January 2, 2005, Updated September 14, 2012

Members of the Thelma Yellin School jazz band who will be performing this week in California.You could say it’s a classic case of sending coals to Newcastle, or maybe just some old fashioned hutzpa. Whatever your take on it, having a bunch of high school kids from Israel perform at the American jazz community’s grandest annual gathering is something of an eyebrow raiser.

What could eight Israeli teenagers possibly have to offer around 8,000 American jazz artists that the latter haven’t seen or heard before? How is the octet expected to shine among such glittering jazz titans as pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist-flutist James Moody and bassist Charlie Haden?

According to Yossi Regev, Jazz Department Director at the Thelma Yellin School of the Arts in Givatayim, Israel, when his young protégés – the Thelma Yellin School band – hit the stage at the annual conference of the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) in Long Beach, California on January 7, the audience will, indeed, hear something unique.

“Literally hundreds of bands from all over the world applied to perform at the conference so I realized we had to come up with something special,” Regev told ISRAEL21c. “What we have to offer is something from here, something of our own.”

With the cross-cultural concept germinating nicely, 17-year-old 12th grade bandleader Ronen Shmueli set about putting together a program for the IAJE gig with a different cultural slant. In fact, Shmueli came up with the idea of taking Israeli songs and embellishing them with jazz arrangements quite a while ago.

“Yossi [Regev] asked us to think of a project when I was in 11th grade,” says Schmueli. “I liked songs written by [late singer-songwriter] Uzi Hitman and thought I’d do something with his song ‘Elohim Sheli (My God).’ It came out really well and that got me thinking about doing something jazzy with some other Israeli pieces.”

Shmueli then began dipping into the Israeli songbook. The upshot of his musical explorations is a nine-piece program for the IAJE concert that includes seven arrangements of Israeli material, with just two jazz standards in the mix. Shmueli also drew some of his inspiration from the contribution of the best-known Israeli jazz musician today to an acclaimed American jazz combo.

“When I was working on the school project I was influenced by the work of [legendary pianist] Chick Corea’s Origin band from the late 1990s, which included [Israeli] bass player Avishai Cohen. I liked the way they fused different elements together.”

The melting pot approach eventually spawned the repertoire the Thelma Yellin School band will perform on the West Coast later this week. “When we came back from last year’s IAJE conference in New York – I played in a big band there – Yossi spoke to me about incorporating Israeli songs in a program we could offer this year’s conference. He thought we’d have a better chance of being accepted if we suggested something a bit different. Of course, we’d have to play well too.”

Beyond artistic excellence, Regev feels the band’s trip to the California also has an important non-musical aspect to it.

“This is an opportunity to show people outside the country there is more to Israel than the, generally bad, stuff they normally see on CNN and other news broadcasts,” he says.

The band will be taking that message into downtown Los Angeles. In addition to the IAJE concert, the Thelma Yellin band will perform three shows for youngsters from a wide range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds in LA.

“The Israeli consulate and the Jewish Federation in Los Angeles asked us to play for young non-Jewish audiences because they realized we could present a different angle on life in Israel,” says Regev. The extra-IAJE shows include performances at art schools in the Los Angeles area with multicultural student bodies.

But, Israeli cultural input aside, does the school band really come up to scratch? Niv Toar, 18, is probably a little more streetwise than his cohorts in the Thelma Yellin School band. Last summer the young trumpeter left his cozy and familiar high school confines and headed for the far headier climes of the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.

Three months into his jazz studies there Toar was on a brief jaunt to Israel where, in between family-related activities and soaking up some winter sun, he found time to join Shmueli’s band and contribute to a warm-up concert at the Tel Aviv School of Arts. The IAJE shebang will find Toar playing both with his alma mater band and in a Berklee combo.

Toar is, naturally, in a perfect position to judge how well the Israeli jazz community, and his former schoolmates, are faring in the wider, global scheme of jazz things. “These guys [in the school band] are as good as anything I’ve heard in Boston. Of course, Berklee is much bigger – the [Yellin] school has maybe 16 or 17 ensembles while there are 600 at Berklee – but all the players in the school band would manage just fine at Berklee.”

Toar is not the first budding Israeli jazz artist to move across the Atlantic to further his craft. In the early nineties bassmen Avishai Cohen and Omar Avital, and trombonist Avi Lebovich landed in New York shortly after completing their army service. After completing their formal music studies, all went on to make their mark in the highest echelons of the global jazz community. Then there’s pianist Anat Fort who is highly active on the New York jazz scene and is about to become the first Israeli jazz artist to record with prestigious German record label ECM. The list does, indeed, go on.

So, why does Toar think Israeli jazz musicians do so well in what is, after all, the art form’s homeland? “Berklee vice-presidents Greg Badolato and Larry A. Monroe were here [in Israel] a short while ago and they said that Israel is a great ‘incubator’ for musical talent. Maybe we try just that little bit harder.”

Presumably, later this week, Toar, Shmueli & co. will do their utmost to get their musical and cultural message across in California

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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