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Naama Gheber's Detours Lead Straight To Jazz Career

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I love the point in my job where I get to stand on a stage and pour my heart out in the context of a song and have the audience feel this raw emotion.
—Naama Gheber
There is no "normal" journey to becoming an established, professional musician. Every path is different; each story one of a kind.

But some are perhaps more different than most.

Naama Gheber's surely ranks among those in the "more different" category: not many jazz singers began their adult years by serving as an intelligence analyst in the Israeli air force.

Both born and raised in Be'er Sheva, Israel, she fell in love with jazz not in the United States (where she spent four years of her childhood while her parents completed their studies at Johns Hopkins), but in Israel.

"Before the military service, I discovered jazz," Gheber said by Zoom. "It was almost coincidental—I didn't know much about it, and somehow I fell into it. With the help of some other students at this conservatory, we formed this funny band—bass, flute, piano and guitar. We would rehearse, and the pianist was like, 'We should learn 10 songs and we'll book a gig.'"

Her music journey had started in Baltimore, though, where her parents spent four years doing their post-doctoral work.

"My parents are both scientists. My dad is in biotechnology, and my mom is a biochemist. Their jobs are kind of similar in a way, where they do research, which is their art. They have to collaborate and get grants—there are lots of things that are relatable to me."

If she didn't follow her parents' career path into the sciences, she did get her love of music from her father.

"My dad played the violin, but he's kind of a self-taught musician, so he always wanted to do more. He came from an immigrant family from Eastern Europe to Israel. His family was supportive, but also clear that it wasn't a profession—they were resistant to that. He wanted to go to an arts high school, but never got the chance. He would go around the house playing the piano and singing and introducing me to music. That was the music part of it."

And when she started taking piano lessons at age 6, she said her father was clear that this was something to be taken seriously.

"I remember the conversation with my dad when I came back from piano lessons was, 'You have to practice every day if you want to do this.' My dad would sit with me and practice with me for hours, from a really young age."

But the lessons were, and would continue to be—even after the family moved back to Israel when she was 8—strictly in the classical realm.

"The lessons were very strict—we have Russian piano teachers in Israel, so it's a very strict environment."

Did she enjoy practicing? The question elicited a laugh, and then a somewhat noncommittal answer:

"It depends when! ... I was always talented enough to do the least amount and get by."

But she also credits her years of classical piano lessons with providing her a foundation of being able to sight-read, of a solid knowledge of theory that has served her well in jazz.

"I'm so grateful to have had that, because I wouldn't be where I am without it."

But she also admits that the transition from classical to improvisation was challenging, and for that she credits the live shows her quartet did while she was at the conservatory.

"We started booking gigs in my hometown, and people were really liking it, and I realized I could do this—and then I went into the army for four years, and couldn't do it."

Unlike one of her younger brothers who is assigned to a military band in the Israeli Air Force, Gheber had no such luck.

"My unit was not artistic—everybody was engineers and doctors!

"I was with a really cool unit in Air Force intelligence. It was the most challenging thing I'd done in my life up until then. The first year, I had to do so much studying. It felt important, like I was saving the world. It's an experience that's very hard to share with anyone who hasn't gone through it."

After her mandatory four-year hitch, Gheber applied to two music schools in Israel, having decided that was her future. One of them was connected to The New School in New York City—if you completed your first two years successfully in Israel, you were guaranteed acceptance to The New School.

"When they accepted me, I was like 'Are you sure?' I didn't know anything. They probably just saw some kind of potential, because I literally could not sing and didn't know anything about jazz.

"I was discharged in the summer, and a few months later, I started school. It's really hard because a lot of it is just listening to music, and deciding what kind. I was already living on my own, and had to pay rent—so I started waitressing. Somehow I did it!"

After her first two years, she was not only accepted to The New School, but was awarded a scholarship as well.

Gheber remembered that she'd booked her first New York City gig before she even landed here.

"I booked a gig from Israel! I was not wasting time! I started 10 years later than a lot of people.

