Bass vision

Israeli student Shimon Gambourg win prestigious Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer award.

Israeli student Shimon Gambourg win prestigious Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer award. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israeli student Shimon Gambourg win prestigious Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer award.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Shimon Gambourg has come a long way in his not too many years on terra firma, to date. At the age of just 24 the jazz bass player and writer has five years of higher education behind him, some invaluable professional experience as a member of an IDF ensemble and a prestigious prize to his name. He recently relocated to New York, ready to further his education where it matters, in the “university of life.”
In so doing, Gambourg has now joined the legions of Israeli jazz artists, at various stages of their careers, who are now mixing it with fellow professionals from across the globe, across a range of styles and schools of thought.
Jumping in at the deep end, where it counts, in the Big Apple can be both a daunting and exciting prospect. Still, it helps to have an official slap on the back in your bio to help open up a couple of doors. Last month, Gambourg was one of the honorees at an award ceremony held at the Lincoln Center, when he received The Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award from Marcus Miller. The latter is one of the most celebrated bass players in the international jazz community whose own CV includes stints with the likes of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock.
After two years as a student at the Jazz Institute of the Rimon College of Music in Ramat Hasharon, followed by three years at Berklee College of Music in Boston – the schools have an agreement whereby Rimon students can complete their degree studies at Berklee – Gambourg certainly has the requisite academic backdrop to make a good go of it. “The three years at Berklee passed by very quickly. It felt like I ran all the way to my degree,” he laughs.
Coming from this side of the Pond, Gambourg was delighted to have the opportunity to continue his studies in the States, and to benefit from the experience and accrued wisdom of seasoned professionals. “Particularly from the perspective of playing I knew that, at Berklee, there were professors of jazz who are really great,” he says. “Mind you, I went for film scoring, so that happened to me less. But, when I just got there I began studying with a bass teacher called Oscar Stagnaro. He is a real authority on Latin music, and the role of the bass I Latin music.”
Gambourg says that, on occasion, he had to dip into a life skill from his national cultural arsenal to get what he wanted. “When I got to the college they told me I had no chance of getting lessons from Oscar. They said he was very busy.” When the going gets tough, Israelis often produce their steelier side. “I got classes from him. You could say I used some Israeli chutzpah. That’s the way it works,” Gambourg chuckles.
Opting for the soundtrack composition program, says Gambourg, was largely down to occupational and breadwinning considerations, although there seems to be a fashionable element to it too. “The truth is quite a lot of Israelis go for it. It’s a trend,” he notes. “We [Israelis] believe it offers the most opportunities down the line, and you can also get the most knowhow from the field. Those are two things that are important to us.” The young bassist-composer says soundtrack creation incorporates numerous disciplines that can have useful ripple effects on various employment avenues. “It combines many areas – production, computer skills, all the production software – computers are very important to production – and composition.” Gambourg feels that his studies at Berklee equipped him with valuable tools for professional life in general and, in particular, for the logistics of the music industry. “You learn about production that is unrelated to music – how to work with people, how to choose your musicians, how to
manage with recordings. All that is in the program. I was strongly drawn to all that, with all the functions, which all lead to the end result, which is producing music for a movie or a commercial.” There are other lines of work that could use Gambourg’s developing skills too.  “There are numerous areas you can work in, not just cinema. There are video games, soundtrack design and all the sound effects they use.”
While Gambourg may have done well within the cloistered surroundings of the academic institutions he attended it is often a different story at “the university of the streets”, the real world. He says that has been well and truly taken on board. “Yes, it’s quite a shock. You wouldn’t feel that if you stayed at Berklee and go on to your master’s or something else like that. It’s like learning how to drive with an instructor, and then really learning how to drive, on the roads, after you have qualified. You could say I am qualified but I don’t yet know to how manage on the roads.”
Mind you, having such a sizeable compatriot contingent around can help to ease your way into the scene. “In the first few months in New York [Gambourg moved there after the summer] you get to know the Israelis. Then you meet the non-Israelis and you start to make connections.” Gambourg is still in the early stages of cementing his presence in the New York jazz community, but he has started playing on the local circuit, with regular gigs at places like Smalls in Greenwich Village.
It took Gambourg a little while to lay his hands on a double bass. “I started on flute at the local conservatory [in Kiryat Ono],” he recalls. “I should have carried on playing the flute. In fact I recently bought one, to get back to playing it. Anyway, it’s small instrument and easy to carry around,” he laughs. It’s certainly more carrier friendly that a double bass.
By the time he was bar mitzvah, the youngster was aiming for a socially acceptable instrument. “I wanted to buy an electric guitar. Everyone wanted to play electric guitar.” But things did not work out quite like the bar mitzvah lad had planned. “I got to Marom [musical instrument store] and, somehow, I found the bass, bass guitar. I thought it’s easy to carry around. No headaches.” And the rest, more or less, is history. “I thought, success is going to come quicker. It was clear to me that I’d get gigs more quickly on electric bass.”
Gambourg’s acoustic epiphany came shortly after he began attending the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Givatayim. He started out on bass guitar under his own steam, and it wasn’t until sometime later that he benefited from some valuable tuition from seasoned jazz bass player Yorai Oron. “I went to the summer program at Rimon where I met Yorai. He taught me for a while.”
He made the transition to acoustic bass at Thelma Yellin. “There I understood I just had to play double bass,” he notes. It was a seamless move for him. “You realize exactly what the function of the bass is, with the fingering and all that. The electric and acoustic basses are very different, but they are exactly the same too. You have to know how to get the sound out of the thing.”
Quite a few years ago, celebrated Czech-born bassist Miroslav Vitous once told me that, for a while, he gave up playing bass because he was sick of being “the slave” of whatever band he was playing in. Gambourg says he can see where Vitous was coming from. “He’s right, but I feel comfortable with that role. I enjoy it. Somebody’s got to carry it. If I go to jam sessions, like at Smalls, I enjoy doing that.” He says it is a tough job, and he’s happy to be the somebody who does it. “You can’t go to the bar in the middle,” he laughs. “You can’t stop playing. You are stuck there on the stage, even if it’s a really bad session.” It is, Gambourg says, very much a matter of “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” “You have to stay alert. I like that. You have to be tough and obstinate. That’s cool.”
He is, naturally, delighted to have landed the young composer’s award, and says he is looking forward to more where that came from. “I actually got the call, about the award in March, and I received it last week. I am already thinking about submitting a piece for next year.” The name of the winning work is Corale, which Gambourg actually wrote four years ago, when he was still at Rimon. After three years of studying with top drawer teachers in Boston, and several months of honing his craft where it matters, it is a fair bet his next entry will reflect that artistic growth. “I feel that all pathways are open to me now,” he observes, adding that that can be a challenge in itself.” It is all a bit confusing. Now I have to decide what I really want to do.”