Pianist - Composer - Educator - Scholar
Noam Lemish has never felt inclined to pick a lane. Maybe his hyphenated identity as an Israeli-American-
Canadian has helped inspire his multiplicity and general disinclination to follow stylistic guidelines. Whatever
the reason, over the course of two decades of intensive musical study and creation he’s always sought to
expand the scope of his exploration, often blurring or ignoring deeply etched boundaries between genres,
peoples, and traditions. He’s a jazz artist and a classical composer of chamber works, an improviser and an
accompanist, an intrepid cross-cultural investigator and an interpreter of contemporary composition. He
Based for the past decade in Toronto, where he’s on faculty at York University’s Department of Music as Assistant Professor of Jazz Instruction and Pedagogy, Lemish is best known for leading or co-leading several celebrated ensembles. The critically hailed 2018 album Pardes features the quartet he co-leads with guitarist and oud expert Amos Hoffman, a player on the forefront of the brilliant wave of Israeli musicians who swept over the New York scene in the 1990s. The project documents their singular repertoire, a gorgeous collection of arrangements based on songs that reflect the diverse nature of Israeli society. Some are drawn from liturgical or folk tunes from Middle Eastern and Central Asian Jewish traditions, “for example, centuries-old songs that are common in Yemenite or Moroccan Jewish communities,” Lemish says.
Others are popular songs that have circulated in Israel since the 1950s, what Lemish describes as “an invented folk song tradition that some Israeli jazz artists use as source material like American standards.” They don’t serve as a lingua franca in the same way as say, “Autumn Leaves,” where any jazz musician can call one on the bandstand and expect her peers to know the piece. Rather, “artists will draw on specific songs and arrange them,” Lemish says.
While the quartet with Hoffman draws on the music Lemish heard growing up in Israel, the Israeli-Iranian Musical Initiative is a defiant project that brings together Canadian artists hailing from two nations that have been locked in hostility for decades. Founded by Iranian composer Parisa Sabet and Israeli composer Dan Deutsch, and with Lemish serving as co-artistic director, the ensemble’s sumptuous sound stems from an innovative blend of Western and Persian instruments. Among the music presented by the group was a program featuring songs beloved in Iran written by the Jewish-Iranian composer Morteza Neydavoud, who hails from a community with roots dating back 3,000 years to the Achaemenid Persian empire.
Lemish has also forged a deep creative bond with pianist/composer W.A. Mathieu, with whom he studied formally for nearly a decade. They captured the evolving relationship on the albums The Magic Clavier Book I (2015) and The Magic Clavier Book II (2018), showcasing compositions written by Mathieu especially for Lemish. As an artist whose career encompasses studies with Hindustani vocal guru Pandit Pran Nath and collaborations with Nubian oud maestro Hamza El Din, Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton, Mathieu draws on an unfathomably deep well of experience in his music. Whether playing Mathieu’s solo works or performing with him in a piano duo, Lemish treasures the relationship, which has touched “every aspect of my music, from my harmonic understanding to my composition and improvisation,” he says. “Mentorship isn’t nearly a strong enough word to reflect his influence.”
It’s an apprentice-joining-the-master scenario that has marked Lemish’s entire creative journey. He continues to perform and record with veteran drummer/composer George Marsh, with whom he studied as an undergraduate at Sonoma State University. Their recordings together include 2016’s The Turning with bassist Jim Kerwin, and the duo sessions Nightfall (2013) and Yes And (2008), an impressive debut recording focusing on Lemish’s original compositions. Best known these days as the drummer for the David Grisman Sextet and author of the influential book Inner Drumming, Marsh is an innovative improviser, new music composer and supremely versatile accompanist who has performed with many of the leading artists in jazz, contemporary classical music and rock.
They started playing together after Lemish graduated, “getting together two or three times a week for about two or three years,” Lemish says. “He set the bar for what I imagine collaboration looks like, what listening is like. We played mostly my originals and free improv as a duo.”
The Noam Lemish Quartet has been the primary vehicle for his original music since 2011. He’s also deeply engaged with ambitious, large scale works for 12-piece chamber jazz orchestra and jazz choir. “These are pieces that showcase elaborate, genre-bending, structure stretching compositions,” Lemish says.
