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Idit Shner: Infinite Possibilities

Idit Shner: Infinite Possibilities

Courtesy Idit Shner


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In classical, you practice the phrase and you are in the mindset that this phrase has to come out this way. You go on stage and you nail it. There is no other possibility. In jazz, you go on stage and you are going to be open to what the universe will deal you at the time. The mathematical equation moves from having one correct answer to having an infinite amount of correct answers.
—Idit Shner
Idit Shner, a saxophonist from Israel based in Eugene, Oregon, has a wide range of musical influences in the projects she has recorded. Her albums have been published on OA2 Records and Origin Classical and have something to offer for any listener. Grounded in the jazz traditions, she has kept reinventing herself musically, so that she has always something to say, as an artist.

On top of being a brilliant saxophonist, educator, and composer, Shner is a caring parent and wife. She always puts her family first. Only after all the duties are completed, can she fully dedicate herself to music. She makes the most out of that at any given moment.

Getting into Jazz and Making Living as a Musician

Shner's journey into jazz started when she took saxophone lessons with Peter Werthimer. She heard him playing in a jazz club, and that experience completely blew her away. An immigrant from Romania to Israel, Werthimer was a consummate woodwind doubler who taught mainly through demonstrating rather than speaking, and made her tapes from his extensive vinyl collection.

In the nineties, Shner's uncle studied in New York. When he came back to Israel, he brought her many of John Coltrane's CDs, such as A Love Supreme (Impulse! Records, 1965), The Gentle Side of John Coltrane (Impulse! Records, 1975) and others.

"He got me CDs, and I just listened to those a ton. I listened to a lot of Coltrane. I listened to Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley, and I did not understand any of it. It took me a long time to get it."

Shner says Israel has a long tradition of excellent jazz music education. During her military service in Israel, she played the second alto with the Air Force Jazz Band.

"I was surrounded by hardcore jazzers. It was so ridiculously testosterone-filled. It was full of eighteen and nineteen year-olds who were just into listening and playing hyperactive jazz all the time. That was an education within itself. They were great players."

While living and studying in Oklahoma City and Edmond, Oklahoma, Shner became a non-stop working musician. She played so many gigs that she was able to pay rent, buy her first tenor saxophone and her first car, a red Geo Storm.

"In my first few years in the US, I thought I would just do that for a couple of years and run out of funding, and go back home and get a real job, like a human resource officer. There is nothing wrong with that, by the way. But after supporting myself financially for a couple of years, I realized that this is doable: I can be a saxophonist. I can support myself by playing jobs. That was a pivotal moment for me."

Although being both a jazz and a classical saxophonist, Shner prefers not to combine them at the same time. She plays those two styles as separately as possible because the facial mask (embouchure) for classical playing is different from that of jazz. All the physicality and the way that air moves through the phrases are completely different. In addition to a physical shift, Shner says, there is a big mental shift between the two.

"In classical, you practice the phrase and you are in the mindset that this phrase has to come out this way. You go on stage and you nail it. There is no other possibility. In jazz, you go on stage and you are going to be open to what the universe will deal you at the time. The mathematical equation moves from having one correct answer to having an infinite amount of correct answers. That mental shift is possibly the hardest shift."

While some saxophonists can play a classical recital and then, at the end of it, just play a jazz tune, Shner avoids that. She tries to arrange her jazz and classical playing as periods of time that last at least one week apart.

"Starting tomorrow, I have a string of gigs that are all jazz. So, I am going to play only jazz and not touch my classical mouthpiece. A couple of months ago, when I had my classical recital, I deliberately avoided playing jazz for about two weeks, just so that I could transition over into a complete classical musician. I love that when I play one style, I do not have a "foreign accent" on the other style."

To demonstrate something to a student during a lesson, Shner can switch right away from a jazz style to a classical style and vice versa, but she says that is completely different from playing on stage. To truly switch for a performance, it takes her from about seven to ten days.

Mentorship and Performance

Shner recalls that she got opportunities to become an educator early on, while she was studying at the University of Central Oklahoma. There, she ran sectionals for the wind ensemble and helped with the jazz appreciation class. Then, at the University of North Texas, she had a teaching assistantship while pursuing her doctorate.

"I ran the Nine O'clock Lab Band, the band with the most inexperienced players; at the end-of—the-year concert, the audience could not tell it was the Nine O'clock Lab Band because they sounded so good. After that, Neil Slater promoted me to direct the Four O'clock. The Four O'clock was the highest band that a non-faculty member directs. Even while I was going to school, I started having a reputation as an effective teacher."

Shner was hired at the University of Oregon right out of school. She had not even quite finished her degree at UNT by the time she was offered the job. Since then, she has had a track record of being an effective educator and has received three university-wide teaching awards. Her students have won many prestigious music competitions. Shner strives to have warm and friendly relationships with her students. She always gives them opportunities and supports their careers.

Shner wants her students to be able to listen with clarity and accuracy. She pays special attention to the time/pulse and how it feels. She also encourages her students to appreciate the jazz tradition.

"Is the bassist in the front and the drummer in the back? Is the bassist in the middle and the drummer also in the middle? How does this rhythm section's comping pattern change in comparison to what the soloist is doing? All of those little tiny nuances. We all stand on the shoulders of greats. It is crucial for me that my students know this tradition and can operate with this tradition."

