Home is where the piano is

"Things are looking good for jazz in Israel," says returning star Anat Fort.

anat fort 311 (photo credit: Robby Valentine)
anat fort 311
(photo credit: Robby Valentine)
Anat Fort clearly isn’t one to take the conventional route. Possibly our most successful jazz musician on the global stage, in artistic terms, Fort could just as easily have stayed at home rather than study and, subsequently, earn her living and make her name from her New York base for 17 years.
In fact, the 39-year-old pianist hadn’t really planned on relocating to the States for too long at all. “I went there to study, and I was sure I was going to come right back here after the course,” says Fort, who recently – finally – returned to these shores and will perform at next month’s Women’s Festival at Yad Labanim in Holon (March 5, 11:15 p.m.) alongside stellar ethnic percussionist Zohar Fresco.
The course in question was a jazz summer program at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. While she was there, several people suggested that she get in touch with William Paterson College in New Jersey which, at the time, had a small jazz school. Although she didn’t pin too much on the venture, Fort still went for it, in true Israeli style.
“I thought about going to a jazz school in the States, but they all seemed so expensive, and so big and sort of industrial to me.” But William Paterson did appeal to her, and turned out to be just what the doctor ordered. “I just called up and, with typical Israeli hutzpa, I just said: ‘Can I do an audition?’ and I somehow convinced them,” she recalls.
The man in charge of the jazz program back then was bass player Rufus Reid, a musician Fort admires. “It was great studying with Rufus. It was a small place in those days, which meant that I got more individual attention, and I could develop myself as a player and with my own approach. There weren’t all those dictates there, about how to learn and how to play. That was important to me. There was lots of actual playing at the school, and less theory. It was a lot more hands-on than any other jazz school around, and I could really find my own voice there.”
Paterson was also close to New York but, tellingly, also outside the main thrust of jazz academic endeavor, which took place at institutions like the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, through whose halls quite a few budding Israeli jazz artists have passed over the years. Being geographically off the beaten track also suited Fort’s somewhat offbeat approach to the discipline.
“When I started out in the States, in the early ’90s, there was agrowing Israeli jazz contingent in New York,” observes Fort. That wasaround the time that bassists Avishai Cohen and Omar Avital andtrombonist Avi Lebovich landed in the Big Apple and started out on whatwere to become highly successful careers. “But I wasn’t part of theclique,” she continues, “I was the only Israeli at the college at thetime. I was just doing my own thing where I was.”
Even so, Fort was canny enough to realize she also had a conventionallearning curve to traverse before she began to proffer her skills andideas to the general public. “I’d thought of going to places like NEC[New England Conservatory in Boston] but I was aware of my tendency togravitate toward the non-mainstream side of the music and I knew I hadto get myself into a framework that would make me learn the traditionsof the music. That’s exactly what I got at William Paterson.”
FOUR YEARS later Fort set out to forge her professional career outsidethe comfy confines of academia. Things began to develop rapidly.
“One thing led to another,” she says. “That’s the way things reallyhappen in New York. You play with this person and then you hook up withanother gig, and get to know another musician. There were all theseopportunities and it was like I was not quite ready to come back toIsrael. There were still so many things to do in New York. I wanted toget to the stage when I was well known to the point that I could alwaysleave my house – regardless of whether that’s in Brooklyn or in TelAviv – and go to play some gigs. Again that could be in New York, or inEurope – it’s a lot easier to get to Europe from here than it is fromthe States.”
Fort is certainly making the most of the shortened air route to Europefrom here. In the weeks leading up to her Women’s Festival date, sheperformed in Germany and Austria and there was also a small matter ofpopping over to Oslo to mix her next album with omnipotent ECM ownerManfred Eicher.
German-based ECM is arguably the most prestigious and envelope-pushingrecord label in the jazz firmament today. Founded by Eicher in Munichin 1969, the company set out to bend and remold the boundaries of jazz.Over the years the ECM roster has featured works by the likes of iconicAmerican pianist Keith Jarrett, stellar guitarist Pat Metheny,avant-garde outfit the Art Ensemble of Chicago, as well as a whole hostof European artists the likes of Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava andNorwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek. Since 2007 that roster alsoincludes the name of Anat Fort, the first – and still the only –Israeli musician to record with ECM.
Considering she had only one album to her name prior to putting out the suitably entitled A Long Story with Eicher, the 1999 self-produced offering Peel,getting into the ECM catalog is nothing short of miraculous. Typically,the long and winding road to Eicher’s door is one of connections andimprovisation.
“I knew and had played with [bassist] Ed Schuller [who plays on A Long Story]and he knew [legendary septuagenarian drummer and longtime Eichercohort] Paul Motian. Ed got my music charts to Paul; he liked them andwe eventually got together for two days of recording and that led toManfred,” recalls Fort.
It still took a while to get the show on the road. After more than 40years at the helm, Eicher is still very much the hands-on boss at ECMand gets involved in all productions, including being responsible, orjointly responsible, for the mixing process.
