Home is where the piano is

"Things are looking good for jazz in Israel," says returning star Anat Fort.

February 12, 2010 17:00
'As soon as I found jazz, I realized that was what

anat fort 311. (photo credit: Robby Valentine)

Anat Fort clearly isn’t one to take the conventional route. Possibly our most successful jazz musician on the global stage, in artistic terms, Fort could just as easily have stayed at home rather than study and, subsequently, earn her living and make her name from her New York base for 17 years.

In fact, the 39-year-old pianist hadn’t really planned on relocating to the States for too long at all. “I went there to study, and I was sure I was going to come right back here after the course,” says Fort, who recently – finally – returned to these shores and will perform at next month’s Women’s Festival at Yad Labanim in Holon (March 5, 11:15 p.m.) alongside stellar ethnic percussionist Zohar Fresco.

The course in question was a jazz summer program at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. While she was there, several people suggested that she get in touch with William Paterson College in New Jersey which, at the time, had a small jazz school. Although she didn’t pin too much on the venture, Fort still went for it, in true Israeli style.

“I thought about going to a jazz school in the States, but they all seemed so expensive, and so big and sort of industrial to me.” But William Paterson did appeal to her, and turned out to be just what the doctor ordered. “I just called up and, with typical Israeli hutzpa, I just said: ‘Can I do an audition?’ and I somehow convinced them,” she recalls.

The man in charge of the jazz program back then was bass player Rufus Reid, a musician Fort admires. “It was great studying with Rufus. It was a small place in those days, which meant that I got more individual attention, and I could develop myself as a player and with my own approach. There weren’t all those dictates there, about how to learn and how to play. That was important to me. There was lots of actual playing at the school, and less theory. It was a lot more hands-on than any other jazz school around, and I could really find my own voice there.”

Paterson was also close to New York but, tellingly, also outside the main thrust of jazz academic endeavor, which took place at institutions like the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, through whose halls quite a few budding Israeli jazz artists have passed over the years. Being geographically off the beaten track also suited Fort’s somewhat offbeat approach to the discipline.

“When I started out in the States, in the early ’90s, there was a growing Israeli jazz contingent in New York,” observes Fort. That was around the time that bassists Avishai Cohen and Omar Avital and trombonist Avi Lebovich landed in the Big Apple and started out on what were to become highly successful careers. “But I wasn’t part of the clique,” she continues, “I was the only Israeli at the college at the time. I was just doing my own thing where I was.”

Even so, Fort was canny enough to realize she also had a conventional learning curve to traverse before she began to proffer her skills and ideas to the general public. “I’d thought of going to places like NEC [New England Conservatory in Boston] but I was aware of my tendency to gravitate toward the non-mainstream side of the music and I knew I had to get myself into a framework that would make me learn the traditions of the music. That’s exactly what I got at William Paterson.”

FOUR YEARS later Fort set out to forge her professional career outside the comfy confines of academia. Things began to develop rapidly.

“One thing led to another,” she says. “That’s the way things really happen in New York. You play with this person and then you hook up with another gig, and get to know another musician. There were all these opportunities and it was like I was not quite ready to come back to Israel. There were still so many things to do in New York. I wanted to get to the stage when I was well known to the point that I could always leave my house – regardless of whether that’s in Brooklyn or in Tel Aviv – and go to play some gigs. Again that could be in New York, or in Europe – it’s a lot easier to get to Europe from here than it is from the States.”

Fort is certainly making the most of the shortened air route to Europe from here. In the weeks leading up to her Women’s Festival date, she performed in Germany and Austria and there was also a small matter of popping over to Oslo to mix her next album with omnipotent ECM owner Manfred Eicher.

German-based ECM is arguably the most prestigious and envelope-pushing record label in the jazz firmament today. Founded by Eicher in Munich in 1969, the company set out to bend and remold the boundaries of jazz. Over the years the ECM roster has featured works by the likes of iconic American pianist Keith Jarrett, stellar guitarist Pat Metheny, avant-garde outfit the Art Ensemble of Chicago, as well as a whole host of European artists the likes of Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava and Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek. Since 2007 that roster also includes the name of Anat Fort, the first – and still the only – Israeli musician to record with ECM.

Considering she had only one album to her name prior to putting out the suitably entitled A Long Story with Eicher, the 1999 self-produced offering Peel, getting into the ECM catalog is nothing short of miraculous. Typically, the long and winding road to Eicher’s door is one of connections and improvisation.

“I knew and had played with [bassist] Ed Schuller [who plays on A Long Story] and he knew [legendary septuagenarian drummer and longtime Eicher cohort] Paul Motian. Ed got my music charts to Paul; he liked them and we eventually got together for two days of recording and that led to Manfred,” recalls Fort.

It still took a while to get the show on the road. After more than 40 years at the helm, Eicher is still very much the hands-on boss at ECM and gets involved in all productions, including being responsible, or jointly responsible, for the mixing process.

