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(photo credit: Courtesy)
After more than a decade and a half abroad, Assif Tsahar is perhaps better positioned than any other Israeli jazz performer to make a clear-eyed judgment about the country's growing jazz scene. Though the saxophonist hails from Tel Aviv, he's spent the last 16 years based in New York, where a developing career in the global jazz capital has given him a powerful point of comparison with the relatively cozy Israeli music scene.
He's now bringing his unique perspective back to Israel on a regular basis, with the 37-year-old Tsahar performing a new set of duties as part-owner of Levontin 7, Tel Aviv's newest jazz venue. He's continuing with his own playing at the same time, however, and will perform works off his latest release, Digital Primitives, during performances at the club Sunday and Monday with his American partners, percussionist Chad Taylor and vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Cooper Moore. The Levontin shows will complete a seven-date Israeli tour that also included shows in Jerusalem, Haifa and venues elsewhere in northern Israel.
The local jazz scene has changed significantly since he left, Tsahar says. "The standard of Israeli jazz musicians has gone up a lot ... I don't think we have anything to be ashamed of compared with anywhere in the world," he says.
The decision to pursue a jazz career outside of Israel came during a different period, when the Israeli jazz community was far less developed and the gulf with New York's musical offerings was even wider. New York appealed to Tsahar in particular because of his interest in jazz sub-genres outside the mainstream. "I didn't just want to play what everyone else was," he recalls. "New York offered lots of opportunities I didn't have in Tel Aviv."
Tsahar wasted little time leaving his mark on the New York jazz community, and soon became a major cog in the Vision Festival, an important event on the American improvisational music, dance and literature calendar.
Seven years ago, Tsahar took a significant step toward achieving greater artistic independence for himself and his colleagues, founding Hopscotch Records. "It's a non-profit organization, and the idea was and remains to allow artists to produce themselves and to be in complete control of artistic decisions [affecting what they record]," he says. "That's something that is hard to find with the major labels. With them, money always comes into the equation."
With Levontin 7 now also on his plate, Tsahar is dividing his time between the US, touring in Europe and more frequent trips to Israel. But with other local venues like Shablul and Zappa also staging regular jazz shows, what added value does Tsahar feel his new club offers?
Tsahar says that Levontin 7 ventures into musical genres that other venues don't, sometimes mixing them in unconventional ways. "As long as it's good music, I don't care what it is," he says. "I don't take the snobbish view that music has to belong to a certain category. It just has to be good, and come straight from the heart."
"We have," he continues, "jam sessions with VJs and electronic music. No one else in Israel would have thought of doing something like that."
The club's performance schedule is similarly eclectic, with this month's program featuring acts like rock, blues and funk outfit Yisraelim Sex Pe'ulah, indie rock vocalist Tova Gertner, a classical music concert and an evening of Japanese culture.
What makes such a program possible, Tsahar says, is the range of music, and specifically jazz, now being performed in Israel. That diversity derives in part, he continues, from Israeli musicians who left the country to study and are now returning. "There are all sorts of jazz musicians in Israel today," he says. "There's a far greater range than when I left 16 years ago. People like [bass players] Avishai Cohen and Omer Avital, [trombonist] Avi Lebovich and [saxophonist-clarinetist] Yoni Silver went to New York to study and work and have come back to help bring up new generations of jazz musicians here. There is a lot of talent here now."
Levontin 7 is a shared project with some of the country's other homegrown talent. Tsahar shares ownership of the club with improvisational pianist Daniel Sarid and with 30-year-old Ilan Volkov, who in 2003 became the youngest conductor ever to lead a BBC orchestra when he was appointed chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
The three are excited about the contributions they think Levontin 7 will make to Israeli jazz. "The club adds breadth to the local scene," Tsahar says. "That's very important to me, and to the musicians and audiences here too."