‘The IsReal Book’ where Assaf Levitin Meets AGvH Jazz Ensemble

At the tail end of December I received an email introducing me to an Israeli jazz outfit with a Cantor as lead vocalist. I am aware that Cantors have a good vocal range and a rich tone and that the title of Cantor is often passed down the hereditary line but beyond that, my experience of listening to this style of singing is limited and I was definitely interested in how it might fit with an improvisational driven music that is jazz.

Israeli jazz musicians have belonged to the elite of this genre for over 20 years. Well-established artists like Avishai Cohen (in fact two of them – a bassist and a trumpeter, no family relation), Eli Degibri, Omer Avital and many others have long been playing with the biggest names in the field.

However, jazz has never been mainstream in Israel, particularly not back in the early years when the dominant culture was Eastern European. The drive to establish a new, authentic Israeli culture shunned foreign influences, particularly American ones. Even the Beatles were banned in Israel, to make sure they would not “lead our young people into decadence”. How could a band be allowed in a country whose main dictionary defined jazz as “loud, wild music played predominantly by blacks”?

And yet, jazz has found its way into Israeli music. Even those two icons of Israeli songwriting, Naomi Shemer (Yerushalayim Shel Zahav) and Sasha Argov, drew inspiration from jazz in some of their songs. The generation that followed them, with composers such as Yoni Rechter, Alon Oleartchik and Matti Caspi, found inspiration in jazz as well as in samba, bossa, rumba and world music. Jewish musicians who immigrated to Israel from England and America brought new styles and were warmly welcomed. The famous Israeli curiosity very quickly appropriated these novel sounds into the country’s own culture.

Assaf Levitin

From the opening bars of, ‘Shir Nolad’, I was aware of what many west Europeans might consider an Israeli sound created by the clarinet of Richard Maegraith. Assaf Levitin has a rich, resonant tone with clear diction and wonderful delivery. On the bossa driven ‘Ma Ossot’ his delivery lightens to match the timbre of the number. Richard Maegraith switches to the flute for this tune, which adds a bright airy quality over the well-played rhythms from Christian Fischer and Peter Kuhnsch. The slower tempoed‘Hasar Mekane’ is a song about a jealous husband (there is a booklet with the songs translated into English the link to which is at the end of this post) trying to keep his wife from “the look and the breath of a stranger”. Gündel-vom Hofe plays beautifully lyrical piano lines over which Assaf Levitin sings his plaintive words in a musical theatre style.

‘Im Kol Haguf’ is a well-delivered love song with a simple rhythm, floating sax lines and understated piano lines – an after-hours style number I very much enjoyed. ‘Female Chauvinist Bitch’ is a wonderful song about the inability of the Hebrew language to adapt to the changing landscape around gender identification. The song is delivered in a light reproach to the Academy of The Hebrew Language. The music, like the words, is light and inoffensive but delivers an important message. ‘Haolam Mitkarer (The World Is Getting Cold)’ conveys its meaning with a touch more force and deals with the issue of loneliness. The sadness is palpable and the singing and sax compliment each other perfectly with the rhythm section blending in nicely without taking anything away from the front line.

The track ‘Aba Shel Eitan’ is a dark, slow number with a funereal pulse provided by Peter Kuhnsch. Everything about this tune is pared back with only Richard Maegraith playing with any jazz styling. ‘I’m Going To Be A Has-Been’, on the other-hand, is full of jazz line., The lyrics, sung in English, are about the trials and tribulations of song writing and public profile, and once again features Richard Maegraith on flute playing in an Afro-Cuban jazz style. This now familiar manner of putting across the more up-tempo numbers continues in ‘On The Road’, a song reflecting on travel and how little we understand the mechanics of the mode of transport used. The tune and delivery is jaunty, bouncing along from start to finish.

The penultimate number of of this eleven track album is ‘The Princes And The Wind’ and captures the notion of travel by camel train very well and has a real middle-eastern feel about it all. The tone of the bass clarinet is wonderful, as is the piano playing of Gündel-vom Hofe. That brings us to the final track, ‘Lo Chalamti’, a slow questioning number full of doubt and faint hope. The phrasing from Assaf is delightful as he moves between feelings of being unsure and having answers (perhaps).

I very much enjoyed this album and it certainly helped having the translated lyrics to hand. The musicianship is very good and the way that voice and instruments blended, complimented and supported each other was at times breath-taking. This is an album that requires attention as much of what is played and portrayed is done so with a subtlety that can be easily overlooked. The light Afro-Cuban styling seems to work very well with the Hebrew language, particularly when sung in the dulcet tones of Assaf Levitin.

Musicians: Assaf Levitin – vocalist; Albrecht Gündel-vom Hofe – piano; Richard Maegraith – bass clarinet, tenor sax, and flute; Christian Fischer – double-bass; Peter Kuhnsch – percussion.

Tracklist: 1. Shir Nolad. 2. Ma Ossot. 3. Hasar Mekane. 4. Im Kol Haguf. 5. Female Chauvinist Bitch. 6 Haolam Mitkarer (The World Is Getting Cold). 7. Aba Shel Eitan. 8. I’m Gonna Be A Hass-Been. 9. On The Road. 10. The Princess And The Wind. 11. Lo Chalamti.

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