Israeli jazz pianist Shimrit Shoshan dies at 29

First Person: Shoshan was one of the brightest stars in the stateside Israeli jazz firmament.

Israel jazz pianist Shimrit Shoshan 390 (photo credit: Tau Battice)
Israel jazz pianist Shimrit Shoshan 390
(photo credit: Tau Battice)
Israeli jazz pianist Shimrit Shoshan died on Sunday from cardiac arrest at the age of only 29.
Shoshan, a New York resident, was one of the brightest stars in the stateside Israeli jazz firmament and maintained a busy performance schedule, often working with the leading edge players there.
I met her last year when she visited Israel to spend some time with her family. I interviewed her for an article which eventually ran in The Jerusalem Post last December, and she was full of ideas and exciting plans for the future.
She released her debut album, Keep It Movin’, in 2010, and was busy working on her second release.
Typically, all eight tracks on Keep It Movin’ were self-penned and developed carefully over a protracted period of time. Shoshan never rushed into her work without giving due thought and consideration for every aspect of the desired results, and when it came to her music, she never asked for or gave any quarter. She was willing to do practically anything to keep the wolves at bay, as long as she could continue to create.
“The numbers evolved over a long time,” she told me when we met in Jerusalem in spring 2011. “I’m not in a rush. I sold diamonds, I worked in real estate – everything Jews do there to survive.
I actually made decent money out of selling apartments, but it wasn’t for me. I have to stick to my own truth, whatever the price.”
That was a message that came through loud and clear from her debut release, and from her infectious enthusiasm when she talked about her artistic path.
Shoshan’s jazz road began at the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, where she studied in the same class as guitarist Gilad Hekselman – who has been making waves in the Big Apple and beyond for some years now, and played at last month’s Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat. She noted late pianist and high school teacher Amit Golan as one of her formative influences, crediting him with teaching her “all the formal stuff I hadn’t learned before.” In 11th grade, she attracted high praise from one of the jazz world’s legendary figures, when octogenarian drummer Max Roach presented a master class there.
“Lots of students played for him,” said Shoshan. “He said: ‘You’re all great but the pianist is really great.’ That was fantastic and it gave me a lot of encouragement.”
Typically, there was not a hint of hubris in that recollection, only satisfaction with the progress she made at the time.
Shoshan caught the music bug at the young age of eight, when she started tinkering on an organit – a small electrical keyboard designed for children – and quickly embarked on her road to musical discovery.
In fact she hadn’t really expected to be accepted by Thelma Yellin at all. “All I had done until then was play around on an organit, so I didn’t think I had much to offer at the audition for the high school. But I’ve got a really good ear,” she noted.
In actuality she was a natural, and took her inspiration from the rhythms and vibes of the street, not just from the records she heard or the gigs she went to. “I can pick up on, say, the sound of a taxi driving by and take that sound somewhere musically.
I really feed off the sounds of the street, the sounds of life,” she observed at the time.
Shoshan never took the easy way out, and preferred to compose her own scores rather than use readymade material. She hardly played jazz standards and did not follow the increasingly popular trend among young Israeli jazz artists of taking items from the Israeli Songbook and turning them into jazz numbers. For Shoshan it was all about digging deep into her own creative and spiritual resources to find her muse.
“It’s true that you can take any melody and do something with it, but it depends how you go about it,” she declared in Jerusalem last year. “Also, if you want to take something Israeli, why not take something from inside, from your own ‘Israeliness?’” After taking her burgeoning learning curve and career as far as they could go here, she eventually moved stateside, studying at the City College of New York and the New School. Her teachers included some of the most celebrated veterans of the global scene – pianist Kenny Barron, bass player Reggie Workman and trumpeter Charles Tolliver. She soon began playing at some of the best jazz venues in New York and, in 2009, was a finalist in the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute Ensemble Competition and the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Competition.
My 2011 article for The Jerusalem Post closes thus: “One gets the idea that, no matter where she is or who she is with, Shoshan will always find that room for maneuver, that freedom to tell the world exactly the way it is for her.” A talented musician and pure spirit has left us far too soon.