The Alon Near Group (from left): Hillel Salem, Guy Moskovich, Alon Near, Asaf Even Tzur and Alon Benjamini
jazz,  music,  musician
The Alon Near Group (from left): Hillel Salem, Guy Moskovich, Alon Near, Asaf Even Tzur and Alon Benjamini jazz, music, musician

From Tel Aviv by way of NYC, jazz quintet reunites for SF run at Black Cat

A swanky nightclub tucked into a Tenderloin basement that once served as a Chinese gambling den, Black Cat has become San Francisco’s most vital showcase for artists emerging on New York City’s creatively fecund jazz scene.

In recent months, the venue’s owner and presiding spirit, restaurateur Fritz Quattlebaum, has presented the headlining acts as part of an ongoing series dubbed [email protected] He’s calling the latest dispatch from the East the Tel Aviv Underground Jazz Sessions.

Playing 12 shows over five nights beginning Jan. 19,  the quintet is ostensibly under the leadership of bassist Alon Near. But the band is really more of a collective featuring five young Israelis who met as kids and all attended Tel Aviv’s vaunted Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, then came to the U.S. to study jazz at the New School. With Near, trumpeter Hillel Salem, saxophonist Asaf Even Zur, pianist Guy Moskovich and drummer Alon Benjamini, the band embodies the ongoing impact of Israeli musicians in New York.

While the players performed together extensively before the pandemic, holding down a weekly gig for three years at the West Village jazz spot Small’s, they last worked as a unit at a Black Cat residency in July 2019. The first night, they focused on their usual hard-bop repertoire, a persuasively swinging, blues-steeped sound defined by the 1950s quintets of trumpeter Miles Davis, pianist Horace Silver and drummer Art Blakey.

Taking advantage of the extended Black Cat run, an almost unheard of engagement for a young band without recordings or major-label support, the musicians “started to explore what we like and what the audience likes,” Near, 27, said in an interview for this article. “The second or third night we wanted to stretch and explore our boundaries, and we started improvising funk-oriented music. Some sets we played straight ahead, but much more we were getting into groove, R&B and funk — that RH Factor sound” created by the late, great trumpeter Roy Hargrove.

Vanisha Gould
Vanisha Gould

For this engagement, Near said, they’ll pick up where they left off in 2019 with a groove-oriented approach, and guest vocalist Vanisha Gould will join them for eight shows. A Southern California native who’s earned widespread respect since moving to New York about five years ago, she hails from a highly musical family that includes her brother, acclaimed pianist/keyboardist Victor Gould. More than “an amazing singer,” Near said, “Vanisha writes incredible tunes that are more folkish. She’s got a really warm tone and is just a fantastic musician.”

The Tel Aviv Underground combo is the latest wave in an ongoing surge of Israeli talent that has swept across the United States since bassist Avishai Cohen earned renown with piano legend Chick Corea in 1997. More than a dozen Israelis have attained an enviable level of recognition since then, including bassist Omer Avital, saxophonist Eli Degibri, pianist Anat Fort, guitarist Gilad Hekselman, trumpeter Avishai Cohen (a former member of the SFJazz Collective not to be confused with the bassist of the same name) and his older sister, clarinet and tenor saxophone star Anat Cohen, who presents her first programming block as an SFJazz resident artistic director March 24-27.

The outsized success of the Israeli players is notable partly because it seems so unlikely. With a population of around 9 million, Israel has few direct ties to the West African diaspora that seeded jazz and a plethora of kindred musical traditions throughout South America and the Caribbean.

Yet after Cuba and Brazil, no foreign country’s citizens are playing a more visible or essential role on the New York scene these days. The Tel Aviv scene has thrived as Israeli musicians return after years studying and playing in the U.S., bolstering an already rigorous education system.

“A lot of people end up going back,” said Tel Aviv Underground saxophonist Asaf Even Zur. “We know you can work, teach or have gigs. It’s a very small country, so everybody knows you. But many of the best-known players have put down roots here. They have lives here and kids. But what makes me stay here isn’t the jazz scene. New York is an incredible city. I want to explore the textures and vibes, the variety of everything.”

Israeli players aren’t just adopting African American idioms. In some cases, they’re expanding jazz’s omnivorous palette with influences from the Middle East and Mediterranean.

Take Zur, for example. His mother hails from Poland, his father is from Morocco, and he was immersed in North African music growing up. In his own music, he’s interested in drawing on those influences, as well as sounds from Armenia, Azerbaijan “and all those countries that were under the Muslim empires,” he said.

“Growing up in Israel, jazz education was really focused on African American blues. We have a different blues. You can hear a song and feel at home and hear how it’s coming from the mosques and synagogues. That’s something I want to explore.”

The Tel Aviv Underground Jazz Sessions featuring the Alon Near Group, Jan. 19 to 23 at Black Cat, 400 Eddy St., S.F. $25-$45. Proof of vaccination and masks required. blackcatsf.com

Andrew Gilbert
Andrew Gilbert

Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelance writer who covers jazz, roots and international music for publications including the Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, San Francisco Classical Voice and Berkeleyside.