“We did the recording in 2004,” Fort continues,” and the album didn’t come out until 2007. That tells you something about the pace of events at ECM. Manfred is always so busy and has so many projects going. But when he called me, he said he would definitely put the album out, and that he’d get back to me after a month. That was a long, long month for me, but he kept his promise.”

Still, her career path is nothing compared with that of, say, bassist Avishai Cohen or saxophonist Eli Degibri. Cohen’s career was kick started when he landed a highly prestigious berth in stellar pianist Chick Corea’s band, while Degibri played with piano titan Herbie Hancock before he was out of his teens.

THE ECM connection is Fort’s reward for staying true to her artistic ethos, not that she exactly sat around waiting for things to happen. Besides her other daytime work, she has been working with her long-standing trio of bassist Gary Wang and drummer Roland Schneider for more than 10 years. In this day and age, when jazz musicians largely mix and match lineups as they go along, that is a surprisingly long time for a jazz band to work together.

Even more surprisingly the current ECM project is the first time the threesome has recorded, after literally hundreds of concerts. “When I finished the recording with Paul [Motian] and Ed [Schuller] and [saxophonist] Perry [Robinson], I thought I’d do the next recording, with the trio, about a year a later. But it didn’t work out that way. I didn’t know at the time that it would take another three years for the first ECM record to come out.”

There are advantages and disadvantages to going through such a long gestation period. “Gary, Roland and I know each other so well. We have played the material for the new ECM album so many times that we have strayed a long way from the original material. Working with Manfred in the studio has brought us back to the source. It was very frustrating to begin with, being forced to go back to the original charts, but it was a great process.”

Fort has evidently come a long way since experiencing her jazz epiphany, naturally, by chance. “I was listening to [Danny Carpel’s Army Radio jazz radio show] Kol Hajazz Hazeh at about 4 in the morning and I heard [avant-garde pioneer tenor saxophonist John] Coltrane’s [1962] version of ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is,’ and that was it for me. The next day I went to [Chorus record store owner] Yossi [Acchoti] and said, ‘Get me that record right away.’ As soon as I found jazz, I realized that was what I wanted to do in my life.”

Prior to that Fort had steeped herself in some of the gems of the classical piano discipline although, even as a child, she had shown a propensity for exploration beyond clearly delineated boundaries. “At some stage, when I was still quite small, my mother realized I needed a different kind of teacher, a teacher with the ability to be flexible.”

That was, in a way, Fort’s mom’s “downfall.” “After I was accepted by William Paterson, I came back to Israel to sort out the paperwork, and the financial side of the studies. I think, at the time, my mother still hoped I’d stay in Israel, but things have worked out OK for everyone.”

They certainly have. Fort is delighted to be back here, even though she still spends a lot of her time on the road and in the air. For a musician who doesn’t keep to the straight and narrow of mainstream jazz, there are advantages to being closer to Europe than the genre’s birthplace. “I think people are more open to my music in places like, say, Germany. There it’s part of the culture to go to a concert, much more so than in somewhere like Minnesota.”

Then again, there are also benefits to be had from playing in the cultural backwaters of the States. “Sometimes we [Fort, Wang and Schneider] would go to some small town in the middle of nowhere in the States where there was very little happening culturally. So, if there was a show in town, regardless of what kind of music was on offer, people would come.”

But did they get what Fort was about? The trio doesn’t exactly play FM radio hits. “You’d be surprised,” says Fort. “I found them to be very open and receptive to what I do, and it’s fun to go to small places because people are so hospitable and welcoming, and sincerely interested in you and in what you do.”

Fort is not the first Israeli jazz émigré to return home after “making it” abroad. In the last few years, with the likes of Cohen and Lebovich coming back to add their considerable weight to the improvisational music home front, the phenomenon has gained momentum. With so many years of offshore endeavor behind her, Fort is in a perfect position to pass judgment on just how far the local jazz scene has progressed in the meantime.

“I wasn’t really actively involved in things here before I left for the States. I hadn’t really started performing regularly back then. But things have picked up tremendously since then, qualitatively and quantitatively. The guys who studied and worked abroad, and have come back here, have brought a lot with them to the scene.”

Fort also believes those who stayed behind also have something to offer. “There are plenty of jazz artists who studied here, and work here, who are doing some great things. Things are looking good for jazz in Israel.”

We met shortly before this year’s Tel Aviv Jazz Festival, which featured plenty of local talent alongside the big guns from abroad. Saxophonist Yoni Kretzmer, for example, showcased his highly individual mix of chamber music-laced avant-garde jazz in one of the best slots at the festival.

“It feels good to be back in Israel, even though I’m always getting on a plane to go somewhere,” notes Fort. “New York is home too, but I don’t miss it when I’m here.”

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