One of the qualities that Shner cultivates in her students, above all, is the honesty of artistic expression. She says that playing with honesty is incredibly engaging for listeners. It can establish a connection even with people who do not usually listen to jazz.

In lessons with her classical saxophone students, Shner incorporates many jazz elements. She makes them transcribe recordings, in a way that jazz musicians do.

"Every year, a classical saxophonist takes a recording that they enjoy and they learn the piece by ear, by listening and playing along with the recording. Then, they perform the piece with a piano in studio class and we try to guess the player. If they did a good job with the transcription, then we would know who the player was, from the style. The ability to learn things by ear, transcend the page and listen deeply is a jazz concept that I am bringing to classical music."

Shner teaches her classical students to improvise. They start with improvising on a drone and developing a good pitch line. Then they do improvisation with parameters, such as making a melody in a Dorian scale.

"Just the ability to make up a melody is so freeing for classical musicians. We start with the drone. After that, we start by digging into the concept of theme and variations. We dig into taking a melody and playing a series of variations on it. They get more and more comfortable with it. Do they eventually play changes on a tune? Yes, but we do not start there. We start with all those other things that get them to improvise in a variety of contexts."

When asked about finding a balance between being an educator and a performer, Shner says it is hard for her. She practices early in the morning every day. She considers that her students benefit from her being a good performer. That motivates her to keep her chops in great shape.

"I think it is crucial for us to model those things for our students. I do not think as teachers we could just sit there on the pedestal and pontificate—that does not work. You can show your students what you can do to help them to be the best artist they can be in the field of their artistic voice."

Before the pandemic, Shner had an intense performing schedule and played about seventy performances a year. Those performances included both classical and jazz venues. Then, the gigging industry went to nothing for a couple of years, with only live streams and self-recordings. As things are coming back to normal, Shner is again in full performance mode.

One of Shner's favorite places to perform is Boxley's at North Bend Washington, which has been live streaming throughout the pandemic. She also enjoys playing at The 1905 in Portland, a hip pizza place that has had a lot of the greatest jazz musicians performing there. Finally, she admires The Jazz Station in Eugene, Oregon, a nonprofit jazz club that has jazz performances five nights a week and is run by volunteer staff.

Recording Projects

Since Shner is a classical and a jazz saxophonist, her recordings reflect both of these worlds. Tuesday's Blues (OA2, 2008) was Shner's first jazz album that she made almost immediately after graduating from the University of North Texas. The album features one of her teachers at that time, Stephan Karlsson , an outstanding pianist. Mike League, a bassist from Snarky Puppy, was at one point her student and recorded the bass on the album. Steve Pruitt played the drums. For this project, Shner took some nursery rhymes from her childhood and arranged them for a jazz quartet.

As Shner finished recording, mixing, and mastering Tuesday's Blues, she was looking for a label to release it on. A friend recommended she contact John Bishop who has been running the Origin label in Seattle. That is how she started working with Origin. She was able to release her classical projects, in addition to jazz, because the label has a classical division as well. For those who like twentieth-century classical music, Shner recommends listening to her album Fissures (Origin Classical, 2010), for saxophone and harp. For those who are more into straight-ahead jazz, she recommends checking out an album of original compositions Nine Short Stories (OA2, 2017).

Live at the Jazz Station (OA2, 2019) was a snapshot of two nights that Shner performed with her band at the Jazz Station. That was a raw documentation of those live sets. She picked the best tunes of these two nights and put together this album.

Mhondoro and Heat Wave

The project Heat Wave (OA2, 2022) was recorded with the group Mhondoro during the lockdown. The album blends Zimbabwean folk music with American jazz and Pacific Northwest. The band started with Shner jamming with her neighbor, John Mambira, who is a traditional musician from Zimbabwe. He dances, sings and plays a plethora of percussion instruments. Shner has been jamming in the backyard with Mambira, his niece, Ratie D [Dangarembwa-Morgan], and other musicians from the Zimbabwean community. That allowed Shner to learn about their music traditions.

In December 2020, in full-lockdown mode, the Montavilla Jazz Festival in Portland, Oregon, asked Shner to write and record a piece for them. They did not have an in-person festival that year, so they decided to do a visual project instead, called "Call and Response." Because of the lockdown, no studios were open, so Shner had to produce the recording at home.

"I got together with John [Mambira] because he was right here. I called Torrey Newhart, a pianist, who used to be my student at the University of Oregon, but now he is a colleague, and he lives three minutes walking up the hill. We called Garrett Baxter, bass, and Ken Mastrogiovanni, drums. I wrote a tune called 'Fingerprints.' We all got together in Torrey Newhart's living room, and we recorded it. After the saxophone and rhythm section parts were recorded, we all cleared out to minimize exposure, and Ratie D did the vocals and the mbira."

"Fingerprints" became the seventh track of Heat Wave. The track came out so well that Shner and Mhondoro decided to write and record some more tunes in that vibe. That became their lockdown project and resulted in the album.

"In the summer of 2020, we got together again in Torrey Newhart's living room. We would construct makeshift [separation] with the piles of laundry and some mattresses and sweaters. That is how we recorded the album. We would spend like four hours constructing our makeshift separation, and then a few more hours actually playing. It came out really well because the melodies are strong and you can hear the interaction between the people and nothing is edited, which I love."

Shner hopes that listeners can sing or hum along and dance to the pieces from Heat Wave. She and Mhondoro have been working on more music. They are planning to write pieces for another album in the summer of 2022.

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