“We did the recording in 2004,” Fort continues,” and the album didn’tcome out until 2007. That tells you something about the pace of eventsat ECM. Manfred is always so busy and has so many projects going. Butwhen he called me, he said he would definitely put the album out, andthat he’d get back to me after a month. That was a long, long month forme, but he kept his promise.”
Still, her career path is nothing compared with that of, say, bassistAvishai Cohen or saxophonist Eli Degibri. Cohen’s career was kickstarted when he landed a highly prestigious berth in stellar pianistChick Corea’s band, while Degibri played with piano titan HerbieHancock before he was out of his teens.
THE ECM connection is Fort’s reward for staying true to her artisticethos, not that she exactly sat around waiting for things to happen.Besides her other daytime work, she has been working with herlong-standing trio of bassist Gary Wang and drummer Roland Schneiderfor more than 10 years. In this day and age, when jazz musicianslargely mix and match lineups as they go along, that is a surprisinglylong time for a jazz band to work together.
Even more surprisingly the current ECM project is the first time thethreesome has recorded, after literally hundreds of concerts. “When Ifinished the recording with Paul [Motian] and Ed [Schuller] and[saxophonist] Perry [Robinson], I thought I’d do the next recording,with the trio, about a year a later. But it didn’t work out that way. Ididn’t know at the time that it would take another three years for thefirst ECM record to come out.”
There are advantages and disadvantages to going through such a longgestation period. “Gary, Roland and I know each other so well. We haveplayed the material for the new ECM album so many times that we havestrayed a long way from the original material. Working with Manfred inthe studio has brought us back to the source. It was very frustratingto begin with, being forced to go back to the original charts, but itwas a great process.”
Fort has evidently come a long way since experiencing her jazzepiphany, naturally, by chance. “I was listening to [Danny Carpel’sArmy Radio jazz radio show] Kol Hajazz Hazeh at about 4 in the morningand I heard [avant-garde pioneer tenor saxophonist John] Coltrane’s[1962] version of ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is,’ and that was it forme. The next day I went to [Chorus record store owner] Yossi [Acchoti]and said, ‘Get me that record right away.’ As soon as I found jazz, Irealized that was what I wanted to do in my life.”
Prior to that Fort had steeped herself in some of the gems of theclassical piano discipline although, even as a child, she had shown apropensity for exploration beyond clearly delineated boundaries. “Atsome stage, when I was still quite small, my mother realized I needed adifferent kind of teacher, a teacher with the ability to be flexible.”
That was, in a way, Fort’s mom’s “downfall.” “After I was accepted byWilliam Paterson, I came back to Israel to sort out the paperwork, andthe financial side of the studies. I think, at the time, my motherstill hoped I’d stay in Israel, but things have worked out OK foreveryone.”
They certainly have. Fort is delighted to be back here, even though shestill spends a lot of her time on the road and in the air. For amusician who doesn’t keep to the straight and narrow of mainstreamjazz, there are advantages to being closer to Europe than the genre’sbirthplace. “I think people are more open to my music in places like,say, Germany. There it’s part of the culture to go to a concert, muchmore so than in somewhere like Minnesota.”
Then again, there are also benefits to be had from playing in thecultural backwaters of the States. “Sometimes we [Fort, Wang andSchneider] would go to some small town in the middle of nowhere in theStates where there was very little happening culturally. So, if therewas a show in town, regardless of what kind of music was on offer,people would come.”
But did they get what Fort was about? The trio doesn’t exactly play FMradio hits. “You’d be surprised,” says Fort. “I found them to be veryopen and receptive to what I do, and it’s fun to go to small placesbecause people are so hospitable and welcoming, and sincerelyinterested in you and in what you do.”
Fort is not the first Israeli jazz émigré to return home after “makingit” abroad. In the last few years, with the likes of Cohen and Lebovichcoming back to add their considerable weight to the improvisationalmusic home front, the phenomenon has gained momentum. With so manyyears of offshore endeavor behind her, Fort is in a perfect position topass judgment on just how far the local jazz scene has progressed inthe meantime.
“I wasn’t really actively involved in things here before I left for theStates. I hadn’t really started performing regularly back then. Butthings have picked up tremendously since then, qualitatively andquantitatively. The guys who studied and worked abroad, and have comeback here, have brought a lot with them to the scene.”
Fort also believes those who stayed behind also have something tooffer. “There are plenty of jazz artists who studied here, and workhere, who are doing some great things. Things are looking good for jazzin Israel.”
We met shortly before this year’s Tel Aviv Jazz Festival, whichfeatured plenty of local talent alongside the big guns from abroad.Saxophonist Yoni Kretzmer, for example, showcased his highly individualmix of chamber music-laced avant-garde jazz in one of the best slots atthe festival.
“It feels good to be back in Israel, even though I’m always getting ona plane to go somewhere,” notes Fort. “New York is home too, but Idon’t miss it when I’m here.”