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Tamir Hendelman: The Many Colors and Cultures of Tamir

Jim Worsley By

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As I sat in the wings, I was exhilarated to hear this thoughtful reading of my compositions. I was refreshed by the inventive passages in Tamir's invigorating performance of my work. —Oscar Peterson
With so many talented jazz pianists over the years, it can be a challenge to make your own mark or carve out your own identity. Many fine musicians have simply blended into the scene, seemingly unnoticed, due to a lack of singularity that sets them apart. Tamir Hendelman crashes that barrier with a signature sound that embraces jazz, Brazilian, spirituality, the American Songbook, and more. With Israelia roots and American tradition, Hendelman has shared the stage and/or recording studio with the likes of Gerald Clayton, James Moody, Houston Person, and Diana Krall. As a composer, as an arranger, or as leader, or a sideman, Hendelman brings his own dynamic to the mix. All About Jazz recently had a chance to discuss his career and today's challenges with him.

All About Jazz: Many of our readers might be most familiar with your work with either the Jeff Hamilton Trio or the Clayton/Hamilton Orchestra. How did that relationship come to be?

Tamir Hendelman: I first heard Jeff play one night with pianist Benny Green when the Ray Brown Trio played at the Catalina (Catalina Jazz Club in Los Angeles). As a pianist, my focus was on Benny. I didn't approach Jeff that evening. About three years later, I was doing some trio gigs and working with different vocalists. I was also doing duets with a vocalist named Sandra Booker. He (Hamilton) went to hear her and introduced himself. We spoke for a while and then a few months later he called me and invited me to join his trio. He had a trio going back as far as 1994 with pianist Larry Fuller. Larry was about to join Ray Brown's trio and Jeff had a tour in Japan already set. He sent me a few songs and asked me to memorize as many as I could and that we would then get together in a couple of weeks and see how the chemistry is. So, I learned as many as I could, we got together, and things just felt right. One of the things I have always admired about Jeff is that he wanted you to come in and establish your own sound with the trio. He didn't expect me to sound like the person that came before me. He wanted me to contribute my own arrangements and really be an integral part of the group.

AAJ: He wanted you to have your own identity and bring that freshness to the trio.

TH: Yes, one of the many things I learned from Jeff is to have a trio where all the members are equal. Where it's not a piano trio, but a trio that really listens to each other and contribute equally in arrangements and compositions, as well as playing. At the same time, I was invited to sub for Bill Cunliffe, who was playing with the Clayton/Hamilton Orchestra. About a year later I was asked to join and become a member of that orchestra. John (Clayton) is a real renaissance man. He is such a great writer and a great player to be around. We are all very supportive of each other, not only in listening to each other, but also in what we can do to help each other sound and play better.

AAJ: You are featured on numerous excellent recordings by both of those groups. You have two solo records, Playground (Swing Brothers, 2008) and Destinations (Resonance, 2010). The former has Hamilton and Clayton supporting you. How much does the role change conceptually when you are the leader? How does it affect the music?

TH: When I wrote Playground, my daughter had just been born. I wrote a little tune with a bass line that very much had John Clayton in mind. It was something that I believed that he would enjoy playing. In thinking about the other selections, I knew all the wonderful colors that Jeff gets out of his brushes. I wrote a song called "Almost Summer," that is basically a ballad, but a waltz type of ballad. The way that Jeff and John basically invited me to create a solo that wasn't really my solo but all three of us creating this sort of floating mood together. As a leader, of course, you get to choose the selections, but at the same time I want to utilize their strengths individually and also as a rhythm section.

AAJ: Yes, that makes sense that you would want to utilize and write towards their strengths. You were in a great position, at that point, to really know exactly what those were.

TH: Yes, you can go as far back as the great Duke Ellington in that concept. He would write to the strengths of the musicians he had on hand. It just makes sense to do that.

AAJ: What was the concept of your Destinations project?

TH: I wanted the album to have a certain eclectic feel that took in all the things I love about music collectively. Swingin' and bebop for sure. Growing up in Israel, my eastern European heritage from my grandmother and French classical music all were involved. The title was really about being a jazz musician and getting to travel all over the world. Being inspired by different cultures was a big part of it. For example, one night I was in Alaska on a trio tour and I was walking down the street and saw a Russian souvenir shop. It had the type of little souvenirs that my grandmother used to collect and had in her living room. It inspired me to write a song surrounding those memories that I called "Babushka."

