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Arts & Culture: Jazz Musicians from Israel Make the Scene in the Big Apple

Falafel. Regional conflict. Sunshine. These are three things one normally thinks about when it comes to Israel.

Now Israel has a new product: jazz.

During the past decade, Israel has begun exporting increasing numbers of jazz musicians to New York — and has become the venue for some high-profile concerts.

The Israeli jazz scene began around 40 years ago and, for the first couple of decades, was largely sustained by drummer Arele Kaminsky and reed player Roman Kuntsman.

In recent years, however, Israeli exports have made quite a splash.

Since arriving in the Big Apple in 1992, bassist Avishai Cohen has played with numerous top artists, released three well-received albums and contributed production skills on several colleagues’ recordings.

Cohen, 30, currently plays with pianist Chick Corea’s band.

Fellow bassist Omer Avital and trombonist Avi Lebovich landed in New York on the same day as Cohen.

Avital has established himself as one of the sweetest-sounding jazz bassists in the United States. He enjoyed a four-year tenure at New York’s Smalls jazz club — although he now spends more time touring North America and Europe than playing New York clubs.

Meanwhile, Lebovich has collaborated with stars such as trombonist Slide Hampton and is frequently on the road in the United States and Europe.

Then there is saxophonist Eli Degibri who, until recently, was a member of pianist Herbie Hancock’s band.

A relatively recent Israeli arrival in the United States, a trumpeter also named Avishai Cohen, is already in great demand.

Israel also has provided New York with some avant-garde talent.

Reed players AssifTsahar and Ori Kaplan are wowing audiences at the famous Knitting Factory and other venues on a regular basis.

Lebovich says Israel’s love of culture explains the success of its musicians.

“For a small population, Israel is probably the most intense culture on the planet, and the musicians are as well-trained as musicians anywhere,” he said. The fast pace of Israeli life makes it an ideal place to nurture jazz, he added.

“The tempo of Israel life, certainly in Tel Aviv, is very close to the way things are in New York,” he said.

What’s true of Israelis is also true of Jews more generally, as their interest in culture has led many American Jewish musicians to gravitate to a form created by African Americans.

At the same time, Israel also is importing more jazz.

In the past, budgets for bringing over top musicians were small, so a top name would be flown in and the same local musicians– usually Kaminsky and Kuntsman — would be recruited as sidemen.

But things have changed radically since those early days. Today, dozens of promising high school musicians clamor for the chance to play with titans who visit from overseas.

Israel also now hosts several prominent international jazz events, such as the annual Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, which attract some of the top names in world jazz.

Since its inception in 1987, the Eilat event has played host to numerous stellar jazz musicians, including Corea, trumpeter Clark Terry and the late French violinist Stephane Grappelli.

Israel is a small country, however, and at the end of the day there are only so many events and venues aspiring young musicians can play before they begin looking toward the broader horizons of the United States.

As it has been for three-quarters of a century, New York is still the mecca of the jazz world.

Despite similarities between the pace of life in New York and Tel Aviv, life in New York is far different from that in Israel.

Like countless American musicians who moved to New York, Israeli musicians generally take a while to get in the groove.

“I was totally in shock for the first year,” says Kaplan, who moved to New York in 1991. “New York scared me a bit so I spent most of my time in a rehearsal room. Today, I thrive on the intense energy of the place. I know it’s a bit mad, but I love it.”

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