Franck Amsallem is only too happy to be coming here at the turn of the New Year, and not only for professional reasons.
“Whenever I come to Israel to play in January, the weather is so beautiful,” says the 51-year-old French Jewish jazz pianist.
On the day we spoke, it was 1º Celsius in Paris. Amsallem should be able to bask in some relatively balmy weather during his stay in this part of the world, which is principally centered around his January 6 (8:30 p.m.) gig at the Gerard Behar Center in Jerusalem, under the auspices of the Romain Gary French Institute.
When he’s not looking for rays to soak up, Amsallem does his best to keep pushing the boundaries of musical creativity in all directions.
He was born in Oran, then in French Algeria, but grew up in Nice, France, and first set fingers on the ivories when he was seven.
He attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he studied with veteran trumpeter Herb Pomeroy and multi-instrumentalist and arranger Michael Gibbs, later relocating to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music, principally with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer.
Learning under the wing of such seasoned jazz artists not only gave Amsallem the benefit of their skills and life experience but also gave him a link with the frontline innovators of modern jazz.
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“I always loved the more traditional part of jazz that is played in Europe, which is why I moved to the States so early, because I really wanted to be in the middle of the action and wanted to play jazz according to the great masters,” he says.
Amsallem made the most of his time in the US, hooking up with the likes of saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, which gave him an indirect link with such modern jazz founder fathers as trumpeter Miles Davis and drummer Max Roach.
Other feted band leaders who benefited from his sideman services included saxophonist-flutist Charles Lloyd, bassist Gary Peacock, reedman Sonny Fortune and composer and big band leader Marian Schneider.
Amsallem says putting in bandstand time is just as important as studying in the cloistered environs of jazz schools. “The way you really learn jazz is by being exposed to the older guys. When you are a young musician, if you don’t have the exposure of playing with better and more experienced musicians, it’s very hard to improve.
That’s the real reason I moved to the States, and I learned so much from all those guys. It’s not an easy life as a young musician, but I had a lot of fun,” he says.
Keeping body and soul together also meant that Amsallem spread his musical wings. In addition to teaming up with some of the jazz masters, he also worked with jazzoriented pop outfit Blood, Sweat & Tears and crooner Harry Belafonte.
He says that his varied gig schedule helped to keep the money coming in but was also a fun experience.
“It wasn’t all hard core jazz, but I enjoyed it,” he recalls. “It’s basically a matter of just playing music and tempering your approach to be able to fit into different musical situations.”
Since returning to France, Amsallem has maintained a busy playing and recording schedule and has released seven albums. His discography includes Out a Day (1990); Summer Times (2003); and Amsallem Sings (2009), which features him playing piano and singing standards – his first venture as a vocalist.
Despite his Algerian origins, Amsallem didn’t grow up listening to modal music from that part of the world. “We moved to France when I was a few months old, and my parents were very assimilated to French culture, so I don’t want to dwell on that too much.”
At a later stage, Arabic sounds made their presence felt in Amsallem’s evolving artistic mindset.
“The first Arabic music I heard was actually Jewish music,” he explains, “when I starting playing bar mitzvas [for members of the Jewish community from North African countries] when I was about 16.”
Amsallem’s oeuvre to date includes original material written for various ensembles. “I have a great love of orchestral work, both classical and jazz,” he notes. “I enjoy doing that stuff a lot. It is a great education to work with jazz big bands, and a great way to meet people and to work with people like Maria Schneider and Herb Pomeroy.”
However, Amsallem’s recorded output has mostly been in trio settings. He says there are advantages to working with smaller outfits. “It’s great to play in a big band, but when there are only three of you on a stage or in a studio, you have a lot of room. When there are 16 on a stage, you have much less room.”
Amsallem will have all the room for expression he wants at his solo gig in Jerusalem.
For more information: (02) 624- 3156 and www.cfgary-jerusalem.org.il
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