Tamir Hendelman (606 Club, 21 September)

Israel-born pianist Tamir Hendelman has been based in Los Angeles since 1996. In this interview he remembers moments that have happened during that time, such as working on a chart-topping album with Barbra Streisand, or performing Oscar Peterson’s “Canadiana Suite” at the Hollywood Bowl, with the great Canadian himself in attendance.

Tamir Hendelman will be appearing at the 606 on Wednesday 21 September in a trio with Californian bassist Alex Frank, whose credits include Jeff Goldblum, and French drummer Germain Cornet. Interview by Sebastian.

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Tamir Hendelman in 2020. Publicity photo supplied.

LondonJazz News: What is the story of you making your life in California?

Tamir Hendelman: My musical journey began in Israel at age 6 on the electric organ with a mix of classical and jazz and original songs. When I was 13, my family moved to Los Angeles from Tel Aviv. In LA I composed for and performed in a national Yamaha keyboard competition. One of the judges, composer and pianist Joe Harnell became a mentor. I attended his film scoring sessions, went to jam sessions a Billy Higgins’ World Stage, took harmony classes and attended lessons with Clare Fischer and Billy Childs. So for me, California was really a land of musical opportunities.

LJN: What aspects of living there do you like?

TH: Living in LA, you spend a fair amount of time in cars, but that never seemed a big deal. I loved discovering more about this big city, learning about the musical community. As a high school student, I was encouraged to enroll in conservatory and went east and north. At Eastman School of Music I immersed myself in classical composition and piano, but never forgot about my love of jazz, and my recitals always had some improvisation in them.

I sat in on jazz masterclasses by Lee Konitz and Ron Carter, played in a big band, and arranged. Then, back in LA in the later 90’s I began gradually performing with saxophonists like Teddy Edwards and Rickey Woodard, playing duos with vocalists, like Tierney Sutton and Barbara Morrison, and forming my own trio.

LA has a unique scene- there are many recording and touring artists and the community is supportive of up-and-coming musicians.

The scene in LA has really grown in the last decade with venues like The Blue Whale and now Sam First have been magnets for creative musicians.

LJN: Has the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra been a big thing for you? 

TH: I first got to hear Jeff Hamilton live with the great Ray Brown Trio (with pianist Benny Green) at Catalina in Hollywood in the late ‘90s. The energy of the whole group was really something to experience. A few years later, Jeff heard me at a club in a duo with a vocalist. He introduced himself afterwards. Soon I got a call from him that his trio was heading to Japan and the piano chair was open. He invited me to learn a few arrangements and then meet to play them together. I began to learn the trio’s recordings. We then met and played, and I was glad to be invited to join the trio in 2000.

Being in the Jeff Hamilton Trio over the years has shown me many things a trio can be – a musical conversation, a groove, a chamber group or a big band. How to play to make each other sound our best. How to arrange to bring out each person’s musical strengths. In my own trio, I’ve tried to bring those lessons and at the same time, tap into all my influences, and explore some different things.

In 2001, I was invited to join the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, co-led by Jeff, John Clayton and the late, great Jeff Clayton. This was like joining a musical family. Making music with composer, conductor and bassist John Clayton has been a continual inspiration as well. It’s a joy to continue to learn from and be inspired by making music with Jeff and John.

In the summer of 2001, John invited me to learn Oscar Peterson’s “Canadiana Suite” for his new orchestration for a Hollywood Bowl concert in honor of Oscar, who also performed that night. It meant the world to me that John would trust me with this musical challenge. These kind of experiences made it clear to me the kinds of people I wanted to surround myself with as a musician to keep growing.

LJN: Do you work with a lot of singers? 

TH: Over the years, I’ve gotten to play with some wonderful vocal artists: Roberta Gambarini, Tierney Sutton, Natalie Cole, Jackie Ryan and many others. I also enjoy arranging for vocalists- it’s all about finding a way to make a song feel personal to the artist you’re writing for. One vocal album that was a joy to arrange and play on was “The Many Faces of Love” by UK vocalist Polly Gibbons.

LJN: What is the story of Barbra Streisand hiring you in 2009? How did that happen and what was it like? 

