Tal Gamlieli Interview
How did you first get into jazz?
The short story is that I started to study rock guitar, and my teacher started to play some jazz to me because he wanted me to develop, take a new direction and learn a little bit more about music. I also had good friends that were good musicians and huge jazz fans. I used to go to their houses and listen to all the great records and CDs. That’s another way that I got into loving jazz music. Many times I get asked this question, as an Israeli, what’s the connection between Israel and jazz music. That would be very interesting. Israel is basically a very multi-cultural place. It’s a young country but it has very ancient traditions, also in terms of music and culture. But Jews also came to Israel from all over the world, including from North Africa and from the Middle East but also Europe. So you have classical and European music coming together with Middle Eastern and North African and African music that came to Israel from different diasporas. So basically, it’s the perfect place for jazz. It’s what jazz is about. It’s about a melting pot of bringing different cultures together and creating one sound. That’s one of the main reasons why Israel and jazz is so developed these days.
So you got into playing bass through playing guitar?
Yes, I moved to playing bass. In the Nineties I went to visit New York and I got the opportunity to hear an amazing bassist, and actually he was Israeli. His name is Omer Avital, who is well-known today, and Avishai Cohen the bass player. They’re good friends, they went to New York together in the Nineties and I got to hear both of them. I remember it because I’d never heard Israeli jazz being played at this level. It really inspired me and I came back home and I was studying at the time with Arnie Lawrence, who was a very important educational figure in Israel, and Arnie was also the founder of the New School Jazz Program in New York but he was Jewish and he came to live in Israel for a few years and opened a school here. Arnie, as a saxophone player, actually used to play with Dizzy Gillespie and Mingus and everyone in New York so he was the real thing. I told him ‘I think I want to study the bass’ so he said ‘you know what, I have a bass over here’. It was a workshop with a drummer and a pianist and guitarist. So Arnie gave me the bass and gave me two simple rules, follow these rules and you’ll be okay. Put your left hand on the fingerboard, with your right hand on the strings. Your right hand never stops playing quarter notes and with your left hand, never play the same note twice. So I followed those rules. I didn’t know a lot about jazz then but on an intuitive level, suddenly the co-ordination between my ears and my hands started to work as I started to find more and more correct notes. So it was a very strange thing because in an instant he made me a bass player, right there and I felt that I just had to learn the instrument. He was really a genius educator. I did a whole undergrad degree in classical music to learn the bass but it was very strange feeling because you usually have to learn the instrument for many, many years before you become a pianist or a drummer but for me it was completely different because I felt right there that I was already playing the bass and making music with the very limited abilities that I had. I was already creating music but I just had to learn how to become more proficient at it. So that’s the story of how I started on the bass.
Where did you go from there?
I did an undergrad degree at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. I studied with Michael Klinghoffer who is really an amazing giant of a classical bass player and teacher. He taught Omer Avital, Avishai Cohen and many other great jazz players as well as classical players. So I studied with him, I did a whole undergrad degree, performed a classical recital from Bach’s Cello Suites to Hindemith’s Sonata to arrangements of Schumann lieder and the Dragonetti Concerto. I did all the things that classical players do for double bass but I knew the whole time that I wanted to play bass and that I was studying classical music to get a great foundation in music that would help me to become the jazz musician that I wanted to be. Also, I took lessons with an important ear training and theory instructor named Dr. Bat-Sheva Rubinstein, she has a PhD in ear training from NYU and is probably the best ear training teacher in the world, I would bet on it. I studied with her for a year and then I studied counterpoint, classical harmony and ear training for many years. I was playing jazz already in Israel and then I got accepted to the New England Conservatory in Boston, which is a very good school to study for my masters degree. I studied there with Dave Holland, who is also going to be playing at Love Supreme! I also studied with Cecil McBee and I took lessons with Danilo Perez, the piano player for Wayne Shorter. And then he took me on tour with his trio. I also studied with Jerry Bergonzi and Yoron Israel and Joanne Brackeen. This was all during the time that I lived in Boston from 2006 until 2011. Then I came back to Israel in 2011 with two children that were born there, and my wife. We decided that we wanted to raise our children in Israel so we came back and I started teaching and leading the music program at the Jerusalem Academy High School. The university where I went for my undergrad also has a high school. It’s an arts high school so I led the whole music program (classical and jazz) for three years. When I was doing that I met two students of mine. When they graduated from school they were so good that I decided to hire them for my trio. That was 2014. These are the musicians that you’re going to be hearing at Love Supreme Festival. Chai Bar David on piano and Amir Bar Akiva on drums. Since then we’ve been touring all over the place, playing my compositions.
Tell us about your style of composing. Do you think you’ve found your own style?
