Jazz instrumentalists often talk about trying to make their instruments sing, while vocalists frequently aim to emulate the textures of some instrument or another. Franck Amsallem knows both sides of that coin particularly well. The 52-year-old Algerian-born French Jewish pianist will perform at Confederation House in Jerusalem tomorrow evening (9:30 p.m.) alongside saxophonist Amikam Kimelman, Australian-born bass player Simon Starr and drummer Shai Zelman.
Amsallem has been on the scene a long time and started his solo recording career with a bang, with his 1990 Out a Day release, for which he enjoyed the services of stellar bass player Gary Peacock and drummer Bill Stewart. There have been nine more Amsallem albums since then, with another due to come out later this year, which will go by the name of Franck Amsallem Sings Vol. II .
Following on from the latter, it doesn’t take a doctoral degree in astrophysics to work out that the French pianist has previous experience in combining his piano strings with his vocal chords. The self- explanatory titled Amsallem Sings came out in 2009, and it was the first time the world at large knew the man could sing with his voice as well as with his hands.
Amsallem will display both skills in tomorrow evening’s concert that is primarily a tribute to late legendary jazz crooner Mel Tormé. It is a good thematic choice. There is clearly plenty of the crooner about Amsallem’s vocal delivery too, as demonstrated across a slew of jazz standards on Amsallem Sings .
All in all, it was a natural direction for Amsallem’s confluence with Kimelman and the others.
“When Amikam and I started talking about me coming over to Israel again [Amsallem was last here in January 2013] he asked me for a pitch, and I said ‘Why don’t we do singing?’ The last time I played with Amikam was five years ago, and we didn’t do any singing then. In the meantime, I’ve done two CDs with singing.”
Amsallem felt that the time was ripe to give Tormé’s oeuvre an airing.
“He was a beautiful singer and he has been forgotten a little bit. He sang songs that everyone sang, but also sang some songs that only he did like ‘Born to Be Blue’ and ‘Harlem Nocturne’ and ‘Sunday in New York’. I really like Mel Tormé. I saw him live many times and he was wonderful.”
Amsallem says that, in fact, Tormé’s musical talents went beyond his velvety vocals.
“He was a consummate musician. He could play the piano and the drums, and he could write arrangements for his band too. You didn’t mess with him.”
The crooner cast his spell over Amsallem when the Frenchman was at a formative stage of his life.
“I saw him with [legendary drummer] Buddy Rich when I was 16. He really blew me away.”
Throughout its history, the jazz fraternity always included artists who had delved deeply into classical climes too. Iconic trumpeter Miles Davis, for instance, studied at the famed Juilliard School of music in New York, and as did now 77-year-old bass player Ron Carter.
While he came through the classical ranks, Amsallem says he is first and foremost a jazzman who maintains a love of classical works.
“I am a jazz musician who has tried to fill in the holes that one discovers during your musical career. You find out that you need better technique, better understanding of other periods of music and so on. That is why I went from being a jazz musician to be a student of classical music too. I wouldn’t call myself a classical musician, because I never had that pretension, but I did spend a lot of time trying to understand the music, and not just be a jazz head.”
Amsallem is grateful for the classical baggage he accumulated.
“It impacts on my sound [as a pianist], and the fact that I had to study so many difficult pieces of [classical] music and try to understand them was positive for me. I did the classical stuff to make my jazz better.”
Amsallem was born in Oran, Algeria, and his family relocated to Nice, France, when he was small. He took up classical saxophone at the local conservatory when he was 15, which was a matter of authoritarian misconception rather than choice.
“I wanted to study classical piano but they said I was told (I was 15) to start with that. So I asked them what they had for me and they suggested bassoon, or percussion or saxophone.”
At that point hormones took over.
“I thought the sax would help me to get the girls, so I went for that. But studying classical music was really just a way to get my foot in the door. And it helps me break away a bit from jazz, and bring a twist of freshness to jazz that would you not find if you just stayed within the confines of pure jazz.”
Luckily, in those years he caught some major jazz acts from the US, including Thad Jones, Count Basie, Charles Mingus, Bill Evans, Sonny Stitt and Stan Getz live, at the Grande Parade du Jazz in his hometown of Nice. Amsallem’s jazz education moved up several notches in 1981 when he received a full scholarship to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he studied with trumpeter Herb Pomeroy and composer Michael Gibbs. Five years later, he moved to the epicenter of the jazz world, New York, where he continued his jazz education with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, while maintaining his classical chops with Phillip Kawin.
Naturally, he merged into the city’s jazz scene, playing with the likes of senior saxophonists Gerry Mulligan, Charles Lloyd and Sonny Fortune, and Grammy-Award recipient composer and band leader Maria Schneider.
Amsallem’s youthful endeavor on saxophone has left its mark on him.
“For me, beyond anything else, jazz is the saxophone. I think the most important musicians in jazz are saxophone players.”
His favorite masters of the sax include Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. That triad covers a very extensive jazz ground.
“To this day I feel almost like a contrived saxophone player who plays the piano.”
As he has demonstrated in recent years and as, no doubt, will come through at tomorrow’s concert, Amsallem has a penchant for vocalists.
That is very much uppermost in his mind when he addresses jazz standards.
“When I play the jazz standards I try to be aware of the way the great singers, like Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles and Shirley Horn, read the standards.” For tickets and more information: *6226, (02) 623-7000, (02) 624-5206 ext. 4 and www.confederationhouse.org/en/.