TH: Barbra Streisand invited Diana Krall to produce her “Love Is The Answer”, a classic collection of standards by Jule Styne, Leonard Bernstein and more. The album featured some top pianists, including Alan Broadbent and Bill Charlap. Jeff and John were on the album, and recommended me as well. When I walked in the studio, Barbra Streisand suggested we play Bernstein/Comden/Green’s “Some Other Time” and within minutes we were recording a version inspired by Bill Evans’ classic introduction.

Musically, it was a treat to be part of this special project which featured strings arranged by the great Johnny Mandel. This led to a visit to the Jonathan Ross show, a live recording at the Village Vanguard called “One Night Only” and an orchestral north American tour.

LJN: Tell us about the other musicians you will bring to the 606. 

TH: Bassist Alex Frank has been in my LA trio for around a decade, fresh off of his Oberlin studies with Eddie Gomez – and has been a major part of the LA jazz scene, performing with guitarists Bruce Forman and Graham Dechter, writing for big band and more. He loves to dig into the Great American Songbook and has all the qualities I love in top bass players- smart lines, unerring rhythm, a sharp memory, fast instincs, and a beautiful bowed tone. It’s always a blast playing with him.

Drummer Germain Cornet and I have been close musical friends since 2017, when we recorded on bassist Nicola Sabato’s “Bass Stories” album. He later toured Europe in 2019 as a member of my trio, and has also performed with Harry Allen, Nicolas Bearde and others. Germain’s playing has both drive and finesse. His brush playing is precise and subtle, and he plays with a joy that makes each concert special.

LJN: The 606 is an intimate club. You give a lot of house concerts in the LA area and like the intimate vibe, right? 

TH: I’ve always loved the intimacy of a smaller club, or even a home concert. In LA,
house concerts are a thing- there’s a tradition of these here- and everyone is there to listen and enjoy. .

I’ve heard several London musicians speak fondly about the vibe at the 606. We’re looking forward to the intimate vibe in this club as a special way to start off our European tour.

LJN: What use were you able to make of lockdown (apart from spending more time with family!). Did you find new ways to keep your creativity going? 

TH: After a month, I started playing online solo concerts from home, sometimes with special guests, like Tierney Sutton and John Clayton. I had done workshops at my home, and home concerts elsewhere, so it was just a matter of getting set up and making a list of some of my favorite piano heroes, composers, and other jazz artists. Each week was a different tribute. I learned as much as the audience, and I’m glad these concerts kept up all feeling connected.

LJN: Your last album was “Destinations”. Was there a concept behind the album?

TH: “Destinations” (which I recorded with Lewis Nash and Marco Panascia on Resonance Records) was about my journey as a jazz musician, travelling around the world, collecting influences and experiences. Discovering about people like Jobim and Charlie Parker as a kid, falling in love with French and Brazilian music, and exploring my own Israeli heritage. We will play music from this album as well as my debut album, “Playground”, originally released in Japan (which featured Jeff Hamilton and John Clayton), with music by Herbie Hancock, Rodgers & Hart, Horace Silver, and more.

LJN: Have you written much since then, and if so what directions have you been heading with your writing?

TH: I’ve recently composed with certain musical friends in mind, writing for duos I have done with guitarist Larry Koonse, saxophonist Rickey Woodard and bassist John Clayton.

In 2018, enjoyed orchestrating and expand a Jobim piece for members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for a Brazilian concert with Duduka Da Fonseca.

The latest Jeff Hamilton Trio album, features one of my more recent tunes, Catch Me If You Can, which became the title.

LJN: You have done your version of Ravel – are there other classical composers who have left their mark? 

TH: I’ve enjoyed music by Copland, Prokofiev, Debussy, Faure and others who wrote in the early 20th century. Lately, I’ve improvised a bit on “Rhapsody In Blue” with orchestras.

LJN: And what about the jazz pianists in your personal jazz piano heaven? 

TH: I have many musical heroes whose music I grew up on: Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis and his pianists.

Then there are those still with us: Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. And other adventurous souls like Danilo Perez and musicians like Bobby McFerrin.

Sure, it would be fun to travel back in time to a legendary concert, or hear Bill Evans’ touch in person..But a musical conversation between the past and future could be a beautiful thing too. Just imagine how some of our musical heroes would sound if they would continue to develop. I’d love to hear a jam session between musicians across the eras.

LINKS: Tamir Hendelman website


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