Israel Festival 2012: Sheila Jordan & Her Israeli Friend Tomer Bar
Written by: Ayelet Dekel
“There was always music at home,” says high school senior Tomer Bar, who will be performing with jazz legend Sheila Jordan at the 2012 Israel Festival. American vocalist Jordan was awarded her nation’s highest honor this year: 2012 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master. In recognition of this award, the Israel Festival will present a tribute concert on May 31, 2012 – Sheila Jordan and Friends, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy. Performing with Jordan will be Israeli jazz musicians Assaf Hakimi (bass), Yaki Levi (drums), Yonatan Voltzok (trombone), and Tomer Bar on piano.
Tomer is just on the verge of graduating from Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, but this will be his third performance at the Israel Festival: the first was in 2007, with his debut album “Memories,” and the second was in 2010. I chatted with Tomer on the Thelma Yellin campus, as he took some time out between studying for his upcoming test in Literature to talk about music.
“I don’t really connect to definitions,” Tomer responded when I asked how he would define his style, but gladly discussed the influences on his music, citing “traditional jazz and contemporary jazz, Pat Metheny, and the New York scene – Aaron Goldberg, Ari Hoenig – my friends listen to them a lot, Bill Evans music from the 60s and 70s….and all this improv and traditional jazz connects with, I don’t know if I would say Israeli music, because I don’t know if there is such a thing, but the Israeli experience. There are other musicians who have found this fusion in their music, Avishai Cohen (bassist) is the best of them, and is an important influence for me.”
“In everything I’ve done … I have the urge to create…I want to become a part of it and create something…with music I started out (at age eight) playing the three chords I knew and shouting out words by association, and when I discovered the format of jazz I couldn’t let go of it because it plunged me into an endless stream: go and create! Hearing it and hearing others creating – it’s a world you can dive into …you can drown.”
“Bill Evans was always, always, the musician I most connected to, he brings something from different worlds into his music. He is less traditional, there is magic in his playing. Later (at Thelma Yellin) I went back in time to hear more traditional jazz – Coltrane and Miles, pianists like Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, Tommy Flanagan. I loved listening to Charlie Parker, Evans and Parker were the names that were always with me.”
One of the ways in which the Israeli experience finds expression in Tomer’s music is through his singing; many of the pieces he has composed over the years merge song with instrumentals. “I always loved popular music and songs, I always loved songs. I’ve never left anything, I don’t find something and then let it go, I find something and then discover something else and it all connects,” he smiled as he explained, “It’s like a trash bag – I always feel like I’m throwing things in and it all stays in the same bag together and there’s always this juice at the bottom of the bag, and this juice is the creation.”
Singing as he plays has always been a way for Tomer to express something more intimate in his music, as he said, “I always aspired…the piano is a good instrument but…. my classical teacher probably wouldn’t connect to this kind of statement…but the piano isn’t expressive in the way that a saxophone is expressive, in its close relationship to the body. When you hear a sax you feel the breath, you feel his character in his breath.”
“Slowly I am finding my way to sing without singing, through the piano. Now (studying with Menahem Wiesenberg) I am exposed to a deep, different world of music, classical music …I had always felt that music began in the 50s with Parker…I always played classical music but it was just a lesson twice a week but never gave it much thought. But when you discover the depth and connection to nature you can’t let go of it and then you go back to jazz with a new depth, waking up to a new dawn of spontaneity. But I will always sing, singing will always be a part of whatever I do in music.”
The connection to jazz vocalist Sheila Jordan happened quite spontaneously. Tomer recalled, “I went through a period when everything connected to Charlie Parker excited me…there was a Clint Eastwood film on Parker – Bird. He has recordings that can take your breath away; there is something so whole and human in his music. Sheila Jordan came to Israel and there was a rumor that she knew Parker. So I went backstage and said, “Hi, I’m Tomer and I heard that you knew Parker.”
Later, during her performance in Haifa, Jordan invited Tomer onstage to play some blues with her, and now, as he says, “I have the great honor to play with her at the Israel Festival.”
Jordan will be bringing the playlist with her own arrangements to the songs. As a student of music, Tomer said, he and his friends play the jazz standards, “but she brings the songs from the source – ‘I was there, I developed it’ – it’s very exciting, it brings it all much closer. I just had a Bagrut exam on the history of jazz, you learn about people like Barry Harris – he played with her.”
This past January, Tomer attended the Jazz Education Network Conference performing with the Thelma Yellin Big Band, an experience he describes as “the most fun I’ve had” on a concert tour. “The program includes about 100 performances every day and we’d go to sleep really late every night, we’d jam every night. One morning I woke up at 10:00, after I’d gone to sleep at 6:00, maybe the light woke me. So I looked at the program and saw Sheila Jordan was performing at 10:00 and it was 10:00, so I ran in my flip flops, and the clothes I had slept in, into a hall full of people – musicians, music arrangers – Super arrangers, all these famous people. She performed with violins, such a moving performance…and she sings her Be Bop. Parker had an album with violins (Charlie Parker with Strings). I was mesmerized. [Afterwards] The super-arrangers are all standing in line to see her, and then she sees me at the end of the line and comes up to me and gives me a hug! She’s such a warm person, 83 years old with the energies of a kid – a mythic figure that I am accompanying as a sideman. It’s very exciting to perform with her.”
In addition to school and travel, for the past year and a half, Tomer has been playing with two close friends – Uri Kutner on bass and Ofri Nehemya on drums, in room 208 at Thelma Yellin. “We didn’t know where it would go, it was a lot of fun,” said Tomer, “We also performed during that time, and then we decided to document what we had done, and record an album.” One of their performances took place in November 2011 at the International Exposure for Jazz and World Music, and has already generated an invitation to perform at the Sunnyside club in Paris on June 6, 2012. For Tomer, the album (which was produced by Eli Digibri) “feels like a kind of personal journal. Our album is called Local Groove and that’s what it is. We found a world of our own in which we express ourselves, in a way what is close to us, always coming closer to it… I think that the place you are in, and the influence of your surroundings is very meaningful.”
Tomer and the Tomer Bar Trio in “Ruach” (Wind) from the launch of their album Local Groove at the Yellow Submarine in Jerusalem, February 2012:
Sheila Jordan and Friends: A Tribute to Sheila Jordan
May 31, 2012 at 21:00, Henry Crown Auditorium, Jerusalem Theatre
Tickets and information are available on the Israel Festival website.