The versatile, talented Israeli-born keyboardist has always had a pay-it-forward attitude about sharing his craft.
By Glenn Rifkin
When award-winning jazz pianist Tamir Hendelman last took the stage at Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center, Barack Obama was just settling into his second term as president. So it’s been a while and these days, those days feel like a long time ago. On Friday night, Hendelman, the versatile, talented Israeli-born keyboardist, returns to the bucolic waterfront setting with his Tamir Hendelman Trio for the first time since 2013, and if you missed him the last time, you best head up to Cape Ann for this rare but welcome visit.
Witnessing Hendelman’s supple fingers flying across the keyboard is simply breathtaking and his virtuoso skills are matched by his sheer delight in performing, something he has done with an impressive list of artists including Barbra Streisand, Natalie Cole, Quincy Jones, Diana Krall, and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. His musical taste is far-reaching and enthralling. He can shift easily from Duke Ellington to Ravel and, throughout his sets, this talented composer intersperses his own entrancing pieces from his CDs Playground and Destinations.
Needless to say, Hendelman has been busy in these intervening years. Between steady touring with his own trio, Hendelman has performed with a wide range of artists who treasure his keyboard skills. He has arranged for and recorded with such artists as guitarist Graham Dechter, vocalist Polly Gibbons, and flutist Lori Bell. And he has remained deeply involved in one of his lifelong passions: teaching.
This fall, Hendelman will be doing more touring than ever before, with his current east coast tour shifting west to Seattle, Vancouver and Whitehorse, Alaska. After that, he heads to Colorado, Missouri, and Kansas. Next week, he’ll take a break from the tour to perform with vocalist Roberta Gambarini and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra at the Monterey Jazz Festival’s 60th anniversary celebration.
Hendelman will be joined on the Shalin Liu stage by Italian-born bassist Marco Panascia and Grammy-nominated drummer Matt Wilson, both of whom have become celebrated musicians in their own right. Like Hendelman, these sought-after artists have exuded enough star power to traverse the 20 feet to stardom. Panascia, a Berklee College of Music grad, has appeared in some of the top festivals and venues such as the Montreux Jazz Festival, the Hollywood Bowl, and the Kennedy Center in Washington. He made a name for himself playing alongside the likes of Kenny Barron, Natalie Cole, and young jazz piano sensation Eldar. Wilson, an eclectic, electrifying performer, spices his performances by reading poetry, and leads his own band, the Matt Wilson Quartet. (Arts Fuse review of Wilson’s album Honey and Salt, which features musical settings and readings of Carl Sandburg poems.) “He is very much about being in the moment, and trying new things,” Hendelman said about Wilson. “He has a real spirit of play.”
In an interview before this appearance, Hendelman offered a taste of his set list. He will offer works from Charlie Parker and Keith Jarrett along with some of his own original pieces including a few new ones not yet recorded. He may do a tribute to Dave Brubeck as well. He mentioned that among his plans is to get back in the recording studio to prepare a CD release for 2018. His last disc, Destinations, was released in 2010 so a new recording is long overdue.
Like most creative individuals, Hendelman is a complex mix of talents. At heart, he is a music educator. A faculty member at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music ,where he teaches jazz piano and composition, Hendelman has spent a large part of the past four years giving workshops with both high school and college students to impart his love of music and learning. During his current tour, he’ll take time out to teach a masterclass at the College of San Mateo and an improvisation workshop at various schools in Seattle. If there are young students eager to learn, no venue is too small or remote.
Hendelman began studying piano at age six in his native Israel. When his family emigrated to the U.S. in 1984, the 13-year old Hendelman’s first U.S. teacher encouraged him to listen to and learn from a variety of musical traditions, from classical to jazz. He won Yamaha’s national keyboard competition at age 14 and played concerts in Japan and at the Kennedy Center. He received a degree in music composition from the Eastman School of Music in 1993 and has been in steady demand ever since. When the exacting Barbra Streisand handpicks you as her accompanist for her rare concert appearances, you must have something special.
As that rare piano student who simply loved learning, Hendelman has always had a pay-it-forward attitude about sharing his craft. His jazz heroes were all eclectic and multi-faceted. He had a chance to study with legendary jazz pianist and composer Billy Childs, a multiple Grammy winner, and he quickly shifted from student to teacher. At 20 years old, he was the youngest musical director at the Lovewell Institute from the Creative Arts, a Florida-based non-profit that conducts workshops in the creative arts all over the world.
“We would create a show from scratch to a standing ovation in three weeks,” Hendelman recalled. The emphasis, he said, was for each individual student to share their story and make it part of a bigger narrative. “It’s about people coming from all over, from the inner city, from tough backgrounds, the disabled, students who are really bright and creative, and getting them to work with each other,” the pianist explained.
In a similar fashion, Hendelman’s touch for synchronicity with his trio reflects his ability to bring out the best in the musicians in his orbit. At the end of the day, each performance is a masterclass in musical improvisation and technique.
For Hendelman, the return to the Shalin Liu is a welcome stop on the tour. “It’s like coming back to another musical home,” he said. “When you tour, you find some very special places around the world that inspire you and Rockport is definitely one of those places.”
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for more than 25 years. Among his books are Radical Marketing and The Ultimate Entrepreneur. His efforts as an arts critic and food writer represent a new and exciting direction.