe Emet Synagogue, 3751 N. Broadway; $10; 773-281-1423 or ansheemet.org.
Amir Gwirtzman at Mayne Stage
Opening night of the Israeli Jazz Festival unfolded at two venues on Sunday evening, with trombonist Rafi Malkiel playing the Old Town School of Folk Music, on North Lincoln Avenue, and reedist Amir Gwirtzman at the Mayne Stage, on West Morse Avenue.
I heard Gwirtzman, who stands as a charming anomaly in jazz: a one-man-band who brought onto the stage a trove of instruments and a mountain of electronic equipment. By recording solo passages live, looping that music into sound samples and then improvising and recording new themes on top of that, Gwirtzman created the sonic effect of multiple musicians working in tandem.
Between pieces, he offered disarming, spoken soliloquies on the historic and modern instruments he uses, as well as the far-flung musical languages he draws upon.
At its best, this unabashedly idiosyncratic approach to music-making produced both haunting and comical moments. When Gwirtzman picked up a traditional Native American flute and began playing an ancient Hebraic prayer, many in the audience quietly chanted along, performer and listeners spontaneously creating an ethereal, ghostly sound.
In an eccentric, slightly cockeyed homage to klezmer music, Gwirtzman alternated between soprano saxophone and shofar (a ram's horn played in synagogues on Jewish High Holidays). Two epochs seemed to speaking to one another as Gwirtzman switched between one instrument and the other. When he quoted musically from Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" and Ravel's "Bolero," you knew the man had a sense of humor.
Elsewhere in his set, Gwirtzman played a deeply musical flute solo in Wayne Shorter's "Footprints," then layered in riffs on baritone saxophone, bass clarinet and what-not.
After awhile, however, all this electronic-technical wizardry became a tad tiresome, the gizmos eventually overshadowing the music. The mechanical quality of the rhythmic backdrop didn't help.
Gwirtzman is too creative an artist and interesting a raconteur/philosopher to rely so heavily on so many electronic stunts. His innate musicality is more than enough to engage an audience.
The Israeli Jazz Festival continues with flutist Hadar Noiberg leading a trio 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St.; free; 312-744-6630. And singer Ester Rada performing 8 p.m. Thursday at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph St.; $25-$40; 312-733-9463 or citywinery.com.
For more information, visit embassies.gov.il/chicago.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, to go chicagotribune.com/reich.
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