AAJ: That's very cool. A great story about how a sight or sound or smell can trigger far away memories. You mentioned your heritage and I, indeed, wanted to talk about that. If I have this right, you were born in Tel Aviv and I believe came to the United States when you were about twelve, is that right?

TH: Yes.

AAJ: What are your memories of Israel, and within that, at what age did you start playing the piano?

TH: I was about six when I was walking down the street in Tel Aviv and passed by a music store. A salesman was demonstrating an electric organ, that was the newest thing. You could hear the strings, the brass, the rhythm section, all at once. I remember running home to ask my mother if she could get me one of those. Shortly after, my brother began to study as well. Later, after coming to the US with my family, I ended up doing an electrical organ composition, that led to meeting composer Joe Harnell. He became a mentor. He is also a jazz pianist.

AAJ: Indeed, I'm familiar with Harnell's work.

TH: Well, Joe has had a very eclectic and varied career. He played with Peggy Lee years ago. He encouraged me to study classical composition in high school, as well as other music. When I studied in college (Eastman College in Rochester, New York), it was also much about classical composition. But still, I tried to do as much jazz as I could. I got to see a few great jazz artists perform while I was there. Ron Carter and Lee Konitz come to mind. Then going back to the early days in Israel, that you asked about, I was involved with a musical troupe that put on performances. We performed Oliver Twist among others. It turned out that there was an agency on the ground floor of the apartment building where we lived that brought in various musical artist to Tel Aviv. We ended up getting tickets to go see Bobby McFerrin, Chick Corea, Swingle Singers, and many others. Seeing McFerrin do a one man show and captivate an entire audience by himself was very inspiring. Of course, then I came to the States and tuned into jazz radio and started discovering all the many jazz greats. I gravitated more and more towards jazz piano and studied with Clare Fischer and Billy Childs. Later, when I came back from college, I would go to the Jazz Bakery or Catalina's and learn what I could by watching and listening to as many talented jazz pianists as I could, that would be playing at those clubs.

AAJ: What was it like growing up in Tel Aviv?

TH: As a child in Tel Aviv, I remember having so much fun just riding my bike, playing music, and so forth. Every Friday night my family, including my grandmother who lived two floors down from us, would get together and watch something like an American musical and sing and have such fun. Tel Aviv was a very vibrant city, kind of like a little New York or a little village. I learned a valuable lesson that I will share with you in story. There was a celebrating Tel Aviv songwriting competition, in which I won. They gave me a chance to arrange the song I wrote, maybe in a six-piece band with some horns. I declined. Whoever arranged it did a pretty good job, but it wasn't what I had imagined. That taught me that if you want something to sound the way you have it in your head, you should do it yourself.

AAJ: You declined because you were so young, but if you had it to do over again, I'm guessing you would take a shot at it.

TH: Exactly right, yes. That gave me the encouragement I needed to take the bull by the horns.

AAJ: How was the transition to Los Angeles?

TH: L.A. is just a much larger scale. The weather is about the same, but you can get lost in a parking lot.

AAJ: (laughing) That's just about true.

TH: I was exposed to a lot of music. Jazz, of course, but also classical, Brazilian music, and much more. Just being able to go out and hear music from all over the world, to hear the L.A. Philharmonic, study with amazing arrangers and composers that live right up the street, is all just so wonderful.

AAJ: Within no time you were playing at the prestigious Kennedy Center and in Japan at a very young age. That had to be both thrilling and a tad overwhelming at such a young age.

TH: What happened was that I had won a competition that Yamaha had for electric organ. My teacher was very inspiring in having me write pieces that had elements of both jazz and classical music. Yamaha sponsored a program that was called Junior Original Concert. That program was basically how I mastered learning by ear, collaborating with other fellow students, and being coached by more advanced professionals. They had a festival in Japan, that we had the opportunity to play at, as well as one at the Kennedy Center.

AAJ: What was your biggest takeaway from that experience?

TH: I think the opportunity to connect with other students and the ability to study with them. We were all into creating. One of the things I appreciate about the Yamaha method is that you are learning from the masters. Kids were writing pieces that were inspired by anyone from Mozart to Chick Corea to Ravel and being coached in writing scores and in orchestration. It was a real feeling of "let's create." There was so much encouragement.

AAJ: I wasn't thinking so much about the connection with other students, but that had to be huge to have that kind of meeting of the minds with kids that were true peers and contemporaries.

TH: Yes, I look back at it as such a wonderful time to explore and at the same time find my own sound.

