Pianist Alon Nechushtan, left (Photo/Bob Patterson); and saxophonist James Mahone, right (Photo/Maruyama)
Pianist Alon Nechushtan, left (Photo/Bob Patterson); and saxophonist James Mahone, right (Photo/Maruyama)

Israeli pianist Alon Nechushtan returns to Bay Area for jazz-klezmer shows

Finding an Israeli pianist with an affinity for klezmer music might seem like an easy task, but Alon Nechushtan is more than a rarity.

Though he grew up in Rishon LeTzion, a suburb just north of Tel Aviv, and graduated with a degree in classical composition from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, Nechushtan didn’t start exploring Jewish music until he landed in Boston in 2003.

His interest in jazz had been piqued in Israel via New York saxophonist Arnie Lawrence, who mentored a rising generation of Israeli jazz stars after moving to Jerusalem in 1997. But it wasn’t until he connected with Hankus Netsky, the chair of New England Conservatory’s contemporary improvisation department, that Nechushtan found his way into klezmer, the secular celebratory music of Ashkenazi Jewry.

“In Israel there’s antagonism to klezmer, because it’s connected to Hasids,” Nechushtan said. “As a secular person, I thought, that’s them, not me. But Hankus sparked that interest when I was studying at NEC, tying klezmer to contemporary improvisation and Gunther Schuller’s Third Stream music, which brings jazz and classical together. Klezmer falls into it really well, because there’s improvisation and room to write your own melodies.”

Klezmer will be part of the mix when Nechushtan returns to the Bay Area next month for a series of gigs, starting Feb. 1 in San Francisco at the Civic Center supper club Mr. Tipple’s. He’s playing two shows celebrating Black History Month with his Copperhead Trio featuring saxophonist James Mahone, focusing on a body of open-ended tunes steeped in African American improvisational practices.

On Feb. 2 he presents a program of klezmer, Sephardic and North African–influenced jazz with his Jewish Music Quintet at the Sunset Music and Art series, featuring reed player Matt Renzi, trumpeter Ian Carey, bassist Matt Montgomery and drummer Isaac Schwartz. The same quintet performs Feb. 3 at the Palo Alto JCC’s Jewish Music Series.

Klezmer served as something of a gateway for Nechushtan, a highly regarded composer whose music ranges across an array of traditions and idioms, from opera to free jazz. He’s lived in New York since 2005 but has become a regular presence in the Bay Area in recent years.

Last November Nechushtan performed at Sonoma State as part of the school’s Jewish Music Series. In September he was ensconced in Golden Gate Park, making his fifth appearance at the San Francisco Botanical Garden’s Flower Piano event, a gig he basically subsidizes (“I don’t mind doing that schlep and losing a few dollars, because it’s such an inspiring setting”). And in June his one-act “Legit Secrets” premiered at Sacramento State as part of Four Corners Ensemble’s Operation Opera program.

“It seems like I’m back in the Bay Area every two or three months,” he said.

All of the musicians performing with him next month are busy Bay Area jazz artists, a practice that Nechushtan has honed out of both inclination and economic reality over years of touring internationally. “I love traveling solo and connecting with the musicians who are there,” he said. “I’ll go to Brazil and give my charts to Brazilian musicians and they’ll add references to frevo, samba, xote or other Brazilian styles. I always try to write new music for the venues I play.”

I’m trying to bring audiences a wider view of Jewish music in the 21st century.

His alliances with Bay Area musicians include Berkeley clarinetist/composer Ben Goldberg, a patriarch of the radical Jewish music movement centered on John Zorn’s Tzadik label. After playing together several times and recording some of Nechushtan’s pieces for clarinet and piano, Goldberg came away impressed by the breadth of his pursuits.

“In some ways I see him as a serious composer and serious student of composition, a guy with a commitment to technical brilliance, but also someone who kind of shrugs that off, because he’s attained such a high level,” Goldberg said, while noting that Nechushtan’s concept goes far beyond technique and stylistic conventions. “He’s got his eyes on the prize in a different way.”

Nechushtan makes it clear that when it comes to Jewish music, klezmer was a point of entry, not a destination. In keeping with his wide-open aesthetic, he has developed arrangements of music from across the diaspora “representing Sephardic and North African music as well,” he said.

“It’s klezmer and beyond. There’s some Andalusian music I’ve arranged from the 16th and 17th centuries that was sung in Arabic and Ladino, and a hybrid of Jewish and Balkan music,” he added. “I’m trying to bring audiences a wider view of Jewish music in the 21st century.”

The Copper-Head Trio featuring James Mahone

7 and 8:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 1 at Mr. Tipple’s, 39 Fell St., S.F. $12-$25. Nechushtan will also perform with his Jewish Music Quintet on Friday, Feb. 2 at Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in San Francisco ($20-$25) and Saturday, Feb. 3 at Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto ($20-$40).

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.