Big bands! The mere twinning of those two words seems to conjure up scenes of joyous energy, unbridled sunshiny musical outpourings and insouciant demeanor. But the seemingly happy delivery of a large jazz ensemble can often be the result of long hours spent in rehearsal rooms and, if legend is anything to go by, some iron rod wielding. It is said that Benny Goodman, iconic clarinetist and band leader of the Swing Era, and contemporary band frontman and trombonist Glen Miller, were tough taskmasters. Not that their audiences would have guessed.
While not quite at the same level of global fame, the newly subheaded The Orchestra – The Israeli Jazz Orchestra has always seemed to ooze a sense of camaraderie, and a palpable feel-good factor permeates all their work. That comes across in buckets from the group’s newly released third recorded offering Nine Tales to One Story, which is currently being proffered live to audiences up and down the country. Next up in the troupe’s current record release tour is a date at the Yellow Submarine in Jerusalem on March 21 (doors open 9 p.m., show starts 10 p.m.) and Ha’ezor in Tel Aviv on March 23 (2 p.m.), when singer Hanan Ben-Ari will join the fray.
During the course of its decade and a half of sterling artistic work to date, The Orchestra has put out three records. The two previous releases were very much overseen and influenced by the band’s founder, 45-year-old internationally acclaimed trombonist Avi Lebovich. But things have moved on. Over the past year. Lebovich has stepped aside, with fellow trombonist Yair Slutzki and drummer Ron Almog – both founding members of the ensemble – taking over the artistic director reins.
The Orchestra is one of a kind. Any jazz or, for that matter, classical artist will tell you that these days, logistics and financial considerations make sustaining a large band of instrumentalists, and sometimes vocalists, challenging in the extreme. But somehow, The Orchestra has kept on going, performing all over the country, and making the odd offshore jaunt to places like South Africa, Italy and France.
This is a high-class lineup wherever you look. Almost all the players lead their own groups and write music themselves, such as keyboardist Tomer Bar, saxophonist Alon Farber and guitarist Yonatan Albalak, besides Slutzki and Almog. All the aforementioned contributed scores or arrangements to Nine Tales to One Story which contains the works of nine composers.
Not content with the quality on offer within its own ranks, the record also features guest star turns such as trumpeter Avishai Cohen, pianist Nitai Hershkovits and veteran guitarist Ofer Ganor. In fact, the band has played with all kinds of big names over the years, from across a range of styles and disciplines, including veteran pianist-flutist singer Shem Tov Levy, local rock god Shalom Hanoch and globally renowned ethnojazz, funk, soul and R&B vocalist Ester Rada.
With Lebovich taking more of a back seat, the stylistic range has widened and deepened but, somehow, without the Orchestra’s losing its identity. That is no mean feat, and the new epexegetical subheading is a reflection of the breadth of the band’s creative stretch, which actually does echo much of the vibe of the variegated local jazz scene. There are balladic efforts, such as “Forgetting Is Too Easy,” written and arranged by Hershkovits, while “Betray” written by Cohen and arranged by Albalak is a much more incendiary affair, with some down and dirty blues coloring in the mix.
“The group was basically created to play Avi’s music,” Slutzki notes. “The Orchestra has undergone changes and has widened its range. It now represents a different approach to the work.”
Then again, it has been a gradually evolving dynamic.
“Now it is clear that there has been a change in the way the music is written, but really this multi-pronged approach has been our way of doings things for a few years now,” adds Slutzki. “It has been a long process.”
The band is more akin to a collective of quality performers and creators. It is a unique state of affairs, certainly within the Israeli jazz scene, and pretty special on a global level, too.
“We feel we represent and present a lot of figures from the Israeli jazz community,” Slutzki explains. “That’s why we added the new part to The Orchestra’s name. We have Avishai Cohen and Ofer Ganor, who aren’t part of The Orchestra but contributed to the new album, and we have people like Tomer Bar and Alon Farber, each of whom is an accomplished musician and personality. They all have their place in this orchestra.”
Add the likes of seasoned saxophonist Amit Friedman, Mickey Warshai and trombonist Yaron Ouzana, and you have yourself more than a decent unit.
The whole of The Orchestra – The Israeli Jazz Orchestra may be greater than the sum of the parts, but the individuals in there ain’t half bad, either.
The Orchestra will perform on March 21 at the Yellow Submarine in Jerusalem (doors open 9 p.m., show starts 10 p.m.); and March 23 at 2 p.m. at Ha’ezor in Tel Aviv. For tickets and more information: http:// yellowsubmarine.org.il; http://haezor.com