Jazz at Beit Avi Chai: Loving French-style

French-born jazz musician Jess Korean will team up with twins, guitarist Ofer and bassist Eyal Ganor, for some quality jazzy renditions of French chansons at Bet Avi Chai.

Jess Koren in 1973 at Bar Barim, a Tel Aviv jazz club that had its run in the ’60s and ’70s (photo credit: AVRAHAM KABILIO)
Jess Koren in 1973 at Bar Barim, a Tel Aviv jazz club that had its run in the ’60s and ’70s
(photo credit: AVRAHAM KABILIO)
Jess Koren likes to do things his own way. That is as apparent today as it was when he was barely knee-high to a grasshopper.
He was just six years old when he picked up his first instrument, the clarinet, and simply taught himself to play.
“I am an autodidact,” says the now-70-year-old French-born jazz musician, who will team up with twins guitarist Ofer and bassist Eyal Ganor for some quality jazzy renditions of French chansons at Bet Avi Chai on Thursday (9 p.m.).
The trio, which has been providing sterling entertainment service up and down the country for many a moon, will be bolstered by the mellifluous vocals of evergreen 80-year-old Yisrael Gurion.
“There was music at home all the time,” continues Koren. “My siblings all played music, although only my older brother stuck to it and became a professional. We also had a record player at home.”
While the clarinet was his initial choice, Koren was eventually lured toward the saxophone, and later the flute. “I took up the saxophone when I was 14,” he recalls. “I just loved the sound of it.”
The youngsters also got plenty of inspiration from some of the top artists of the day, both via the airwaves and also in the flesh.
“When I was growing up, the jazz scene in France was great. Jazz was really popular, and we heard it on the radio the whole time.”
Koren also got to see some of his idols in action.
“I saw the biggest stars around. I saw [Louis] Armstrong, Duke Ellington and [saxophonist] Cannonball [Adderley], and also [saxophonists] Ben Webster and Don Byas, and [pianist] Teddy Wilson. I also got to meet them in person. That had a profound impact on me.”
Seeing such luminaries weave their magic right before his adolescent eyes was to have a lasting formative effect on Koren, both as a person and as a professional musician.
“When you hear the right things from childhood, and you get the right foundation, that gives you a different feeling.”
Koren believes he grew up at the right time. “Younger jazz fans and musicians, who grew up in the 1970s – they heard jazz fusion that was popular back then; you know, the jazz-rock thing. They got their start in jazz in a crooked way. They got into the modern stuff but missed out on the roots.”
Koren certainly got a handle on the origins of the music, as was patently conveyed at his show, along with the Ganors, at the recent Jerusalem Jazz Festival at the Israel Museum. It was possibly the best show of the three-day program, and left the audience in the European Art Gallery with a spring in their step and a song in their heart. Koren not only displayed silky technique, both on saxophone and on flute, but also put on a highly emotive performance.
The septuagenarian makes no apologies for his heartfelt ethos, and also bemoans the fact that he doesn’t always sense the requisite emotional input among many of the current crop of gifted Israeli artists.
“You need to have swing [rhythm] in you, and to have feelings and not just take an intellectual approach to the music,” he states. “We have so many wonderful musicians today, but they are so intellectual that they forget to make contact with the audience.”
Another side to contemporary jazz performance which Koren says he could do without is the smiley “aren’t we all having a grand time up here on stage” mind-set.
“You have this thing when everyone is full of energy, but I feel they have lost the ability to be creative and to improvise and to be spontaneous. These days, all the kids study a lot and know a lot, and have a lot of information, but they just convey the information; they don’t impart something personal, something of their own. That demands a lot of experience.
“Today, the young musicians go for what is considered acceptable. They deliver an excellent product, but I don’t think that is the important thing.”
Koren earned his jazz spurs where it mattered – on the bandstand. While still a teenager he performed at all kinds of venues, in Paris and elsewhere around France, and kept up a punishing gig schedule.
“I loved it,” he recalls. “I wanted to play as much as I could.”
One might have expected that, growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, the youngster would have left at least half an ear to the exciting sounds and rhythms of the emerging rock ’n’ roll and, later, pop scenes of the day.
Surely, Koren’s developing musical ear must have been somewhat colored by the commercial sounds of Elvis Presley and the Beatles, like almost all his peers. Apparently not.
“I didn’t have any time for all of that,” he states. “It just didn’t speak to me. I heard [preeminent jazz saxophonists] Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young and [pioneering pianist] Art Tatum.”
While understanding why someone can get into rock and pop music, at least in rhythmic terms, Koren feels that commercial music falls way short.
“In jazz there is such freedom in the rhythm, but pop and rock are so square,” he says, before imitating a solid rock drum beat. “That led to the catastrophe you have today, or drum machines.”
Besides being into jazz, Koren was also drawn to this part of the world, and came to Israel for the first time in 1967. He found a few like-minded musicians in the limited Israeli jazz scene of the day, principally in a big band led by American-born local jazz trailblazer Mel Keller, but by 1970 he had relocated to a very different region and culture and spent several years living in the Caribbean, where he enjoyed synergies with such leading members of the American jazz fraternity as saxophonist Zoot Sims and maverick reedman Roland Kirk.
That was followed by a short stint in Sweden, where his musician older brother was already established, and by nine years in the sunshine of Tahiti, where Koren devoted much of his time to painting and yoga.
But for someone who was so well versed in a profession in which tempo is cardinal, when Koren decided to return here his timing was way off kilter.
“I came back in 1985, and I was dismayed to find there was absolutely nothing going on in jazz in Israel at the time. I had no idea what I was coming back to.”
Thankfully, Koren stuck it out. Two years after setting up home here for a second time, the Red Sea Jazz Festival took its bow in Eilat, and the domestic jazz scene began taking off in incremental leaps and bounds.
Today, Koren and the Ganors play a couple of shows a week in Tel Aviv, and the veteran saxman-flutist is kept gainfully engaged all over the country.
On Thursday, Jerusalem jazz fans – and any who take the trouble to pop over to the capital – will be able to enjoy Koren’s emotive delivery and polished skills in a program of numbers from the place where it all started for him.
“Jazz has no borders,” says Koren. “That is one of the wonderful things about the music.” 
For tickets: (02) 621-5300 and www.bac.org.il