An infrequent visitor to his hometown, bassist Chuck Israels is returning to NYC this month for rehearsals of his new music with David Berger's Sultans of Swing big band. Israels and Berger have a musical relationship that dates back to the National Jazz Ensemble, a groundbreaking jazz repertory orchestra that Israels conceived in the mid '70s. Their recordings highlighted superb arrangements across a wide variety of jazz styles. A treasure from their catalogue features pianist Bill Evans sitting in with the band for a beautifully orchestrated version of his "Very Early . Israels, at the time, was no stranger to the great pianist as he had played in Evans' trio for five years after the untimely death of bassist Scott LaFaro in 1961. Recording classics like At Shelly Manne's Hole, At Town Hall and Moon Beams, during Israels' tenure the format for Evans' piano trio solidified.
Head of jazz studies at Western Washington University, where he has taught for 20 years, Israels remains an opinionated and thought-provoking musician whose resumé includes recordings with a who's who of modern jazz. He reflected on the dynamics and historical import of replacing LaFaro in the most influential piano trio in jazz history. "I was a great admirer of Scotty and of that trio and I know [drummer] Paul Motian felt that my playing was a lot less good than Scotty's at the beginning...and that's part of the reason why he left...he's made it public and that's OK...my point of view of making music with Bill was somewhat different than Scott's...I wanted to be less musically competitive and more integral to the overall feeling of the music...whether or not I succeeded at that is someone else's judgment but it was certainly my intention...from my perspective I was successful at that and the trio was particularly successful at that, especially with [drummers] Larry Bunker and then later with Arnie Wise who was a superb player...I don't hear any other jazz trio that approaches that ensemble idea except for Bill Charlap's trio...they all get it. Wise and Israels recapture their magic on the recent release by pianist Jon Mayer, Strictly Confidential (Fresh Sound).
Israels' first professional recording at the age of 22 was an experience that a jazz bassist could only think of as heaven, a session with John Coltrane, pianist Cecil Taylor, trumpeter Kenny Dorham and drummer Louis Hayes, released on CD as Coltrane Time. While jazz lore has it that there was animosity between Taylor and Dorham, Israels remembers it very differently. ..."it was nothing like that and I was there and I can tell you... it was...designed as a Cecil Taylor session and not as a John Coltrane session...it came out [originally] as Hard Driving Jazz...I don't remember that there was a lot of prepared music...I had a little student composition which I called 'Double Clutching..'.John and Kenny looked at it and said well here we will play this...of course I was thrilled and a little taken aback and frightened...here were the big guys and they were going to play my little exercise...but they were able to transform it into something that was recognizable professional music...they didn't behave in any way other than welcoming and friendly.
The state of music education is a topic that Israels has strong opinions on and he feels that today's aspiring musicians do not have the same benefits of the apprenticeship culture that existed when he began. He traces this change directly to the end of jazz as the popular music in this country and its relegation to an academic pursuit. "The people I grew up with had a different approach to what we were doing...and we thought of it not as a special thing you can learn in school...but as popular music...and if you wanted to learn to play this popular music you had to learn a lot of stuff...jazz is the most complex kind of popular music there has ever been from my perspective...for it to grow it has to be fused with other things that have an equal level of depth and complexity and that's Bartók and Stravinsky, not rock and roll...but schools are not designed as efficient conduits for conveying information and experience and the reason they are not is that because by and large the students are organized into a ghetto...a ghetto of like age and lack of experience...there are 30 of them in a classroom with one experienced person...I learned when I was the one inexperienced person surrounded by many more experienced folks...there are societies where art is learned that way. I think the industry of jazz education has produced a bunch of music and a bunch of musical styles that had I heard those when I was growing up I would still be playing Mozart.