What is jazz?

Tel Aviv’s Levontin 7 club celebrates its 11th anniversary.

(photo credit: CLAUDIO CASANOVA)
It seems a bit churlish to talk about the budgetary woes facing any particular venture in this country. After all, they’re all in the same boat, and they all have to constantly keep the wolves at bay.
With that in mind, it’s still worth mentioning some of the music venues that have somehow managed to keep their head above water through financial thick and thin.
Among the leading noninstitutionalized clubs that have kept the flag flying over the years is Levontin 7, which sits just off the southern reaches of Allenby Street in Tel Aviv and first opened its doors in 2006. To mark the club’s 11th anniversary, proprietor and veteran avant-garde reedman Assif Tsahar has lined up an impressive program of shows for a three-day festival that kicks off on Sunday. The event goes by the name of What Is Jazz?, referencing the festival of the same name that ran at the late lamented New York venue Knitting Factory in the late 1980s and ‘90s. It also poses a question that any self-respecting jazz artist or fan might care to ponder.
The Levontin program offers rare delights for jazz fans looking for quality endeavor from a little outside the beaten improvisational track. The two main foreign draws are 77-yearold American guitarist and occasional pianist, trumpeter and percussionist Ralph Towner and celebrated compatriot pianist 56-year-old Uri Caine. Both have performed in Israel on various occasions, such as the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat. Caine also performed at the Opera House in Tel Aviv.
Towner is best known for his long tenure with Oregon, the quartet he co-founded in 1970. The group pioneered a deftly woven synthesis of jazz and world music, with some classical sensibilities thrown in for good measure. While Oregon sustained a high level of popularity, Towner also found time for fruitful collaborations with a range of other leading lights of the global improvisational arena, including the likes of bassist Gary Peacock.
Over the past 40-plus years, Towner has explored a wide range of styles and genres. His discography includes jazz and third stream material heavily seasoned with folk and world music. Considering his mixed formative musical education, the sound spread is not surprising.
His earliest recollections are of the jazz variety.
“When I was five years of age – that was in 1945 – my older brothers had begun a large collection of WW II records – swing bands and later the Nat King Cole trio, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and the like,” recalls Towner. “Most importantly, when I began to play piano, I began to listen to [pianist] Bill Evans, [bassist] Scott LaFaro, [trumpeter] Miles [Davis] and [British pianist and percussionist] Victor Feldman.”
Even with that substantial selfeducation backdrop, it took Towner a while to get to grips with a guitar; but when he eventually did, he put his all into the venture. He says that his earlier experience in piano playing has influenced the way he approaches the guitar.
“I began the guitar when I was 22 years old, and I became impressed with its similarity to piano technique,” Towner observes. “I decided to study formally after I finished my diploma in music composition, so I went to Vienna to study as a beginner with a master teacher [and guitarist and composer] named Karl Scheit.”
That sounds pretty serious, but Towner was far from the cloistered student and always cocked at least one ear in the direction of the contemporary commercial sounds of the day. He also got in on the act himself as soon as he could.
“I had a rock band in high school,” he recalls. “I played stand-up piano a la Jerry Lee Lewis. I liked Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino and all those guys. Before rock, I played in Dixieland bands on the trumpet. I was in on the first wave of rock in 1958. I didn’t care for Elvis, as it was really more country western sounding to me.”
Over time, classical music began have a bearing on Towner’s developing artistic consciousness, and he says he naturally took on an eclectic range of influences.
“I have been influenced by composers like Stravinsky, Bartok, Bach, Berg and Chopin, and by Julian Bream’s guitar playing. But it is impossible to list the many musicians and composers that have affected me. Influences are not only about a specific musician but fragments here and there that one manages to absorb from many sources,” he observes.
When Towner eventually relocated to the Big Apple, he began to be exposed to an even wider range of sounds and genres, and he started exploring music from all kinds of cultures.
“This really began when I moved to New York City in 1968. There was a great influx of Asian, South American and European musicians living in New York at the time and a movement to include new scales, time signatures and harmonies to the art of improvisation. My own classical studies acquainted me with 20th-century classical composers, so I was prepared to incorporate new ideas into my own playing,” he explains.
It was around this time that Towner started carving out his own path through the myriad sounds and rhythms of the expansive world music domain. He joined the world music pioneer, the Paul Winter Consort, in the late 1960s.
Towner’s cohorts in the group included reedman Paul McCandless, bass player Glen Moore and multiinstrumentalist Colin Walcott, who had already started delving into Indian music and became known for his sitar and tabla playing.
A couple of years after joining Winter, Towner, McCandless, Moore and Walcott left to form Oregon, which released several highly influential records based on a captivating mix of folk music, classical Indian forms, avantgarde jazz-influenced free improvisation and some Western classical colorings.
All of that and more should come to the fore at Towner’s two gigs at Levontin 7 (on November 12 and 13), when he will share the roster with some of our own gifted and adventurous musicians, including pianists Omri Mor and Maya Dunietz, drummer Hagai Fershtman, bassist Shmil Frenkel and Tsahar himself.
Caine will take the stage on the final day of the festival.
The rest of the program features the likes of 32-year-old German saxophonist Martin Seiler and pianist Gadi Stern – better known as a member of the highly popular Shalosh trio – while pianist Daniel Sarid will head his own threesome of bassist Nadav Maisel and drummer Ofer Beimel.
It promises to be an intriguing three days over on Levontin Street, with hopefully plenty more to come in the years ahead.
For more information: (03) 560-5084 and http://www.levontin7.com/