For the past 17 years, Levontin 7 has spread the musical word far and wide. There does not appear to be any domain of music that has not had stage time at the popular basement Tel Aviv joint.
That eclectic mindset lies at the core of its annual birthday festival bash currently up and running with a host of shows both at the home venue on Levontin Street and at the Tel Aviv Museum through July 22.
Club honcho Asif Tsahar, a seasoned free-flowing saxophonist who spent much of his formative artistic years in New York, tends to move in more unfettered creative climes. So inviting saxophonist, bandleader, filmmaker and general artistic handyman Chris Jonas over from New Mexico to front an avant-garde ensemble outing on July 21 (8 p.m.) seems to make perfect sense.
If Tsahar was looking to broaden the local music horizons he couldn’t have picked a much better, or more adventurous, artist to do the business. Tsahar and former club co-manager, pianist Daniel Sarid, have known Jonas since way back in the early 1990s when they all lived in New York and were all highly active on the free jazz scene there. Tsahar will be in the ensemble trenches on July 21, with Jonas blowing his saxophone and providing some kind of guidance to the players about the direction they may want to consider taking at any given moment.
Jonas says he intends to allow his comrades in improvisational enterprise plenty of room for maneuver and takes a leaf out of the book of an artist who stands higher than most in the improvisational stakes.
“Anthony and I have been collaborators on so many different things for so many years, and I’ve done a bunch of videos for him and played saxophone on records with him, and toured with him. We’ve been through so much together,” Jonas notes.
Reedman Anthony Braxton
The esteemed gent in question is now-78-year-old reedman Anthony Braxton, a pivotal early member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which was established in Chicago in 1965 with the express intent of encouraging artists to break down delineating fences and ply innovative channels across a broad stretch of disciplinary endeavor.
That open-ended take on creation suits Jonas down to the ground. He also embraces a spirit of rebellion and bashing against the walls of convention and established practice, while respecting the paths walked by his antecedents. Despite or, possibly, because of his envelope-pushing ethos, looking to break new ground every step of the way, Jonas digs deep into the roots of the music. As American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou observed: “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.”
Jonas constantly challenges accepted practice – isn’t that what art is fundamentally about? – while remaining cognizant of the sturdy shoulders upon which he stands when he performs and writes. He, naturally, gains insider access to the stories and wisdom of his predecessors through his work with artists from previous generations.
“Through Anthony [Braxton], going on tour with him, I have met people like [76-year-old jazz bassist] Dave Holland and [79-year-old saxophonist-flutist] Henry Threadgill. There is connectivity between Anthony and his world, and the history of jazz.”
Jonas believes that not only enriches his knowledge of his craft, it also enhances his musicianship and, thus, impacts the younger crowd.
“I could hear stories of [iconic saxophonist] Ben Webster [from Braxton and his peers] and then go on stage. That spirit is conveyed to me, and then through me. In jazz that is the most important conveyance, that personal connection to the history.”
Angelou also noted: “I have respect for the past, but I’m a person of the moment.”
That tenet informs Jonas’s work, as a performer and educator, helping to facilitate the development of younger artists, and enabling them to find the confidence and freedom to let go of the reins, and just let their thoughts and feelings wend their own way to their natural conclusion, and be just who they are. That indicates being in the moment of personal truth, when it really matters – on stage, in front of an audience of folk who, hopefully, have their ears and heart open.
Braxton has helped Jonas find his way along that particular learning curve.
“Anthony contains that [connection with the roots of jazz] and he also questions that,” he asserts. “It is the discipline of being comfortable with conflicting states. That’s a great discipline.”
Jonas also disseminates his beliefs through the Littleglobe arts and social justice non-profit, based in his home state of New Mexico, where he serves as executive director. He alludes to the curative powers inherent in collaboration and connection in the context of creative ventures.
“We set out to find an artistically creative space where people can sit together, with empathy and complexity, in a little sliver of a life of another and feel another person’s experience. That is probably one of the most healing things you can do.”
That, of course, implies listening and being attentive to the thoughts and feelings of others, much as the members of a musical ensemble looking to join forces for the greater sonic good while reserving their right to freedom of expression. That can be a wonderful boon, but also daunting. Many classical musicians have told me, over the years, that they would like to improvise but don’t how and that it scares them.
“I say to my band just do your best,” Jonas says. “I try to allow them to relax into the moment of music.”
That keeps audiences with open ears and hearts riveted and also helps to keep the artists on their toes and thoroughly engaged. Jonas says the intent is an indispensable factor here, “If something is fresh, if you feel like it is come from today, execution is not the important thing although can’t do with excellent execution. The job is the musician is to do their best and nail the music.”
There are pressures that come with treading beyond the structured pale. “The audience kind of almost expects us to be virtuosi, not show-offs, but showing them they can trust me with this loud instrument. You can trust me because I have spent enough time thinking and practicing and asking questions. I can use this tool [instrument] to do something. Part of the human condition also requires us to be surprised, otherwise, we’re just replicating the same thing over again.”
Jonas would like us to experience the music with all our physical and emotional beings.
“There is the style of, say, South Indian classical music or jazz, but it needs to have the richness of the challenge of the moment, when someone turns a corner takes a step into a strange place, pivots, and finds their way back. That is so important for both the audience and the artist. Everything counts.”
For tickets and more information: levontin7.com/festival