Israeli jazz musician Kai Gluska shows us some New York tricks

Kai Gluska graduated from the New School university last year and is returning to Israel to perform local shows

 KAI GLUSKA: I want to see what else is lying in store for me. (photo credit: DANA GOLAN)
KAI GLUSKA: I want to see what else is lying in store for me.
(photo credit: DANA GOLAN)

If you are a jazz fan and have been hiding under a rock for the past 20-plus years, you may not be aware that Israeli instrumentalists and vocalists from the discipline have attained global leadership status. It is truly remarkable how this little Middle Eastern country, with no jazz legacy to speak of, discovered the genre and ran with it.

That is also evidenced by the number of our young men and women enrolled at and graduating from top institutions of education around the world, in particular in New York. The School of Jazz and Contemporary Music at the second conservatory of The New School university, in New York city, is one of the most prestigious academies to learn your craft and the student body sports a high percentage of Israelis.

That is partly down to the joint study program with the Israeli Conservatory of Music – a.k.a. Stricker – which allows students to split the four years between Tel Aviv and New York. Kai Gluska took full advantage of that and graduated from the New School late last year.

Now, the 26-year-old guitarist is back, at least for a while, to show local fans just how far he has taken his craft since relocating to the Big Apple, with a string of shows, with varying lineups, scheduled here over the next month or so.

Listening to some of the numbers he has uploaded to YouTube to date, you get the unmistakable impression that the young man has a deep blue streak to his artistry. That, naturally, is a perfect fit considering the – pardon the pun – blue genes that lie at the root of jazz.

A musician plays a trombone during the first day of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana April 25, 2014. (credit: JONATHAN BACHMAN/REUTERS)A musician plays a trombone during the first day of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana April 25, 2014. (credit: JONATHAN BACHMAN/REUTERS)

Gluska says that got him into a little trouble, of sorts, at school. “I wrote a thing called ‘Corona Blues’ and I sang it to one of my teachers, but he said it was too depressing,” he chuckles.

A decade and a half before he deigned to sing about the pandemic downer, Gluska started making somewhat sonorous sounds on piano. “When I was nine years old, a friend taught me to play [Beethoven’s] ‘Fur Elise’ on piano. But, I never really got into it. I never really knew what I was doing on the piano.”

Next up on the lad’s extracurricular pursuit agenda was something more athletic. “I got into cycling when I was 13, but after a while, my parents couldn’t afford to send me to the club anymore, so I had to stop.”

Cycling’s loss became the music world’s gain, as looking for something else to fill his downtime, Gluska asked a friend, who also lived on Moshav Mei Ami, in Ara Valley, to show him how to play something on guitar. “He taught me a song by [Israeli electronica, dream trance and psychedelic duo] Infected Mushroom,” Gluska laughs. “It was called ‘Becoming Insane’.”

That may not have been the most auspicious entry into the guitar playing domain for someone who eventually gravitated to jazz, but got the teenager turned on. He was, it seems, a driven young man. “I became obsessive about it and I didn’t stop until I could play that song properly on guitar.”

HE STARTED getting by with a little help from friends. “Some guys at school taught me chords and I played them over and over, until I got them right.” It was time to get down to business. “When I was 14, I began taking lessons from a teacher on my moshav. I got into a school band and I got very serious about it, and I produced a music event on the moshav, which was attended by around 100 people.” The youngster was clearly determined to go places. “It was a group called Just Married from New York. They came here to play at the Jacob’s Ladder Festival and they played with my band on the moshav.”

Once again, Gluska found the help he needed. “When I was 15, I realized I wanted to get deeper into the music and my friends were not as serious as me about it. I wanted to find an environment that was dedicated, like me.”

He was willing to travel far and wide to make that happen. “[Veteran jazz guitarist] Ofer Landsberg is a close friend of our family. He studied with [School of Jazz and Contemporary Music founder and celebrated jazz saxophonist] Arnie Lawrence and he taught at Stricker. So I started going there and Ofer taught me for three years. I’d take a bus from home to the Democratic School in Hadera every day, and two days a week I’d take the train to Tel Aviv and get back home at midnight. Ofer opened the door for me to jazz.”

The blues was always there, too. “I love rock, and blues-based rock, and people like [Led Zeppelin guitarist] Jimmy Page. Basically, anything African, like the blues, is right for me. There is something tribal about the music and that feels genuine to me.”

Naturally enough, Gluska looked to the jazz giants on his chosen instrument for more tailored inspiration. “I really like Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery,” he says, referencing two of the giants of the more straightforward domains of jazz. I wondered whether he had gotten into 71-year-old guitarist Bill Frisell whose oeuvre features all kinds of stylistic departures, including Americana-leaning material and more nebulous sounds. “I went to a gig of his trio and the Village Vanguard [in New York],” Gluska recalls. “It was very abstract and it took me a little while to get my head around that. I had the same feeling when I went to class at Stricker, on 20th century classical music. You have to get into that. But, when you do, it blows your mind. That really opened me up to all sorts of concepts I had thought of before.”

Gluska is looking to put some of that down for posterity, as he gears up for some recording studio sessions. “I want to get that onto a record and sort of close out this recent period of my life and the way my music has been progressing,” he notes. “That is due to happen in May and hopefully before too long, we will be able to hear that for ourselves on our sound systems and computers, when the album is eventually out there in tangible or virtual form.

Then, as his wont, Gluska will move on further down his creative road. “I feel like I want to write songs with words, which may be jazz-oriented and may not be. I want to see what else is lying in store for me.” Sounds like a tantalizing prospect.

For the immediate future, Gluska is due to play at a bunch of venues, mostly in Tel Aviv, taking in Beit Haamudim on April 13, the Arteglideria eatery (April 21 and May 5), the First Station in Jerusalem (April 23) and the Ilana Goor Museum in Jaffa on May 12.