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Anat Fort is a survivor. Thirteen years after she moved from Neveh Monoson, near Tel Aviv, to the glimmering jazz lights of New York, you can't quite say she's fought her way to the top. But she's getting there.
The 35-year-old pianist, who will perform at the Tel Aviv Opera House on Friday, is about to become the first Israeli-born jazz artist to put out a record on prestigious German label ECM - an effort that will include the work of master drummer Paul Motian. That's quite a feather in the cap of any improvisation-oriented musician, but for an Israeli with just one album to date - Peel was released seven years ago - it's nothing short of monumental.
Despite the impending milestone, Fort seems to have adopted an equanimous approach to the whole thing. "Yes, of course it will give my career a boost, but let's just wait and see," Fort says philosophically over a cup of coffee. Considering that the recording was completed in 2004 and has been awaiting mixing and finishing touches by ECM supremo Manfred Eicher all that time - for a variety of reasons - and Fort has learned to be patient.
Talking to Fort gives one a vivid sense of what life is like for most jazz musicians in the densely populated musical jungle of the Big Apple. Most nights of the week, jazz fans can choose among dozens of clubs, bars and restaurants - not to mention bona fide concert halls - to catch a set or two of high quality jazz. "I do 'survival jobs' when I have to," says Fort. "We all do. Of course, I'd much rather spend my time just composing music and performing in big concert halls, but that's not the way it is." Not yet, perhaps, but the ECM album may change that.
Fort first climbed onto a piano stool at the age of six, but her early forays into classical music weren't anything too serious. "As a kid, playing the piano was fun. I had very receptive ears and I wasn't really disciplined about practicing," she says. From the outset, Fort gravitated toward less heavily structured music. "I always improvised," she says. "It drove my teachers mad. But I was far more into improvising on Chopin's music than just playing it straight. Some classical players are afraid of improvisation, but that's what makes me buzz."
Fort says her interest in jazz wasn't truly kindled until she was in her late teens. "I was more into dance. Playing the piano came easy to me," she says, "so I didn't put much into it." However, her enthusiasm for dance began to wane during her army service and, after a disastrous if shortlived spell with a highly unsuitable piano teacher Fort hit the jazz trail in earnest.
"That teacher almost finished me with music completely," she recalls. "For a few months I didn't touch the piano, but then I heard about Ofer Brayer, a teacher at the Thelma Yallin School of the Arts, and he got me back into things."
Just before she met Brayer, Fort's interest in jazz was revived when she heard John Coltrane's version of jazz standard "You Don't Know What Love Is" on the radio. "I heard that on the radio at 3 a.m., and that was that. I couldn't get back to sleep. It got me where it mattered. The next day I went to a store in Tel Aviv and bought the record."
Soon after she got out of the army, Fort headed to the United States for a summer session at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. "I couldn't afford the fees for a full jazz program, so I thought I'd at least get a few weeks of tuition in," Fort says. That should have been that for Fort's US jazz escapade, but just two days before her flight home, she decided to call William Paterson University in New Jersey to see about getting into that school's four-year jazz program.
"I don't know where I got the guts from," she says. "The school year had started [and] the course was full, but I pleaded with them to give me an audition." An hour or so later she got a call telling her to visit the school the next day, and she was duly accepted.
Fort's Friday performance in Tel Aviv should demonstrate just how far she's taken her art, in a program that marries all her major artistic influences and includes classic Israeli songs. The concert will be a multifaceted affair featuring Fort alongside members of her regular jazz trio - bassist Gary Wang and drummer Roland Schneider - as well as a classical string quartet, two classical string players who will improvise, and a vocalist.