AAJ: Well, you have come a long way since then. I must say I particularly appreciate your work with Lewis Nash and Marco Panascia. It has a different feel than with Hamilton and Clayton. It's hard to describe. But I'm guessing you can.

TH: Lewis and I connected when we met at a jazz party in Arizona. We found a real sense of joy playing with each other. Instant joy is the way I would describe it. Then Marco, as well, is such an empathetic player, that really goes for it. His dynamics are to not pull any punches, but in a most tasteful way. They are both very diligent artists and I enjoy playing with them very much. I appreciate that you had nice things to say about that collaboration.

AAJ: You are still connected with these different artists we have talked about, yes?

TH: Yes, I am very much looking forward, when we get the chance to play again, to be performing with the Clayton/Hamilton Orchestra and the Jeff Hamilton Trio. The trio, now with Jon Hamar on bass, has a new record coming out entitled Catch Me if You Can (Capri, 2020) which is the name of a tune that I wrote. In the meantime, with my trio, we have played a lot over the years. The trio features Dean Koba on drums and Alex Frank on the bass. There is a real chemistry there between us. I will also continue to play some shows with Lewis and Marco, as well as others. The common denominator in all these configurations is that they all take a lot of time in really learning the arrangements. That way we can always be together and have some real spontaneity as well.

AAJ: You have a true affinity for the classics, developing refreshing arrangements to such as "Come Rain or Come Shine," "You Stepped Out of a Dream," and many others.

TH: l do have a real affinity for the Great American Songbook, yes. I love listening to many different arrangements and then seeing what I can bring to it. Maybe I take something from the song itself and use the melody to create an introduction or just feel what the song is going to do. Is it to feature a certain member of the band, or is it a certain flavor I am going for? I'll do the same thing with instrumental tunes and then also explore more into my own original tunes. You find your own voice and then the inspirations are there to be found.

AAJ: You mentioned the Brazilian influence early. Where does that come from?

TH: I think a lot of Israelia songwriters in the seventies and early eighties, which is the time I was growing up in Israel, were influenced by Brazilian music. The influence of Antonio Carlos Jobim and other Brazilian composers was very prevalent. So, I was hearing these beautiful harmonies and melodies on the radio. Then when I moved to L.A. there was a vibrant scene of Brazilian music.

AAJ: Your own compositions have a spirituality about them. Is that simply coming from your roots, or is there more to it than that?

TH: Thank you, first of all, for saying that. When I think about spirituality, I think of family. In Israeli culture, it is a really big part of it, with everybody gathering together. I think about the power of music. Going back to the Bobby McFerrin concert, there was no language barrier. He connected with his music. Music was the common language. I have always been fascinated by the spiritual connection that you can make. Music has the power to uplift people. I love home concerts because of the intimacy that they bring. There is a real focus on the music without any other clutter or distractions that you find in other settings. You can really form a bond with the audience. Music is a very powerful thing.

AAJ: Indeed, it is, and that is all very well said. Many artists, including yourself, are currently streaming live shows on the internet. I had the pleasure of watching and listening to you perform the music of Harold Arlen recently as part of your Saturday night series. Have you had good response to your shows thus far?

TH: I have been very touched by the response. I have had people write to me and say that this is the way for us to connect in this difficult time. That means so much to me. You know, it's quite different inviting people into your home like that. They aren't right there with you, yet they are right there with you. It's a whole different experience.

AAJ: Yeah, it has to be a whole different feel that would take some getting used to. You have several more Saturday night shows coming up that you will be streaming through your website. What can you tell us about those?

TH: On Saturday night June 13th I will be doing a tribute to Chick Corea. Corea's birthday is, I believe, the day before, on the 12th. The following Saturday night, June 20th, will be a tribute to Cole Porter. There are too many songs to choose from, but that's a good problem to have (with a laugh). On Saturday night June 27th, I am calling the program The French Connection. "I Love Paris" and I will be featuring music ranging from Cole Porter to Vernon Duke, from Ravel to Debussy, from Edith Piaf to Gabriel Faure, and more. Then in July, I will be doing more tributes to different composers. I will be posting that information on my website. It has all the info on how to view and listen to these shows.

AAJ: That's great. You know, I meant to ask this earlier, but if you had to condense it down to just a handful of artists that influenced you the most, who would be on that list?