"It was the kind of gig you book easily, obviously, but the minute I came to The New School, I was in school, and I'm going to get all A's. But it's also in Greenwich Village—with all those clubs—so I made it a point to hang out as much as possible. I got to know the door people, and started getting in free pretty quickly. The jazz scene here is very encouraging. If they realize you want it, and they see potential, it's every easy to meet the right people. It's a little harder now after the pandemic.

"I got the ball rolling and clawed my way into the jazz scene.

"I was really fortunate to get this residency at Mezzrow. I had other gigs in town, but being able to play in a world-class jazz club that's also one of the best rooms for jazz and is really singer-friendly? All of a sudden, I was getting gigs where I could hire anybody I wanted, and it was on a regular basis. It was about two years I was doing that. It got me set on a sound, and specific kind of repertoire I wanted to do, and also the musicians I wanted to work with."

She released her first album, "Dearly Beloved," in April 2020. Gheber said looking back, she thinks she waited too long to issue her debut.

"I realized that I needed to record. I started working with the pianist Ray Gallon, and he helped me with some of my arrangements. Then I had this thought—I wanted it to stand out. And I always admired Steve Nelson, who is an amazing vibraphonist, and a wonderful musician and human being, and I was listening to Nancy Wilson with George Shearing, and I thought I should incorporate some of that into my album."

As far as the song selection, Gheber said she is a huge fan of the Great American Songbook, a love that is obviously reflected in that album.

"I do do standards, and I love the music—and I'm very loyal to it. I love how the songs are really simple, naive.

"The performance aspect of it is cute, but the layer underneath it is very human, very vulnerable. Everybody feels the same way in 1940 and 2022—jealous and in love. It's just beautiful how humans are humans, always, and how it seems to hide in those songs.

"I'm not into innovating just to innovate. I wanted a vibe that would give it a taste of who I am. There's one Hebrew song I put on it, too."

Gheber paid for everything out of her own pocket—which she said also gave her full creative control.

"I got the best studio, the best mix, the best engineer. I got with a great record label, I got a publicist. I did everything you're supposed to do— and then it came out in April 2020," just as the COVID-19 lockdowns were rolling across the country.

"On the other hand, maybe people listened to it more because everybody was home."

But she said that album fulfilled her goals for it.

"I think it did what I needed it to do, in terms of getting something out there, getting my name on Spotify. It was a year from when I recorded it until it came out."

She added that her decision to pay for it herself rather than seek underwriting was likely cultural.

"That's something I haven't mastered, the art of getting sponsors. I blame it on my Israeli-ness. In the American culture, there's no shyness that you have this business and you think it's great, and everybody else who thinks it's great should want to support it. In Israel, there's an attitude of don't be too enthusiastic."

This spring, she began issuing a series of singles that will form an EP when completed.

During COVID, she had taken a job doing office management since clubs were shuttered—but once the city began opening back up, she started booking shows as soon as she could.

"Once everything started rolling, I needed to start working on a new project. I was gigging—for me, at least, that's how things come about. I decide to do something for a show, then I think, 'I should record this.'

"It was hard to get [this EP] together: My partner had a crazy accident, and then the Omicron variant happened.

"A friend suggested I release some singles, do it low-budget so I could do a lot of them—the exact opposite approach to my LP! It took a lot of the pressure off."

Then another friend who owns a recording studio called—a series of cancellations due to musicians contracting COVID left him with unfilled time slots.

Gheber said she was already ready when the studio time opened up—staying busy with live shows, she said she already has songs and arrangements ready to go.

"I'm lucky I have a lot of gigs! You need to pay for musicians' time, so if you have gigs, you're already getting gigs, it's the perfect place to try stuff out! My connection to the songs happens in performances. There are songs I think I like, or might want to perform, but it doesn't work out. It depends on the artist—I do everything because I love the point in my job where I get to stand on a stage and pour my heart out in the context of a song and have the audience feel this raw emotion. I think I work that way—it's about how the performances happen with the energy of the musicians and the audience."

Even though she grew up in a Mediterranean climate with mild year-round weather, Gheber said her plan is to stick to New York.

"New York is amazing, and there are so many opportunities all the time.

"I'm fine with the weather! I understand how people want to have families, be close to their families, and New York is hard.

"But I'm okay with the hard lifestyle."

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