Pianist and composer Alon Nechushtan doesn’t always create Jewish jazz, but when he does, it’s recognizably Jewish-sounding. He may use a Hasidic melody, a klezmer or Israeli dance rhythm or something straight from the synagogue — or a combination thereof.
It’s that Jewish musical anchor that sets Nechushtan, 42, apart from some of his more experimental colleagues in the Radical Jewish Culture scene (and, yes, that’s a thing, referring to the avant-garde Jewish music scene that has emerged in the last three decades).
“In my eyes,” says the Israel-raised, New York-based musician, “you can play with a lot of things, but something has to be there at the core.”
Nechushtan will exhibit his jazz chops, as well as teach a workshop titled “Fusing Middle Eastern Musical Elements with Jazz,” during a rapid-fire, two-day swing through the Bay Area next weekend.
First, he’ll be part of the annual Flower Piano program in Golden Gate Park’s botanical garden from 12 to 2 p.m. Saturday, July 20, performing a solo piano set in the Ancient Plant Garden while others play nearby in the Rhododendron Garden, the Conifer Lawn and other gorgeous spots. He promises “a few melodies from early klezmer” and notes that “I do take requests.”
Later that day at 7:30 p.m., a quartet Nechushtan has put together will open for the Shay Salhov Quartet at a small music hall in San Jose called Art Boutiki. They’ll play mainly jazz and contemporary jazz, but for sure “you’ll hear klezmer tunes … a Jewish blend with jazz,” he says.
The next day, Sunday July 21, Nechushtan will teach a workshop on how to infuse jazz with Middle Eastern musical elements from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley. He says he’ll shine a light on Judeo-Arabic musical modes, unique rhythms and beat patterns, and Andalusian and klezmer styles..
Then, to cap his whirlwind schedule, he will perform less than three hours later, at 4 p.m, with the Alon Nechushtan Trio in an Oakland Jazz Workshop concert at Jack London Square.
By the time the last note is played, Nechushtan will have done four events in about 30 hours. Oh, and a mere four days before all of that happens, he’ll be leading his Talat quartet in a concert of his arrangements of Chabad-Lubavitch nigguns (melodies) in Brooklyn, New York. He describes those pieces as “my twist” on when his grandfather took him to a Chabad village near where he grew up in Rishon LeTzion, Israel.
Talat released a Jewish-inflected jazz CD called “The Growl” on the Tzadik label in 2007. Nechushtan himself has released four additional CDs and a concert DVD. He has performed at Carnegie Hall and Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, and on tours through China, Israel and the Philippines. Last summer he gave a talk and demonstration at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley titled “What is Jewish Music?”
In addition, Nechushtan composes for jazz orchestra, classical settings and ambient electronics. His works have been featured on several CDs and have been performed in the United States and Israel.
When it comes to adding Jewish elements to music, Nechushtan offers several professional tips.
“Rhythm may be the most important, because rhythm is close to dance, and klezmer is for the dance,” he says. “Many of the rhythms were not created by Jews, but adopted.”
Next, he points to “the modes that came from the synagogue, [which] existed from Andalusian times and earlier. If you look at the Jews of Djerba, an island off Tunisia, they weren’t occupied by outside forces.” In fact, they date their origin to Jews who arrived from Jerusalem following the destruction of the First Temple.
He calls these modes “a direct link to what we might have perceived in the First Temple. You can hear these modes coming up in our faces. These are ours, not altered.”
Last summer, Nechushtan was composer, librettist, dialogist, pianist and one-man production crew for “Survival Codes,” a three-hour jazz opera that premiered at the Brooklyn Music School. A fictional work in English with modern references, the opera tells the story of Soviet Jews’ hope during decades of anti-Semitism and persecution.
“It took me a lot of time to write it, to rehearse,” he says. “Two months of daily rehearsals with a cast of 40.”
Nechushtan admits that balancing his multifaceted career, which also includes working with ballet companies, is challenging “Ten years ago I asked Uri Caine, a monster musician and composer, how do you do all that? One of the things he told me is you go project-to-project, take the time needed and then you go on.”
Though Nechushtan’s opera lost money, he subscribes to the maxim that success is “jumping from one failure to another failure without losing enthusiasm.” He adds: “When you think about it this way, even if a project loses money, is it a failure? I don’t know. I’m already looking at writing the next opera.”