Bopping with Babs

Virtuosic Israeli-born pianist Tamir Hendelman has become instrumental foil for glittering cast of divas, including Natalie Cole, Barbra Streisand.

September 6, 2011 22:40
Tamir Hendelman

Tamir Hendelman. (photo credit: Jay Matsueda)

Tamir Hendelman has come a long way. The 39-year-old Los Angeles-based jazz pianist began his interest in the discipline as a kid growing up in Tel Aviv.

“It was a Count Basie record that turned me on to jazz,” he recalls. “I liked that big band sound.”

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Despite the size of his band here, Hendelman will try to convey that rich sonic effect at his forthcoming gig at Shablul Club in Tel Aviv (September 15, 9:30 p.m.), when he teams up with Israeli bass player Gilad Abro and drummer Shai Zelman.

Hendelman relocated with his family to the West Coast in 1984, at the age of 12, but maintains strong ties with this part of the world and endeavors to swing by the Middle East at least every couple of years, to perform and meet up with relatives living here. The pianist says his Israeliness suits his chosen career path very well.

“I feel that the warmth of Israelis reflects the warmth of jazz, and vice versa, whether you’re talking about straight-ahead jazz or music with more ethnic flavoring.”

That musical and cultural compatibility comes through strongly on Hendelman’s latest recording, Destinations, which will form the basis of next week’s concert, in particular a number called “Israeli Waltz,” one of two original cuts on Destinations. Fittingly, there is a neat and heartwarming story behind the number.

“The first time I was in Israel with my wife, who comes from Ohio, we went to the Galilee and stayed at a tzimmer [holiday cabin] on a moshav,” explains Hendelman.

“We went out for a walk in the late afternoon and we lost our way. Suddenly we found ourselves in the dark, with the sounds of jackals all around us, and we eventually managed to get back to the moshav. My wife [had] hurt herself and we just knocked on the door of a house – it was the first night of Succot, and before we knew it we were sitting around the family table with the grandmother and all the others. That’s Israel for you – and that inspired ‘Israeli Waltz.’”

A quick run through Destinations reveals a wide palette of musical influences, in addition to Hendelman’s childhood Israeli influences, ranging from jazz to classical music and much betwixt. He began his keyboard studies at the tender age of 6, when he attended the Anazagi Conservatory in Tel Aviv.

“I wanted to study classical composition because I thought I could pick up jazz from jam sessions and just playing and picking up songs, but I wanted to study counterpoint and other classical techniques formally, at the conservatory,” he says, adding that it’s a happy stylistic marriage.

“They enrich each other. Classical music adds to jazz, and jazz adds its own flavors to classical music.”

In fact, Hendelman made his initial foray into the mysteries of keyboard work on the organ.

“When I was a kid, one day I was walking past [music store] Clei Zemer near Dizengoff Center and I heard someone demonstrating the features of an organ to a customer. I heard an entire orchestra in what he was playing. That really drew me in. I was only in first grade but I knew I wanted that orchestra sound.”

Hendelman says he adopted an eclectic approach to music from the start.

“I was always open to all sorts of things – pop music and other stuff, and I remember writing songs and dancing to them, in a group, as a kid.”

Things got more serious when Hendelman was 10 and he started studying music theory.

“When I was 12 I wrote a quasi-classical song and I called it ‘The Universe,’ and some critic wrote something like: ‘who does this kid think he is writing a song called ‘The Universe?’”

Despite his tender years Hendelman took that in his stride. “That didn’t bother me. It was no big deal,” he says.

The Stateside move did not interfere with the youth’s musical development and he soon found a teacher who used the Yamaha method of instruction. That suited Hendelman well.

“It helps students develop their ear, and learn how to compose music. It not really a matter of technique, it draws more on the imagination. For example, the teacher will relate a story, or describe a character, and you have to write some music that portrays that.”

That set young Hendelman up and at the age of 14 he won Yamaha’s national keyboard competition, which provided the youngster with performance slots in Japan and at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC. He continued his musical education at the prestigious Tanglewood Institute, and subsequently received a Bachelor of Music Composition degree from Eastman School of Music. He later became the youngest musical director for Lovewell Institute for Creative Arts and has put in clinician work for the Thelonius Monk Institute.

Hendelman continued to draw on a wide range of musical sources and Destinations includes material written by early 20th century French impressionist composer Maurice Ravel, iconic jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, Brazilian songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim and modern jazz founding father saxophonist Charlie Parker.

Over the years, Hendelman has played with all sorts of musicians, including drummer Jeff Hamilton and bassist John Clayton – principally as a member of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, but also as a member of the Jeff Hamilton Trio – and guitarist John Pizzarelli, as well as the other members of his own trio: drummer Lewis Nash and bassist Marco Panascia. Hendelman says he also has a preference for working with vocalists, and has some heavyweight names in his CV to date, including Natalie Cole and Barbra Streisand.

“Working with singers changed the way I approach standards,” Hendelman notes.

Hendelman performed with Streisand in 2009, when the diva gave a rare performance at the famed Village Vanguard jazz club in New York, in front of an audience of only 100, which included A-listers, such as former US president Bill Clinton and actress Nicole Kidman, and some lucky members of the general public who won tickets through a raffle. “That was quite an experience,” recalls Hendelman.

You could say he has come a long way, from Tel Aviv to the Village Vanguard with Streisand. And with many destinations to go...

For more information about the concert: or 03-5461891. For more information about Tamir Hendelman:

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