Israeli jazz pianist to display his award-winning stuff

After winning a prestigious prize in the US, Tom Oren returns home.

Tom Oren  (photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
Tom Oren
(photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
In case you are kept awake at night by thoughts of Israel’s global profile, and how we are portrayed in the international media, there is an antidote for all that. Actually, you could try a couple of methods of skirting round the negative stuff. The first is simply to eschew news reports, on TV or the Internet. I realize that, for most of us, that’s tantamount to going cold turkey. So, in addition to all the negative “important stuff,” how about tuning in to as much positive stuff as you can?
While we’re on the subject of good news, you could do a lot worse than following the fortunes of our blue-and-white jazz guys and gals as they proffer the silky fruits of their labors around the globe on a regular basis.
And, if you’re looking to hoist the national flag high and proud – at least in a jazzy sense – how about applauding Tom Oren? As Oren isn’t yet a household name here, let’s note that he is an extremely gifted Israeli jazz pianist who recently got his hands on the most prestigious award any young jazz musician could hope for, by taking first place in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Piano Competition. Oren achieved his unparalleled success in December, with the award being made in Washington, DC. He is the first Israeli to win the competition.
Should you wish to get some idea of how Oren managed to impress the jury in DC, you can do so by popping along to the Majesta Festival, which will take place, for the second year running, at the plushly appointed Elma Center in Zichron Ya’acov on June 12-15, under the aegis of artistic director, celebrated singer-songwriter, Shlomi Shaban. Oren will front a trio, with Gilad Abro on bass and Shay Zelman on drums, performing a jazzy salute to legendary French chansonnier Georges Brassens.
I CAUGHT Oren live, for the first time, sometime last year when he played with the Hagiga jazz group led by saxophonist Alon Farber, at The Zone venue in Tel Aviv. It was an auspicious introduction to the 24-year-old’s creative locker and, even with the high-quality delivery of his bandmates, Oren’s contribution shone brightly.
Fast-forward several months and Oren, who is a senior student at the Berklee College of Music, in Boston, has now been catapulted into front grid status, with the Monk Institute competition success, which also comes along with a sizable grant and a recording contract. Not a bad catalyst for the young man’s burgeoning career.
Oren says he is in something of a rabbit-in-the-headlights state, but is rapidly coming to terms with his highly desirable state of affairs.
“My first sense [on winning the contest] was one of gratitude,” he says. “But I was also in shock. I hadn’t even thought about being in such a situation.”
Basically, Oren just went out there and knocked them dead unpremeditatedly. “I am gradually taking on board all the implications of the win. You learn the ropes really quickly. You have to. It’s a great honor for me.”
The young pianist had to get up to speed in double-quick time. “I like to develop things and suddenly this happens.”
Not that he is complaining. “I am grateful this is happening, and there is now a deadline I have to work to.”
Oren expects his debut release to be out sometime early next year. I can’t wait.
The competition win is a pretty significant achievement for the entire Israeli jazz fraternity. Past Israeli contestants include trumpeter Avishai Cohen, who placed third, and saxophonist Eli Degibri, who made it as far as the semifinal stage. Both Cohen and Degibri have become bona fide stars of the international jazz scene, and also serve as artistic directors of the Jerusalem International Jazz Festival and the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, respectively. Oren has just returned from a European tour as a member of Degibri’s quartet.
OREN HAD the best of starts to his musical road. “My mother, Dorli Oren-Hazan, is a musician who worked with people like [crooner] Arik Lavie and [playwright] Nissim Aloni and [filmmaker] Avi Nesher. She wrote music for movies and shows.”
That paved the way not only to hands-on music making per se, but also opened the youngster’s creative juices up to the myriad possibilities of artistic expression.
“Thanks to my mother, who was my first music teacher, I was introduced to numerous genres,” Oren recalls, adding that that eventually connected to this week’s gig at Elma. “I heard classical music at home, and jazz, and also Israeli music.”
The latter also featured this country’s best-known readings of Brassens’s oeuvre, by late Israel Prize laureate actor, chansonnier and comic Yossi Banai. “As a kid I heard what is known as ‘good old Israeli songs,’ which included numbers by Yossi Banai, whom my dad saw live. So that leads to Brassens.”
Things quickly became serious for Oren, as he began to take classical piano lessons with famed educator Rachel Feinstein at the Stricker Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv. Oren also began to branch out musically. “I studied with Rachel for 10 years, and at the same time I began studying with [late renowned jazz teacher] Amit Golan. He taught so many of us [jazz musicians]. He opened me up to traditional jazz.”
Oren progressed through a number of educational frameworks, including the Thelma Yellin School of the Arts, followed by a couple of years at the Rimon School of Music. The latter works in tandem with Berklee, which led to Oren moving Stateside to complete his degree in Boston. He also came under the tutelage of pianist Omri Mor, who has gained international renown for his innovative blend of jazz and Andalusian music, and helped to push Oren into more uncharted waters.
Oren’s musical and personal confines swelled further under the guidance of saxophonist Gilad Ronen, before relocating to Boston and benefiting from the vast performing experience and inestimable educational custodianship of lauded 80-year-old jazz pianist Joanne Brackeen.
“She’s a force of nature,” Oren laughs, adding that Berklee has been good to him on various fronts. “It is a place that exposes you to so many influences. Besides the great teachers there, you meet people from all over the world. You hang out with other students and you share things. That’s so good.”
So, how does that translate into the works of Banai? How do all those influences and all that multi-stratified training filter through Brassens and his chief Israeli exponent? Oren says the late Israeli chansonnier is part of his musical DNA. “You hear that music as a kid, and you take it in without even realizing what it really is.”
Some years later he got down to brass tacks. “I began to analyze what Banai did, even without relating to his interpretations of Brassens. He also wrote lyrics himself, but his way of presenting songs was so deep and intelligent. His voice was amazing. [Israel Prize-winning songwriter] Haim Hefer said that Yossi Banai could recite the contents of a telephone book and make it a moving experience.”
Banai was also an excellent comedian, and Oren says he will endeavor to impart as many strings of Banai’s bow as possible at his Thursday (doors open 3:30 p.m.) Majesta Festival slot. “I want to take all that into account and breathe some new life into it.”
In fact, Oren has firsthand knowledge of the Banai magic. “I saw him onstage, doing a stand-up comedy routine. I think it was one of his last performances.”
Oren has his work cut out for him, particularly as it is highly likely that many of the audience members will be familiar with either the original Brassens material and/or Banai’s readings.
“I don’t shy away from a challenge,” the young pianist declares. “The show will be heavily influenced by the jazz tradition, the idiom, which I view as something which stands on its own. The original material also has its own amazing attributes. We will also play some of Brassens’s songs that were not translated into Hebrew, so there will be something new for everyone. I want to embrace it all.”
With Oren’s talent and already polished jazz musicianship, Brassens’s peerless sonic approach and Banai’s singular take, the Elma Center audience is in for a rare treat.

For tickets and more information: *9080 and, *8098 and

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