Free-flowing Philly

US saxophonist Bobby Zankel gives his Israeli grandson a musical bar mitzvah present.

June 16, 2019 21:04
Free-flowing Philly

Bobby Zankel. (photo credit: ANTHONY DEAN)


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People come to Israel for all sorts of reasons. American jazz saxophonist Bobby Zankel has at least one of the more heartwarming kind.

Zankel will be here next week to play a bunch of gigs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. But it is not only music that brings the veteran avant-garde jazz artist to this neck of the woods. His grandson, Yochanan, who lives in Bet Shemesh, recently celebrated his bar mitzvah, and asked for just one very special gift – to hear his granddad play live.

And so it is coming to be, with more than a little help from like-minded Jerusalem-based reedman and educator – and Zankel’s former sparring partner – Stephen Horenstein, who arranged the shows here through the Jerusalem Institute of Contemporary Music – which he founded back in 1987 – and thereby allowing young Yochanan’s dream to come true.

Horenstein and Zankel, both in the early 70s, have a bit of – albeit truncated – common history. Their paths first crossed almost half a century ago, when they were budding jazz musicians with a penchant for left field musical derring-do.

“We met in 1971 when we were working with masters of Black American music [pianist-poet] Cecil Taylor and [trumpeter-pianist] Bill Dixon,” Horenstein recalls. Taylor and Dixon were bona fide members of the free jazz pantheon, and it was quite a feather in the young saxophonists’ caps to mingle in such heady free-flowing musical quarters.

“We were considered the two Jews on the black Philly jazz scene,” Horenstein laughs. “Bobby has now been a mainstay of the Philly jazz scene for a long time.”

Zankel has been pushing the envelope for over four decades, largely feeding off the adventurous spirit and musicianship of Taylor, with whom he worked intermittently for 45 years. Now Zankel, by way of the family festivities, will be around to offer local jazz fans an unprecedented glimpse of what he has been putting out there all these years over in the US.

All told, Zankel will offer his 13-year-old grandson three chances to catch him doing his thing live. The curtain raiser takes place at the Levontin 7 club in Tel Aviv on June 18 (doors open 8:15 p.m.). Zankel will perform with something of a local free jazz super-group, featuring saxophonist and Levontin 7 owner Assif Tsahar and pianist Daniel Sarid, with Nadav Maisal on bass and Ofer Bymel on drums and percussion. New York-based Israeli trombonist Reut Regev will put in a guest appearance. That is a helluva lineup, and there is plenty more where that lot comes from.

On the morrow (10 p.m.), Zankel will join forces with his host for the first time in eons, playing alongside Horenstein and the latter’s 15-piece Lab Orchestra at the Yellow Submarine in Jerusalem. And the longtime Philadelphia-based horn player will round off his first, and hopefully not last, professional foray over here with the aptly entitled Music on the Edge concert at the Almécen Gallery in Jaffa on June 20 (9 p.m.). The event is described as “spontaneous creations, duets and trios” performed by “the Lab Orchestra and guest artists.” Inter alia, the ensemble features Zankel, Horenstein, Regev, bassist David Michaeli, drummer Adam Cohen and double bass player Orr Sinai, with Tal Abraham on trumpet. The show blurb notes that “A group of 12 musicians will share and collaborate in different combinations they have selected. Each piece will have a different identity and energy. At the end the players will come together in one ‘blast.’”

Zankel is quick to point out that he hardly shared a bandstand with Taylor on a regular basis, but still managed to get a lot from the free jazz titan. “I played with him, the first time, around 1970 or 1971, and I played with him the last time he played live [in 2016] – there were a few times in between, too,” Zankel laughs. “He was a great mentor, and a great friend. I was very blessed to have been able to learn so much from him, and have spent so much time with such a genius.”

PHILADELPHIA HAS been home to Zankel since 1975 although, like many a “good Jewish New York boy,” he grew up in Brooklyn. So, why should a young jazz musician leave New York, the epicenter of the jazz world, and relocate to Philadelphia, even if Philly does have a long and illustrious jazz heritage? Just like his impending visit here, Zankel’s move away from the Big Apple was prompted by family considerations. “I moved to take care of my kids,” he explains. “Their mother got money to finish off a degree, at the University of Pennsylvania. I thought I’d be here for maybe a year. I’ve been here for 45 years now,” he chuckles. “I didn’t plan the move. I was just trying to do the best I could for my family.”

Zankel’s musical path began in New York, although it was something of a meandering road. “I wasn’t a child prodigy, or anything like that,” he observes. “In the [mid- to late-1950s], they used to start you on clarinet, which I never really fell in love with.” It took a while, but the teenager eventually found his instrument. “I played clarinet for a few years, in a disinterested way, but I began to develop a love for jazz.” “I got a saxophone and I thought this is the most meaningful thing I could do.” He clearly wasn’t going to find himself “a good job.” “The alternatives, of being a lawyer or doctor or a teacher, just didn’t appeal to me,” he says.

So, music was to be Zankel’s daytime job, and he wasn’t going to follow the beaten path, either. It isn’t that he didn’t know about the rock and roll – and pop – explosion that was happening in the states and over in Britain, it’s just he was drawn to other areas of creative pursuit. “I remember when the Beatles came to New York, and when Sgt. Pepper came out, and Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced [both in 1967],” he recalls. “Those things were significant, too. But when I saw [avant-garde jazz pioneer] Ornette Coleman play live – in 1966 or 1967 – it was hard to follow him, but I was so drawn to it. I wanted to do that.”

Zankel merged with the Loft Scene in New York’s Soho neighborhood in the early 1970s, which followed on the early avant-garde work of the likes of Coleman, John Coltrane and Sam Rivers. “I loved The Beatles, but what was going in jazz then just seemed so much more profound.”

He maintained his artistic continuum after he left New York too. “Moving to Philly was a great opening up for me,” he notes. “In New York I was just part of the scene, but in Philadelphia I was doing everything.” It was an altogether cozier fraternity, which allowed Zankel access to some important role models. “One of the first people I met there was [now 80-year-old saxophonist] Odean Pope, who played with [modern jazz pioneer drummer] Max Roach. It was all part of the great family of this music.”

ZANKEL SEEMS to have had the knack of being in the right place at the right time. He also got some valuable pointers from Ornette Coleman. “I used to go over to him a couple of times a month, and he would show me things. That was a great fortune for me. I got it all from the horse’s mouth. I didn’t make anything up.”

Zankel has been passing on some of that accrued wisdom he gleaned from those jazz sages for several decades now. “There are now three generations under me who are really taking over the world now. The jazz community here is so rich.

The saxman does his bit in that regard, and then some. He teaches, and plays and teaches in all sorts of local formats and venues, including in prisons. “It’s like family here,” he says. Young Yochanan should get that vibe too this week.

For tickets and more information: Levontin 7 – (03) 560-5084 and Yellow Submarine – (02) 679-4040 and , Almécen Gallery = (052) 251-9888.

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