Jazzing it up with Portugaly

The husband-and-wife team continue to do their bit for the domestic jazz arena and beyond.

Pianist Ofer Portugaly with his drummer wife, Iris (photo credit: RONEN AKERMAN)
Pianist Ofer Portugaly with his drummer wife, Iris
(photo credit: RONEN AKERMAN)
Ofer Portugaly has been on the local jazz scene for quite a while. The 50something pianist has been belting out his wide-ranging improvisational wares here for more than a quarter of century, often in the company of his drummer wife, Iris.
Over the years, Portugaly has put out a clutch of albums and has maintained a busy national and global gig schedule. The next opportunity for the jazz-inclined Israeli public to catch the pianist in the entertaining act is on Wednesday (July 26, doors open 8:15 p.m., show starts 10 p.m.) at Zappa Herzliya, where he will be joined by his wife, as well as singer-songwriter Sagiv Cohen, veteran jazz and pop bassist and vocalist Eli Magen and singer- songwriter Alon Eder.
All of the above appear on the cast list of Portugaly’s latest release, Jazzing It Up, which treads the not so fine line between jazz and pop. It is quite a roll call and is testament to the long-serving pianist’s standing in the local entertainment industry. Yehudit Ravitz and Mickey Gabrielov don’t turn out for just anyone, and there are plenty of other staples of the pop and rock community on the roster as well, such as Danny Robas, Leah Shabbat, Doron Salomon and Ohad Hitman. Guitarist Yotam Silberstein, who has been making impressive jazz hay in New York and around the world for some years now, also contributes, as do veteran Brazilian-born percussionist Joca Perpignan and Din Din Aviv. Add to that stellar list bassist Yossi Fine and the Gospel Choir, and you’ve got yourself a pretty well-rounded album.
The latter ensemble is not in there by coincidence. Mr. and Mrs. Portugaly have been performing and recording with the vocal troupe for quite some time. Portugaly says he is drawn to gospel.
“There is so much joie de vivre in that music,” he states. “That’s what we’re missing here in Israel.”
Portugaly got his first inkling of the music that eventually became his main bread-winning line when he was young.
“I remember watching a TV program in black and white – I think it was on Educational TV – with Mel Keller, who explained what jazz was,” he recounts.
Keller was an American-born saxophonist who made aliya in 1950s and kick-started the jazz scene in this country. The first batch of artists, such as pianist and Red Sea Jazz Festival founder Danny Gottfried, drummer Araleh Kaminsky and Albert Piamenta all eagerly imbibed Keller’s pearls of wisdom brought here from the birthplace of jazz. A couple of decades later, Portugaly also benefited from the Keller educational act. The youngster was hooked for life.
“I never met Keller and never saw him on TV again, but there was something about the way he talked about jazz and the different styles that really got to me,” the pianist recalls. “I remember that show so well.”
Even so, Portugaly’s first steps in the musical domain were taken in the classical sphere.
“I learned classical piano, and my father was a piano tuner. He had a lot of friends in the [Israel] Philharmonic [Orchestra], and we heard a lot of classical music at home. But I was looking to express myself beyond the actual written notes. I had a hard time with classical music,” he says.
Even so, the youngster knuckled down and stuck to his classical path until his late teens.
“I encountered jazz again when I was 11th grade. I had a friend with whom I spent a lot of time talking about and playing music, and on Fridays we’d hang out in Givatayim, and we’d talk about music and argue about Genesis and all kinds of progressive rock groups. We’d also play the music. That was our thing,” he recounts.
Jazz entered the picture in earnest one day when Portugaly’s musical interlocutor brought him some albums to listen to.
“He brought me a couple of records by [jazz pianist] Chick Corea. They really grabbed me,” he says. “This is Corea’s early 1970s venture we’re talking about, with his Return To Forever band. One album was Light As a Feather, which features Jewish Brazilian vocalist Flora Purim. That’s really progressive jazz. There’s a lot of classical music in there and flamenco and other stuff. That really drew me in.”
So the youngster was sold on jazz. The next stage in requiting his newfound musical love was to go and see it in the making. “I’d go with my friends to a place in Tel Aviv where they had jazz,” he recalls. “But my friends were bigger than me, and they’d be allowed in. But I was relatively small, so I couldn’t get in.”
Portugaly was clearly getting a handle on improvisation, and not just in a musical sense.
“It was really frustrating not getting in to the shows. I went back and forth three or four times.
I changed clothes each time. In the end, I drew a mustache on myself,” he chuckles.
The faux hirsute addition did the trick, although Portugaly wasn’t fooling anyone.
“It was 5 a.m., and the guy at the door eventually just told me to go in. [Guitarist] Mickey Shaviv was playing there,” he continues.
Shaviv is now best known for his blues output, but back then, it seems he was more jazz minded.
“They played the music of Light As a Feather a lot. There were [Romanian-born sax player] Peter Wertheimer and [keyboardist] Alona Turel,” he says.
Portugaly finally got to see the magic evolving, live, right before his eager eyes and ears.
“It was amazing,” he marvels.
That set his pulse racing and spurred him on to immerse himself ever deeper in the music, taking classes from some of the leading jazz educators of the day, such as Rami Levin and Nachum Perpekovitch.
After the army, he picked up some stage experience, contributing to the musical backdrop of various theater productions and began to slot into the professional jazz scene here, picking up valuable live jazz insight with Kaminsky, Piamenta and saxophonist Amikam Kimmelman.
In 1987, Portugaly took the next natural step in his music education continuum and moved to the US to study at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. Not only did he benefit from top-class education, but he also landed concert slots in and around Boston. And, more importantly for the way his personal and professional life has panned out, he met Iris at Berklee. And the rest is history.
The couple returned to Israel in 1991 when the jazz scene here was far from where it is today, but the Portugalys were determined to do their bit to revive the community.
“There was good jazz here – the Red Sea Jazz Festival started in 1987 – but nothing like it is today,” he says.
That applies to the music we export, too.
“Today, the young Israeli jazz musicians set the tone in New York,” Portugaly notes. “I have heard people say that if there’s someone playing good jazz at some venue, they must be Israeli. That’s the way it has become. That’s great.”
Meanwhile, the husband-and-wife team continue to do their bit for the domestic jazz arena and beyond. Jazzing It Up should appeal to mainstream jazz and pop music fans alike, and the Zappa Herzliya crowd should have a good time next week. The same goes for patrons of the Red Sea jazz bash, which takes place August 27 to 30, where Portugaly will jazz it up as well.
For tickets and more information: Herzliya – *9080 and www.zappa-club.co.il/; Eilat – redseajazz.co.il