Teaming up for George

Vocalists Yaala Ballin and Miles Griffith render an all-Gershwin repertoire as part of the Hot Jazz series.

Yaala Ballin 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yaala Ballin 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For Yaala Ballin, there is something very apt about her upcoming synergy with fellow jazz vocalist Miles Griffith as part of the Hot Jazz series. The 27-year-old Israeli resident of New York and her onstage partner for the seven-date national tour (January 8-15) will perform a program of numbers composed by George Gershwin, including several songs from his opera Porgy and Bess.“I think there is some kind of kinship between the blacks and the Jews,” says Ballin. “I even heard that in his will, Gershwin requested that only blacks take part in the opera. For him it was very important to preserve the African American heritage.”
The cultural bridging Gershwin proffered is an aspect of his work, which continues to fascinate audiences and performers more than threequarters of a century after the opera was written. “There is something very Jewish and European in everything Gershwin did,” continues Ballin.
“There is a wonderful combination of his classical roots and harmonies with jazz rhythms. That’s what makes Porgy and Bess so rich harmonically.”
Ballin knows a thing or two about imbibing both musical genres. She cut her jazz teeth while attending the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Givatayim, and covered a lot of musical ground by participating in master classes with some of the jazz world’s icons, such drummer Max Roach, saxophonist-flutist James Moody and saxophonist Benny Golson. She drew vocal inspiration from the artistry of divas Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington and quickly became an integral part of the vibrant local jazz community.
In 2004 Ballin relocated to the epicenter of the jazz world and enrolled at City College in New York’s Harlem district. “It’s a small place, not like New School or other big jazz institutions,” she says. “I learned so much from [veteran jazz singer] Shelia Jordan.”
Ballin also shared Jordan’s view on where jazz is really learned. “She encouraged us to get out there, on the streets and in the clubs around New York. She said we should listen to CDs and jam with other jazz musicians. She didn’t believe in the academic approach to jazz. I like that.”
After two years of studying jazz, Ballin enrolled in a classical music program. “I studied theory and harmony and orchestration. That is so important. I tell jazz musicians and students that they should learn about classical harmony. It enriches my work so much.”
Ballin also uses her craft in a field that is very familiar in this part of the world. “I take part in the Jazz Futures – Bi-Communal project.
It’s a coexistence project of the US State Department, in Cyprus. It’s an amazing project. An American delegation goes to Cyprus four or five times a year to teach and play jazz. We work in a UN compound between the Greek and Turkish sectors of the island, and musicians and members of the general public come to take part and listen. We also do concerts on both sides of the island, and Greeks and Turks go to each other’s section to attend the shows. It’s open to everyone from age 16 to 45. Hopefully, one day we’ll be able to do something like that in the Middle East, too.”
The Ballin and Griffith union is something of a throwback to the jazz of yesteryear when the likes of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald sang together. These days you don’t often see two jazz vocalists on the same stage.
“It’s rare today. More’s the pity,” notes Ballin. “It demands more of the singers, and they have to set their ego to one side. Miles and I are so different, which means it will be very interesting and challenging. We know each other from New York, although we’ve never sung together before.”
Ballin and Griffith will sing together at the concerts here, and each will have solo spots as well. They will be accompmaied by an Israeli instrumental quartet: Nitai Hershkowitz, piano; Hagai Amir, saxophone; Tal Ronen, bass; and Shai Zelman, drums.
“Miles is a great personality,” says Ballin. “He’s funny and very talented. As soon as it’s fun, that makes everything so much easier and more enjoyable. I think the audiences in Israel will get that, too.”
The concert schedule is as follows: January 8 at 9 p.m. at Abba Hushi House in Haifa. January 10 at 8:30 p.m. at Einan Hall in the Azrieli Shopping Mall in Modi’in. January 11 at 8:30 p.m. at the Gerard Behar Center in Jerusalem. January 12 at 10 p.m. (doors open at 8:30 p.m.) at the Zappa Club in Herzliya. January 13 at 9 p.m. & January 14 at 9:30 p.m. at the Tel Aviv Museum. January 15 at 9 p.m. at Mercaz Habama in Ganei Tikva.