He also performs with pianist/composer Will Johnson, an emeritus professor of composition with whom he studied at Sonoma State. His latest release, 2018’s Sonic Truffles is a duo session capturing their two-piano improvisations. He sees Mathieu, Marsh and Johnson, musical elders in their late 70s and early 80s, as “people who weren’t only instrumental in my development, they’re life-long teachers, the people who really influenced the way I approach music-making and teaching. They showed me how I can strive to distill what it means to be myself as a musician, to work and focus on that.”
Part of a wave of brilliant Israeli jazz musicians who have invigorated the US jazz scene over the past two decades, Lemish was born in the US and grew up in Israel. He settled in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2002 and pursued his passion for jazz at Sonoma State, where he became a mainstay on the North Bay jazz scene. In addition to Mathieu, Marsh and Johnson, he studied with bassist Mel Graves and classical pianist Marilyn Thompson developing into a formidable composer and bandleader in his own right. Over the years he’s performed with heavyweight improvisers such as Sheila Jordan, John Handy, James Newton, Billy Hart, Julian Lage, and Dayna Stephens.
Following his own path has taken Lemish to some unlikely places. In 2009, he had recently finished his undergraduate degree and was working in the San Francisco Symphony’s Adventures in Music program, which brings live music and music education into public elementary schools around the city. Out of the blue, he got a call from a friend who happened to meet folklorist Janet Herman and photographer Jane Hancock at the Asian Art Museum’s Buddhist art exhibition, “Land of the Thunder Dragon.” Just back from Bhutan, they were supporting the country’s efforts to preserve traditional culture by launching the Music of Bhutan Research Center, a non-profit organization based in Santa Cruz, and were looking for someone to teach at a recently founded music school in Thimphu.
At the time, Lemish knew very little about Bhutan, “but I was at an interesting place in my life. I had just released my first CD. I was between undergraduate and graduate school, and I had a good deal of flexibility. I figured this was an opportunity to do something I’d probably never get again.”
Within a few months, he had completed the intricate process of attaining a visa, as Bhutan strictly regulates who enters the country. As one of two teachers at the school, he worked with about 70 students between the ages of five and 18, offering individual and group instruction. He also organized a monthly concert series and volunteered at a local radio station where he hosted a weekly show.
Before long Lemish got word that the king had heard and enjoyed the show. But Lemish was far more astonished when The Royal Office of Media commissioned him to compose a new piece for the celebration of King Wangchuck’s 30th birthday. In writing a piece in honor of the widely admired young king, who oversaw Bhutan’s transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy, Lemish was determined to “give something out of my own musical world, but pay tribute to Bhutanese culture as well. You hear music everywhere around Thimphu—I lived about 200 feet from a bustling temple—and so I tried to absorb as much of the music around me as I could.”
He recorded the original suite, released on the 2010 album The People’s King, in Thimphu with an ensemble of Bhutanese musicians playing traditional instruments such as the dramnyen (lute), pchewang (two-stringed bowed cello), yangchen (zither) and lim (flute). The piece also incorporates the Amitayus mantra of Limitless Life chanted by the young monks of the Dechen Phodrang Monastery. “For his birthday on Feb. 21 the recording was delivered to him,” Lemish recalls. “I prepared a handwritten score and presented it to him in a very formal situation. He thanked me for the piece and said it was very beautiful.”
While unlike anything he’s done before or since, Lemish’s experience in Bhutan speaks to his inveterate curiosity and commitment to taking his music into unfamiliar places. What’s striking is that he never set out with grand ambitions. Each relationship and situation and the music that evolved “unfolded organically,” he says. “I wasn’t out looking for them.”
While he was hoping to study music in Bhutan he couldn’t have foreseen the unique opportunity that would arise from his work there. The seeds for the collaboration with Amos Hoffman exploring Middle Eastern music were planted a decade before they first met, and were sown in his doctoral dissertation on the Israeli jazz movement. “And the Iranian/Israeli project is connected to my political views and desires to do something socially and politically meaningful with art,” he says.
As he continues to expand his artistic purview, and deepen the musical relationships that sustain him, Lemish continues to keep an eye open for new musical connections. In many ways his destinations are unknown, but wherever he arrives he brings a very particular set of experiences and an outlook shaped by some very deep musical thinkers. However he chooses to express himself, the sound flows from an artist steeped in jazz and ready to embrace the world.
“I’m not a very good imitator,” he says. “The only thing I can do is be myself, and I do that in any style”.