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Tamir Hendelman: Living a Dream

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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Tamir HendelmanOne of those "overnight sensations" who's been working steadily for years, Israeli-born pianist and composer Tamir Hendelman has finally caught a rocket. A member of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and the Jeff Hamilton, as well as leader of his own groups, Hendelman is also a first-call arranger and accompanist for some of the best vocalists around, including Roberta Gambarini, Jackie Ryan, Angela Hagenbach and Greta Matassa. He was involved in pop icon Barbra Streisand's flirtation with jazz, playing on her Love is the Answer (Columbia, 2009) and also backing her on Oprah's TV show, in London, and at the Village Vanguard.



Jeff Hamilton says, in a 2006 AAJ interview, that "he's a joy to work with, and his talents keep reaching new levels." Jackie Ryan puts it this way: "Tamir is a sensitive and perceptive accompanist. His ideas are wonderful and fresh, and he brings a unique voice to every song he arranges."



Although Hendelman's reputation for elegance and heart continues to grow in musical circles, he's gotten surprisingly very little attention from the press, with this his first ever U.S interview.



All About Jazz: Lately you seem to be everywhere at once, and people are reacting as if you suddenly appeared, as the song says, "Out of Nowhere." When they ask, "Where did this Tamir Hendelman come from?" the easiest answer is, "Israel." By the way, what's going on in Israel with all these great jazz players all of a sudden? Like guitarist/oudist Amos Hoffman, not one but two Avishai Cohens (trumpeter and bassist), reed player Anat Cohen and pianist Yaron Herman. What are you guys doing over there, anyway?



TH: Having a lot of fun?



AAJ: In the past few years, it feels like a tsunami of Israeli jazz musicians has been hitting our shores.



TH: It's actually a mix of cultures, with people coming from Eastern Europe—my grandmother came from Poland—and all the Russian musicians who bring that tradition. Then you have people from Yemen, and the Sephardic culture, and all the Mediterranean and Arab music.



AAJ: All those great rhythms. So, what were your musical beginnings?



TH: My first instrument was electric organ, which was a popular instrument of the time, back in the 1980s. When I first heard piano I wasn't knocked out. I was six years old, and I heard this teacher play a really bad upright console piano, and it was like, "What?" Then I was walking down the street in Tel Aviv, past a music store where someone was demonstrating the organ to a customer—wow! brass, strings, bells, whistles! This was cool—I heard a whole orchestra. So I ran home and told my mother, "Mom, you've got to get me an organ!"



We did a little bit of classical music, a little bit of jazz; I wrote my own songs, we did musicals, all kinds of things—so it was just about music, not only a label. But then I heard some jazz musicians who came to Israel: Chick Corea and Bobby McFerrin, the Swingles Singers, and Count Basie—and it was, wow. I began to get exposed more heavily into that.



I left Israel when I was about 12, and in the U.S. I switched to piano. The teacher I had in L.A. came from the Yamaha Method where they do a lot of ear training and sight singing, composing, things like that, and she prepped me to compete in this national competition. I got up to the top three. I wrote this original piece, and I thought, "this is great, I'm gonna win." Well, I didn't, but afterward the judge came up to me and said "I thought you should have won," and gave me his card. Of all the places in the U.S., he lived a mile away from me. He was [pianist, arranger, composer, conductor] Joe Harnell, who had conducted for Peggy Lee, and worked with Ella Fitzgerald.



AAJ: Of course—his "Fly Me to the Moon" single was a big hit in the '60s [1963]. It was one of the earliest bossas.



TH: He also wrote for film and TV, and studied with [revered classical teacher] Nadia Boulanger. He wrote a letter to get me into Eastman [School of Music]. He became my mentor, and later a really good friend—we'd talk about life.



AAJ: Why did you come to America in the first place?

TH: My parents moved to L.A.—they wanted to have an adventure, basically. Change. Growth.



AAJ: And how did you get connected up with Jeff Hamilton and John Clayton?



TH: I was doing a duo gig in L.A. with Sandra Booker, a vocalist that I really enjoyed, and Jeff came by. At the break he came over and said, "I never really heard of you, could you tell me a little more about yourself?" We talked a little, exchanged phone numbers. Then a couple of months later [pianist] Larry Fuller left to go with [bassist] Ray Brown. Jeff invited me to his house, and said "listen, I have this trio, and here's what I'm looking for. We do so many months of touring, we learn so many tunes, here are my CDs, check them out and let me know." And I said I'd love to do it. So that was the beginning of me with Jeff's trio.



AAJ: And the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra (CHJO)—how did that come about?

Tamir Hendelman



TH: I sat in with the CHJO Big Band, for a rehearsal, when [pianist] Bill Cunliffe couldn't make it. I think I did a trio gig with [bassist] John Clayton—he brought [vocalist] Dee Daniels down to a club, and invited me to do a gig with her. That was before I joined the big band. I joined them about a year after I joined the trio.



AAJ: So you basically started at the top.



TH: It was a great experience. They had made a few CDs, and they said, you need to learn these by heart. Also, this was around the same time that I met my wife. She's a bassist—Sherry Luchette—and I would invite her over and say, "Listen, could you help me rehearse these numbers?" So a lot of wonderful things happened right around the same time.



AAJ: How old were you then?



TH: I joined Jeff's trio in 2000, so I was... 29.



AAJ: And you've been doing this for nearly ten years. That's a long run in jazz.



TH: It's great. It keeps on evolving. [Bassist] Christoph [Luty] joined the trio just a few months after me. Also, in the big band, just a couple of people changed since I joined. It's very loyal, mutually, the leaders and the group, loyal to each other. It's a real family.



AAJ: You can tell when you guys play that there's a real bond, since everyone supports each other.



TH: Really. John and Jeff both know how to play to make everyone sound better. Then in Jeff's group, there's the fact of not having any written music—or, if you write something, you throw it away.



AAJ: Really—no written music at all?



TH: No. When we bring in an arrangement, we rehearse a tune, and then someone will say, how about if we change the rhythm a little bit like this, or what about this different bass line. After we put that in stone, we don't look at the chart anymore. It grows just by playing it.

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