She even surprises herself

Despite 40 years of music-making, Chava Alberstein never knows how her next album will sound - or if there will be a next album at all.

Chava Alberstein 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Chava Alberstein 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
After more than 50 albums and four decades on the pop-folk-rock scene, Chava Alberstein can afford to put her feet up for a while. But the tousled-haired, 60-something troubadour evidently has no intention of slowing down - or does she? "I never really know when, or if, I'm going to do another album," she states simply. "Sometimes I think 'this is my last one,' but then another comes along." This laissez faire ethos has been a feature of Alberstein's work - ever-expanding oeuvre notwithstanding - throughout her long and highly successful career. And she is prone to surprising her public, though many fans have learned to expect the unexpected from her. Her latest release, Human Nature, has been touted in some sections of the media as a jazz effort. Despite her fondness for the genre - in 1992 she put out an album of mostly jazz standards with her clarinet-playing brother Alex - Alberstein has no illusions about where not to pigeonhole Human Nature. "No, it's not a jazz record. I can't really say what it is, but it's certainly not jazz. The record took its own path to whatever it is now." The media jazz tag is partly due to Avi Lebovich's contribution to the album; he made his name as a jazz trombonist during an 11-year sojourn in New York before returning to Tel Aviv five years ago. On Human Nature, Lebovich plays an assortment of instruments and provides the music for most of the dozen tracks, while also serving as arranger and producer for the entire project. "There are some jazzy touches here and there, but it's not a jazz album," he concurs. "We really had no idea how the CD would come out," Alberstein continues. "We never had any discussions about how we'd like things to sound, or if we wanted some kind of groove." So, presumably, the end result could not be foreseen. "I was surprised how it all worked out," Alberstein confesses. "I knew about the things that Avi normally does, and I was expecting the album to be more electronic. But I'm very happy with how it all panned out." ALBERSTEIN'S OUTPUT over the years has meandered between ballads, children's songs, rock-inflected material, the odd jazzy foray and collections of songs in Yiddish. Her first record, The Lilac, came out in 1967 and was soon followed by a children's album called Osnat's Toys and then a Yiddish effort. Considering that this was 1968 and the height of the halcyon post-Six Day War era when almost everyone was enamored with Zionist ideals and the joys of living in a Hebrew-speaking state, it took some guts (or a sense of rebelliousness) to make a Yiddish record. "I didn't think of it like that at all," says Alberstein. "It wasn't a premeditated move. It just felt like the right thing to do at the time." As far as Alberstein is concerned, she has always tried to do "the right thing" for herself. Her music and singing always exude a sense of calm and ease, and they have a prominent storytelling spirit to them. "I have never tried to prove anything to anyone. Yes, it is a bit like telling a story with each song, a bit like Billie Holiday," says Alberstein, referring to the late jazz diva. "When I hear Billie, I feel she always leaves room for the listener to complete the picture, and to come closer to her. That's what I try to do on my records. "That's not the case with live shows, though. Then I put things out there much more." WHILE ALBERSTEIN is considered by many to be the quintessential Israeli artist, she also has a strong cosmopolitan side to her. She increasingly performs, and records, in Europe and the United States and all the lyrics on Human Nature appear in Hebrew and English in the album liner. "If you are a true artist, you have to keep on searching. It is not by chance that I work more and more abroad. I have worked with Ben Mink, who produced [Canadian singer-songwriter] K.D. Lang, and with [Grammy Award-winning group] the Klezmatics. I still have a thirst and curiosity to discover new things. I don't think genuine artists relate too much to their chronological age." Still, it must be said: Alberstein is somewhat past her first flush of youth - unbridled enthusiasm notwithstanding - and has learned a thing or two about life, and about how to convey messages through her art. So, she is probably one of the best people around to ask about the state of health of today's Israeli rock and pop industry. "There are some very good young artists around but I'm not always elated with what they sing about. Young singers today always sing about bad things. What about the good stuff? There are plenty of happy things to sing about too. I'd like to hear more of that from the youngsters." After more than 40 years since her first tentative performing steps at the fabled Hammam club in Jaffa, there doesn't seem much chance of Alberstein losing her youthful approach, or her smile.