TH: Bill Evans for sure. So very lyrical. Oscar Peterson and his relentless swing. Chick Corea's imagination and colorful harmonies really drew me in. I was very enamored with the impressionistic music of Ravel and Stravinsky. Miles Davis was a big early influence. His collaborations with Gil Evans, and his first quintet, especially. I was so very fortunate, in the first year that I played with the Hamilton/Clayton Orchestra to do a show at the Hollywood Bowl in which honored Oscar Peterson. Peterson performed that night with his own quartet. Prior to that, we played some of his other material. John Clayton wrote an orchestration of Oscar's "Canadiana Suite" from 1963 or 1964. He asked me to learn Oscar's solos and to come out and perform them.

AAJ: That had to be amazing playing at a venue as auspicious as the Hollywood Bowl with Oscar Peterson there to see and hear you play!

TH: Yes, I got to meet him that night. It was a very special evening. Jeff Hamilton had actually played in Oscar's group for a while, and here we were, all at the Hollywood Bowl.

AAJ: Yeah, a lot of things came together, or to fruition that night. What was it like meeting Peterson, a childhood hero, for the first time?

TH: Oscar was so kind. He was very gracious. He wrote some nice words about our concert. A true gentleman. I actually got to know his family a little bit, his wife and his daughter. What a legacy.

AAJ: We talked a bit about your arranging skills involving the classics. Let's delve a little into your own compositions. What can you tell us about your writing process? For example, you wrote a beautiful tune called the "Israeli Waltz."

TH: That song has a story to it that I would like to share with you. I took my wife to Israel for the very first time. In the northern part of the country there is a lot of nature. It's very green. I took her on a hike after we had stayed at a little bed and breakfast. It was getting late, there was even a sign that said no hiking after sunset. But by then we had gotten a little bit lost. We made it back to a village but were still miles away from where we needed to be. But I just knocked on someone's door and they opened their home to us. This happened to be a holiday and they invited us to have dinner with their entire family. They offered to put us up for the night. My wife was a bit hesitant at first. But I explained to her that this was Israel, and that everything would be fine. This kind of homespun hospitality and warmth is what I really loved about growing up there.

AAJ: That's a wonderful story. I can understand, being from the United States, finding it unusual and unnerving to just knock on a stranger's door. That's very special that the culture there is to be so trusting and know that you will be treated kindly and with an open heart. That's a real good story and a feelgood story. Thank you for sharing it with us.

TH: Thank you, and you're very welcome.

AAJ: Oh, I know something else I wanted to ask you about. The great bassist, Carlitos del Puerto, was he a part of your trio for a while, or do I have misinformation?

TH: Yes, Carlito was in my trio for a time. He is my very good friend. I love his music. You probably know that he has played with Chick Corea recently.

AAJ: Yes, along with Steve Gadd. I'm winging it here (laughing) but I believe he played with Chucho Valdes and that group at one time.

TH: (laughing) That's okay, we are having fun talking. He may very well have played with Chucho Valdes. Carlito's father was a founding member of Irakere.

AAJ: There it is! (laughing) That's what my head has been circling around. Yeah, Irakere with Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D'Rivera, etc. A groundbreaking band.

TH: Yes. That's great that you mention Carlito. He, again, is a very close friend.

AAJ: Shifting gears, you have some pretty fine credits to your name having worked with Natalie Cole on Still Unforgettable (DMI/Atco, 2008) and with Barbra Streisand on Love is the Answer (Columbia, 2009). What was it like to work with Streisand or better yet maybe you could share a memory from that experience.

TH: Sure. First of all, she was wonderful. She had many great pianists on Love is The Answer including Diana Krall, Bill Charlap, and Alan Broadbent. She was looking for one more pianist. I came into the studio and she suggested we do a duo of "Some Other Time." I was reminded of the Bill Evans treatment of that piece. I was very comfortable, and very happy to be a part of that recording. Later, she invited me to perform with her at the Village Vanguard (New York City) for a live DVD called One Night Only (Columbia, 2010). That was very special. Later, I did a tour with her. One thing I remember about her was the level of her involvement with the arrangements. She had a perceptive suggestion about utilizing the strings. This was a very lush arrangement with full strings, and she suggested maybe going down to a little string quartet in a little section of the song. She wanted the string quartet to play with a bit more intensity than the rest of the group. It created a very poignant intense moment. I remember thinking how nicely she was able to use her imagination to create that element. From a musical point of view, I appreciated that moment. I will go on to say that I was also very touched by Natalie Cole. She is a consummate professional. She brings such joy to life. We did a concert In Russia with Christian McBride and the big band. She grooved, she vamped, I mean she grooved that whole big band with just two chords. Natalie was an absolutely amazing performer. We went to Japan about a year later. She was dealing with some difficulties at the time. The way she overcame those when she was on stage was really something. She forgot about all her troubles and really gave her all to the audience. To see that was very inspiring.

