Jazz with maqam

Though Rehovot resident Leonid Ptashka's name might not mean much to most Israelis, in the FSU, the jazz pianist is a household name.

jazz88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Though Rehovot resident Leonid Ptashka's name might not mean much to most Israelis, in the former Soviet Union and many other places across the globe, the 42-year-old Azerbaijan-born jazz pianist is a household name. Tonight and tomorrow (both at 6 p.m.) Ptashka, here since 1990, will make two relatively rare local appearances at the Bell Cave at Beit Govrin, alongside veteran Russian saxophonist and composer George Garanian and Israeli pop-ethnic keyboardist-singer Shlomo Gronich. Fresh from a well-received performance at the Pori Jazz Festival in Finland - the line-up there included the likes of Sting and Roberta Flack - Ptashka is looking forward to joining forces with Gronich and 73-year-old Garanian. "It's a great honor for me to play with Garanian. There is something special about Russian jazz artists," he enthuses. "They are more open and less mathematical in their approach. They connect more with their spirit than, for example, most Israeli jazz musicians." That may explain why Ptashka spends much of his time abroad. He is no less excited about his forthcoming synergy with Gronich. "I have played with Shlomo before, and it's always great fun. He's an excellent musician and adds the ethnic Jewish side. We connect very well artistically. You could say it's a meeting of two virtuosi - Shlomo on the ethnic side and me with my jazz. You can feel the fire burning when we're together on stage." Considering his upbringing, it's hardly surprising that Ptashka plays easily with artists from other genres and cultures. "I spent my formative years in Azerbaijan surrounded by Muslims who listened to Arabic and other ethnic music," he explains. "Baku [the town of his birth] is not far from the Turkish border, so that also came into my musical education. I lived in a poor part of town, and there was a lot of ethnic music around. I was like Mowgli in The Jungle Book; I took on the characteristics of my natural environment." Of course, there is also a more Western side to Ptashka's influences. "Don't forget, Russians generally have a good grounding in classical music, too. If I ever come across a young artist or student who says all their inspiration comes from jazz musicians - even if they are the greats like [jazz pianists] Art Tatum, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea or [jazz composer-pianist] Duke Ellington - I tell them to go back to the source. I tell them to listen to Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Stravinsky. You have to go back to the roots." Garanian is a point in case. "George, like all the great jazz artists, feeds off classical music. And he's written over 300 movie soundtracks." In fact, for a time Garanian's artistic direction was also dictated by some entirely non-musical considerations. "During Stalin's time, the saxophone was considered a capitalist instrument," Ptashka explains. "So George learned how to make his sax sound like a trumpet. The communists identified the trumpet with classical music. That's how George was able to keep his career going in the late 1940s and 1950s." It looks like there will be a lot more than just straight-ahead jazz in the Beit Govrin cave this weekend. "I incorporate maqams [Arabic scales] in my music," Ptashka continues. "Hardly any other Israeli jazz musician does that. But Arabic music does not use harmonies, while Western music is more sophisticated, at least in that respect. If you can use the music from your place of birth and fuse it with Western music, which uses harmonies and different rhythms, and you use the combination well, you can create some exciting sounds." Add to that the special acoustics and ambience of the Bell Cave, quarried out of rock 1,300 years ago, and you have one intriguing brew. For details and tickets, call Elena at (052) 326-5915.