Israeli jazz for the asking

Yakir Sasson takes audiences on an adventure at this year’s Tel Aviv Jazz Festival.

Yakir Sasson and his Jaffa Jazz Quartet (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yakir Sasson and his Jaffa Jazz Quartet
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Over the past few decades, the range of jazz sounds emanating from this country has broadened appreciably. While the first-generation exponents of the discipline, such as pianist Danny Gottfried, drummer Aharaleh Kaminsky and reed man Albert Piamente were, by and large, only too happy just to emulate their Stateside idols, at least initially, Israeli jazz artists, like their counterparts across the globe, have become increasingly more adventurous. Today, local players are not at all bashful about weaving their own cultural baggage into the seams and fabric of the American-bred art form, often with impressive and captivating results.
That can certainly be said of Yakir Sasson. The 38-year-old reedman fronts the Jaffa JazZ quartet that is due to perform at this year’s Tel Aviv Jazz Festival (Tel Aviv Museum, November 28 to December 1) this Thursday at 8 p.m. He will be joined by guitarist Uzi Ramirez, double bass player Avri Borochov and drummer Nir Mantzur. Judging by the show the four put on at East West House in Jaffa a couple of months ago, the Tel Aviv Museum audience is in for a treat.
Israeli jazz front-runners, such as pianist Yaron Herman and bassists Omar Avital and Avishai Cohen, have been taking works from the Great Israeli Songbook and more ethnic-leaning fare, and making them their very own. In effect, they, and their like-minded cohorts, have produced a growing body of Israeli standards. But, the trick is not just to feed off your own roots, rather than basing your output solely the sounds that came out of New Orleans a century or so ago. It has to be an organic and natural process, with the melding of learned and inherited joining forces to equal degrees.
You can that sense when you listen to Sasson and the band.
“That was the idea,” Sasson states. “I come from these songs. I come from Israeli songs. My father was a singer. He had a band that played at different events, and his repertoire included ‘good old Israeli songs’, and also folklore songs.”
The Sasson home echoed with the sounds of the records Sasson Sr. played on the family turntable, and of the pieces he rehearsed. 
“There was lots of music at home, at it gradually permeated my senses,” the saxophonist notes. 
It was, he says, merely a matter of going with the flow.
“It’s like the American jazz musicians say, that when they get down to learning the standards, it’s all there ready. They know the tunes and the lyrics, and the whole story really well, and it just pans out from there. I had the same thing with Israeli music.”
Sasson does not exactly hail from the hotbed of Israeli jazz, either. He was born in Tiberias, by the gentling lapping waters of the Sea of Galilee, rather than the rolling waves of the Mediterranean Sea of Tel Aviv’s sprawling beaches. Even so, he got into hands-on music making at a pretty early age.
“I started learning saxophone when I was 10,” he recalls. It was the visual, and not the sonic, aesthetic that initially appealed to him. “I didn’t really know anything about the instrument beforehand. I just saw it and was enchanted by it. I started playing.” He admits it wasn’t exactly a nip-and-tuck childhood scenario.
“You know, a kid in Tiberias playing saxophone. That was a bit weird,” he laughs.
Incongruousness apart, the youngster made strides on the sax and soon got into jazz. There was no Internet in Tiberias or anywhere else at the time, so Sasson needed a corporeal human being to introduce him to the wonders of improvisational music.
“My saxophone teacher played me a record and he told me ‘that’s Charlie Parker.’ I thought, ah so that’s how a saxophone is supposed to sound.”
Naturally, Sasson didn’t just start playing riffs and arpeggios like the peerless forefather of modern jazz, but at least he got some insight into where his path into jazz may lead him.
“That was my private tutor at the conservatory, and I thought, yes that’s just how I want to play,” he chuckles. “And I do that today.”
There was a long and winding life course to be negotiated before Sasson could really get down to honing his chops.
“I was in the army and I didn’t have much to do with music for a while.”
Still, once back on civvy street, he made up for it by doing a degree in composition and performance at the Jerusalem Academy of Music. The next step in the education continuum normally requires a period of relocation to global epicenter of the art form.
“Yes, I went to New York but I wasn’t really interested in taking formal studies there,” he recalls. “I mostly wanted to experience New York, and to be near all the jazz icons whose music I’d grown up on.”
But the Stateside dream came to a pretty sharp end.
“I left after a year,” says Sasson. It was a matter of sticking to his own credo, as any artist should. “I realized I didn’t belong in New York and that I needed to be here in Israel. I wasn’t disappointed. I only felt a bit lost,” he laughs.
Even so, he had picked up some valuable street level experience over in the Big Apple, participating in jam sessions with some big names, such as trumpeter Roy Hargrove. 
“You could say my grasp of swing [style of jazz] improved.”
He soon slipped into the local scene, and joined the then popular jazz, funk, groove band The Apples.
“I enjoyed that. I got experience of touring and recording with them. That was a good learning curve.”
After his Apples stint, Sasson tried his hand at getting a number of groups together himself, which eventually culminated in the groove-based multicultural roots group Quarter to Africa, which he still performs with and, in fact, and will play with them in another slot in the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival program.
That was another important step in Sasson’s musical evolution.
“That gave me a boost to continue searching, and to look for my own voice,” he says. “You need to find what you really want to say, and to hone your skills and get to the essence.”
It is all part of a maturing process.
“You learn to do things in a more minimalist, but a far more precise, way.”
It looks like he has managed that with his Jaffa JazZ outfit. The group goes this, that and any which way, taking in the spirit of works by of such iconic Israeli songsmiths as Mati Caspi, Yoni Rechter and Avner Gadasi.
“All of that comes into who I am and what I do today,” he says. “You can’t grow up in this country without taking all that on board. I may not have a song, say, by Avner Gadasi for 20 or 30 years, but somehow your body remembers it. It is stored in your memory bank, in your bones.”
While he has enjoyed his time with Quarter to Africa, Sasson felt he needed a vehicle of expression of his very own. “I owed that to myself. That’s what Jaffa JazZ is all about.”
He has also some outstanding pals with him for the ride, each of whom brings something else to the fray. Ramirez can reel off blues vibes straight out of the Delta, or wow you with a high-energy rock riff. Borochov is steeped in jazz and various ethnic strains, while Mantzur has kept time for quite a few of the leading lights on the Israeli rock scene.
With Sasson at the helm, reeling off such neatly crafted numbers as “Take 50,” a fascinating Middle Eastern-seasoned slant on the iconic Take Five jazz standard, it all adds up to an intriguing mix of sounds, sentiments and grooves – and a gig at the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival not to be missed.
For tickets and more information about the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival: *9080 and