AAJ: You clearly have a vibe with some of the finest female vocalists of our generation having also worked with Gladys Knight and Tierney Sutton, among others.

TH: Yes, I have been fortunate to perform also with Roberta Gambarini.

AAJ: Oh, the great Italian jazz singer. That's very cool.

TH: Yes, she has been living in New York for a time now. I have been doing a series of duos with Tierney Sutton recently. Several other things. I did a duet with Sean Jones and then there is...

AAJ: Pardon for interrupting, but you are talking about the trumpeter Sean Jones?

TH: Yes.

AAJ: Okay great. You threw me there for a second after talking about jazz singers. It almost slipped right by me. Jones is a great trumpet player.

TH: Yes, he is. We did a tribute to Miles together.

AAJ: Ah, that makes sense. I've heard him play some Miles stuff. He definitely has the goods to be doing that.

TH: We were going to go to Israel to do a quintet tribute to Miles. Earlier this year I organized a duo with Sean in Philadelphia, just so we could get into the music. We were supposed to be in Israel this week. I hope that as things open up again, maybe in about a year or so we will be able to make that trip.

AAJ: Let's hope so. That would be terrific for you to be able to bring that back over to your homeland.

TH: Yes, it will. Something else I would like to mention is that a former classmate of mind at Eastman, named Robert Moody, is now a conductor. He invited me to play a piece with his orchestra, the Winston-Salem Symphony. There are a couple of other performances that are being rescheduled that will center around performing "Rhapsody in Blue." I have played that piece a couple of times, so have been able to add some improvisation to it. But then George Gershwin was very improvisational in coming up with that piece. The ink was still drying when he first performed it in the 1920's.

AAJ: Well needless to say you have a full palette of many different colors.

TH: That's one of the things I love so much about jazz. There is room for everyone to find their place. You can connect with people from around the world. You get the feeling of their country, of their culture, of their upbringing and you really feel it. All of those experiences go into the music. In jazz there is this feeling of family. The things that you learn and the people that you play with may have more experiences than you do. They may have played with the masters from a generation ago. You learn from people who played with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra. You learn not only the music, but how they carry themselves, and how they treat people. I worked with Jimmy Heath. Now there's a guy that was so down to earth and full of humor. So much fun to be around.

AAJ: That's the way it should be. It's always heartening to know that it is. I have heard similar words from other musicians. It's a great fraternity, or as you better said, family to be a part of. Now you, for a number of years, have also been an educator. What can you share with us about that aspect of your life?

TH: I've been teaching at UCLA since 2005. I was invited to teach there by Kenny Burrell.

AAJ: Well now, that's impressive in itself to be invited by a jazz giant like Burrell. I'm a huge fan of his work.

TH: I know, yeah it was pretty great. The program has really grown. The jazz program has become a global jazz program. They have recently added folks like Arturo O'Farrill and Terence Blanchard to join the musical team. There is a real dedication and a strong focus on jazz around the world. This involves the heritage of jazz and where jazz came from, as well as the cultures involved. In this past quarter we have been doing our teaching online and I have found it to have some advantages. I am able to give students projects that involves their own creativity. They just had a recital yesterday and they came up with all sorts of creative ideas. Musically playing together, within the social boundaries, and being creative with video enhancements. They take a classical piece or a painting and try to break some boundaries creatively. They are just getting more and more comfortable with technology.

AAJ: That has to be interesting, perhaps exciting to see the many different concepts, ideas, and projects that they present to you.

TH: Oh yes, very much so. Absolutely. You know, at first some of the students don't feel like they can do it. But with a little encouragement and the realization that they have the tools, the next thing you know they are really collaborating and figuring things out.

AAJ: In getting back to your own music, it's been awhile since your last solo record. Do we have something to look forward to in the near future?

TH: I hope so. I've been focusing a bit on these summer series concerts, and UCLA has just shut down for the year. As we get into the summer, I can start to pull some ideas together. That would be great. I agree, I think it is time to do that. It's definitely something that is on my mind.

AAJ: Well, that would seem a positive to look forward to, and to wrap up our chat today. I thoroughly enjoyed talking with you and gained some knowledge and wisdom along the way.

TH: Well, you asked some great questions.

AAJ: Thank you. I appreciate that.

TH: Yes, it was wonderful, very enjoyable talking with you. Be well, and we will talk again soon.

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