It’s a great question. It’s very hard, I think. For me, from inside, I’m not objective, I’m inside the process. Sometimes it’s hard to say. I feel that I am inspired and that I compose in ways that remind me of other musicians. For example, I have a piece that is dedicated to an Israeli composer, I am inspired by Israeli jazz musicians but also from all of my teachers. But I think I have my own touch, my own little details that make the music mine. Basically, in terms of the theory, if you talk about it in a simplistic way, you can define my music as Israeli jazz, and that would be correct, probably, but I think that every piece has a life of its own. When I compose I try to compose from a really deep place and not from an intellectual place, although the music is, many times, very complicated harmonically it doesn’t come from a complicated place in terms of analytically. I just hear the music, I sit at the piano, I try to really focus on the feeling that I have at this moment or the feeling that I want to express, and I do my very best to find the musical tools that I need to convey this feeling. So I usually compose the music in way that is melodic and harmonic, it’s inspired from classical music too but also from jazz and the years that I played with Danilo and rhythms from Central America, Caribbean rhythms, modern jazz. The amount of inspiration in the real world, great music is inspired from so many different styles. I hear music from different styles and I think it comes out in a natural way, so it still sounds cohesive and mine. I can put my finger on many different inspirations. Also my approach to jazz is very folkloric also because my family (I wrote about it in my biography because I think it’s very important) tells the story of Israel in a way. My mother’s family ran from WWII in 1936 and they came to live in Israel from Europe. They were an aristocratic family in Berlin. They were very well educated, my great-great-grandfather had two PhDs, they were dealing with textiles, were art dealers and had a lot of knowledge. But my father’s side, they came from Kurdistan, on the border between Iraq and Turkey. They brought with them all of that culture. I actually grew up with my father’s family in the village, and the music that I had was the tradition of Kurdish music. Every time we had a wedding or a bah mitzvah, they would bring authentic Kurdish musicians to play, and everyone would dance. Every community that I grew up with, it was a dancing community, from the very early age of 1 to my elderly grandparents who were 90 years old, everyone was dancing together, to different Kurdish dances. That was something that had a huge impact on me. From a very early age I realised the connection between dance and music. And for me music and dance are still connected in a very, very deep way. The music has to dance. It has to have a groove. What’s interesting is the combination of this dance quality, together with a melodic classical quality from Europe, which with different cultures coming together makes for a rich type of music that you can look at from different angles. That’s who I am. The place I come from artistically, obviously I’m a human being but the art is inspired by who you are, which kind of human being you are. This is the background that I come from culturally so the music comes from this place.
Do you have any future plans?
I don’t have any specific plans but I’m going to record this trio, we have a lot of material I haven’t recorded yet. We just recorded a CD in December, my trio with American saxophonist Dayna Stephens from New York. We have a project and we’ve been touring within Israel and we also performed at Smalls in New York. This whole project is named Change of Heart and it basically came up because I was on tour with Dayna in Israel and we wanted to create a strong statement that also has to do with how we feel about the situation in Israel. Every tune has to do with the word ‘peace’ and with feelings of peace without mentioning the word. So we have titles like 37 Cousins (there’s a genetic theory that everyone is connected 37 genes away), another tune is Common Ancestor by Dayna, and one of mine is called Just an Ordinary Girl. You will hear this piece at Love Supreme. It was a hard topic but I have a very close family friend who lost his daughter in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem and he formed the Parent’s Circle for Israeli and Palestinian parents who lost their loved ones in the conflict. They consider themselves family now. I dedicated this because a spokesman for this group said that he lost his daughter. One of the things that he said was that ‘when someone passes away we say that he was the smartest, the wisest, the nicest, but my daughter was a very ordinary girl and I miss her every day’. As a father this just broke my heart and I decided to compose a piece around that and it’s called Just an Ordinary Girl. It’s actually a playful tune in the beginning and then it becomes more tragic, expressing the feelings of the father, or how I imagined he would feel. Also it was like a musical statement for my children. I was thinking about how jazz has to entertain, but is also great art, which has to deal with real life. We are all here for a certain amount of time and I imagine myself, one day I’m going to be gone and what do I want to leave for my children, musically. So this is like a musical testimony for my children. Just an Ordinary Girl, this is an interesting piece. This tune we will record later. For most of October we’ll be touring in Europe, in Austria, Czech Republic, St. Petersburg, Finland. We may go to Colombia. I just came back from Peru with my trio, we played at the Lima Jazz Festival so we’re quite busy.
Is there anything else that you want to talk about?
The music that you are going to hear at Love Supreme is music that is from my first CD entitled Dania, which is dedicated to my wife. The title track, named after her, is a romantic piece and is the most listened piece of my music. There’s a YouTube video of this tune with trumpeter Avishai Cohen with over 200,000 views so we’ve touched a lot of people. We’re going to be playing this song and most of the pieces you will hear are from the record, and maybe a piece from the upcoming record, a piece called Checkpoint, which I also composed about the Israel/Palestine conflict. I’m thinking about integrating it into the set.
When I looked at your website it mentioned you being a farmer?
Yes, where I grew up it’s a farming community. We raise chickens. When I grew up I would come home from school and then work on the farm for at least two hours every day. It’s a bit strange to read the word ‘farmer’ when you’re reading about a jazz musician but it gives people an idea of who I am. It’s a part of my personality, I approach things in a practical way and a farmer is a practical person, someone who wakes up early in the morning and works hard. I think this is very, very typical of me. Now when I wake up, as a father of three children, I wake up at 5am, sometimes at 4:30 am and I practice until 6:30 when I wake them up and prepare their sandwiches and everything, when I’m not on tour.
I like being a farmer and going out to the field to work. I grew up there. This is where I live. I still live there now. We have fruit trees and a big yard and some land close to Jerusalem. It’s who I am.
Tal Gamlieli Trio perform at Love Supreme Festival on Sunday 1st July, 2018 (13:30 Arena stage).
Interview conducted by Charlie Anderson for Sussex Jazz Magazine.