Tamir Hendelman’s list of players who have inspired him as a performer and composer includes unsurprising names such Evans, Davis, Corea, Hancock and Peterson.
But how many other jazz musicians could also such early influences as a grandmother continuously humming everything from Yiddish songs, to opera, to Frank Sinatra in the apartment below?
Or, for that matter, an anonymous organist in a music-store window in Tel Aviv that Hendelman encountered a few years before he emigrated from Israel to Los Angeles at the age of 12?
“What I heard was a whole orchestra, because it had the brass, and the strings, and the bass, and the drums and everything.”
Hendelman had started early on a familiar path, with classically-weighted piano lessons. But, as often happens, jazz soon made its presence felt.
“One of my teachers gave me a cassette of the Count Basie big band when I was about 10. Shortly after, I got to hear Bobby McFerrin do a solo concert, and Chick Corea brought his group. Also, the Swingle Singers came through Israel.”
Hearing the store-window organist had convinced Hendelman to make organ his instrument of choice. It still was when he won the prestigious Yamaha national keyboard competition in the U.S. at the age of 14.
At the time, he was also writing music that was “a kind of combination of classical and jazz. A little Debussy, a little Bach, and a little bit of Dave Brubeck all combined.”
Two things happened almost simultaneously.
One was an invitation to study with composer Joe Harnell, one of the Yamaha competition judges. As a mentor, Harnell encouraged him to pursue composition studies at Boston’s Tanglewood Institute, and later at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.
The other occurrence came about, in part, through the young instructors who were teaching courses in jazz harmony in jazz harmony and film scoring at his music-centred high school.
“I started listening to the piano, and I was hearing a beauty that I didn’t hear before, and the different tones that you could get,” he says.
Following his composition studies at Eastwood, Hendelman immersed himself in the rich L.A. jazz culture with his new instrument of choice: piano.
“I decided to get together with a bunch of great local jazz pianists, and just take a couple of lessons from each of them. And each one, I learned something from.”
He was playing jazz gigs around the city when he met vocalist Cathy Segal Garcia, and two hit it off musically.
“I said, ‘I’m going to find a place to play.’ I ended up contacting this place that had piano and vocal duos.”
Hendelman became a club regular, working with a variety of vocalists.
“Each vocalist would bring in her own collection of 200 songs in her key. I was amazed how the great American standards sounded totally different when these people sang them,” he says.
“They had a really bluesy approach, or a light, swinging touch. And that got me thinking, ‘How can I arrange these songs, using my classical composition background, to give them a more unique flavor for whoever I’m arranging them for?’”
Working with female vocalists became a Hendelman trademark, eventually leading to pairings with the likes of Natalie Cole and Barbra Streisand.
One night in 1999, a vocalist he was perfoming with invited drummer and trio leader Jeff Hamilton to catch their set at an L.A. club. Afterward, Hamilton asked Hendelman some questions, and promised to stay in touch.
“About three months later, the pianist from his trio left. Jeff had a tour in Japan, and was looking for a pianist, not just for that, but to be a regular,” Hendelman says.
After memorizing the trio’s songbook of about 50 tunes, Hendelman was officially invited aboard.
“That association has been not only a great musical learning experience, but also through that, I’ve been able to meet a lot of other wonderful artists.”
Hendelman continues to play regularly with Hamilton, and as part of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. He also has own trio, which will be in Whitehorse this weekend for a Jazz on the Wing concert.
Along with bassist Alex Frank and drummer Dean Koba, he will be offering a mix of tunes from his two CDs, Playground and Destinations, with some of his arrangements of American standards, a bit of Ravel and a sprinkling of songs from his Israeli childhood – plus “some surprises.”
The concert is at 7:30 p.m. at the Yukon Arts Centre. For more information, go to jazzyukon.ca