Tamir Hendelman’s remarkable keyboard skills are matched by his immense versatility. He’s an award-winning composer and popular session player who brings all-star talent to every gig.
By Glenn Rifkin
When you see Tamir Hendelman perform, the Israeli-born, virtuoso jazz pianist demonstrates why that perpetually finicky perfectionist Barbra Streisand hand-picked Hendelman as her accompanist for her rare live performances and her latest recording. Hendelman’s remarkable keyboard skills are matched by his immense versatility. He’s an award-winning composer and popular session player who brings all-star talent to every gig. Besides Streisand, Hendelman has performed with the likes of Natalie Cole, Gladys Knight, Diana Krall, Quincy Jones, and a host of jazz standouts.
But make no mistake, Hendelman is not just a classic sideman. Judging by his knockout performance at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, MA on Saturday night, Hendelman is a headliner of the first order. With the moody backdrop of a rainy Rockport Harbor behind the glass wall of the Shalin Liu stage, Hendelman lit up the approaching darkness with a variety of tunes from Herbie Hancock and Duke Ellington to Ravel, mixed with several of his own stellar compositions. Sadly, Rockport was a one-night stand, and New England audiences are going to have to wait a while for Hendelman’s return. But he is well worth the wait.
Having studied piano since the age of six, Hendelman emigrated to the U.S. at age 12 in 1984 and settled with his family in Los Angeles. His prodigious talent won him the Yamaha national keyboard competition when he was 14. After studying at the Tanglewood Institute and earning a degree in music composition from the Eastman School of Music, Hendelman blossomed as both a performer and arranger. He loved to listen to all kinds of music and absorbed everything like a sponge, which accounts for his versatility and seemingly unlimited scope. He toured and recorded with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and performed with Jeff Hamilton, that group’s co-director. His musical sensitivity, honed in the conservatory and perfected in his many collaborations, is evident in his live performance.
At the Shalin Liu, he kicked off the evening with a smooth rendition of Hancock’s “Driftin,” which set the tone for an evening of variations. Hendelman embraces a wide variety of genres and is ready to kick from jazz to blues to show tunes with a mix of Israeli and Eastern European roots added to the set list. At 41, the boyish-looking Hendelman unabashedly demonstrates the sheer joy he gets from the music and that enthusiasm is infectious, not just for the audience but for his mates on the stage. Hendelman left his own trio in L.A. and brought in bassist Alex Frank and drummer Kevin Kanner for the Rockport appearance. The trio generated a supple synergy on stage. Ever generous, Hendelman shared equal time by deferring to solo breaks in nearly every number by both Frank and Kanner. He often stood, turned his back to the audience and admired Kanner’s deft stickwork before settling back down to the keyboard.
In a tribute to the weather, Hendelman followed the Hancock tune with a beautifully complex arrangement that eventually emerged as “Singing In the Rain.” He followed that with a jazz baroque prelude, Ravel’s “Tombeau de Couperin,” Ravel’s tribute to the eighteenth-century composer Couperin, after which he went solo on a stunning and intricate version of Michel Legrande’s “You Must Believe in Spring.”
Watching Hendelman’s marvelous hands fly across the keyboard, one is reminded of the likes of Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett: an inventive genius coupled with a dynamism that lifts an audience to its feet by the show’s conclusion.
After intermission, he kickstarted the second half with Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” which featured a riveting give and take with Kanner on the drums. He got the crowd bouncing with a swinging version of Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology” and then toned it down with Fletcher Henderson’s “Soft Winds.” He spoke of walks with his father around their Southern California neighborhood that inspired his moving and lyrical “Sycamore.” And as if he had something left to prove, he brought the crowd to its feet with a powerhouse version of Makoto Ozone’s “BQE.”
Hendelman’s debut CD Playground was released in 2008, and his second offering, Destinations, appeared in 2010. Seemingly content to work both sides of the aisle—collaborating with accomplished stars and quietly forging his own identity, Hendelman is that rare craftsman whose music transcends pigeon holes. One thing is clear: if you are lucky enough to see him, it is an evening you will enjoy almost as much as he does.
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for nearly 30 years. He has written about music, film, theater, food and books for The Arts Fuse. His new book Future Forward: Leadership Lessons from Patrick McGovern, the Visionary Who Circled the Globe and Built a Technology Media Empire was recently published by McGraw-Hill.