Pianist and composer Tamir Hendelman brings his imaginative jazz renditions to Cliff Bell’s.
Tamir Hendelman felt very comfortable moving from Israel to Los Angeles as a 12-year-old. His parents were looking for more opportunities, and he found many ways to pursue his musical interests through jazz piano and composing. More personally, he also found a large community of people from Israel and a climate close to the one he had known.
Long walks with his father around their new neighborhood eventually led to a song he composed, “Sycamore,” which captures the feeling of being surrounded by beautiful trees during those times alone with his dad. Another original song, “Israeli Waltz,” captures a very different walk as he showed his wife, jazz bassist Sherry Luchette, around Israel.
Both songs are likely to be in the program he will bring Sunday evening, March 11, to Cliff Bell’s in Downtown Detroit, where he will be joined by Paul Keller on bass and Sean Dobbins on drums.
“We’ve played together on various tours, and we’ll be playing music from my two CDs, Playground and Destination,” says Hendelman, 46, familiar with the Michigan jazz scene through appearances in Ann Arbor and Dearborn and workshop leadership at the University of Michigan and Cranbrook.
“We’ll have a mix of standards from the American songbook, jazz classics and some of my own originals. One of the joys of playing a trio format is that everybody gets a chance to make the others be the best that they can be.
“We love to swing and reinvent standards. When I take a tune that has been done by others, I arrange it by looking into those versions and then looking deeper into the pieces to find things — maybe a melodic phrase or a certain mood — to do more with it in a way that really can tell a story and feature members of the band.”
Music captivated Hendelman at age 6, when he started with an electric organ after watching one demonstrated in a store. In America, a teacher got him more interested in piano, jazz and improvisation, and at 14, he won a Yamaha competition with an original piece, went into a high-school arts program and attended a high-end music camp.
Hendelman’s studies were intense at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in musical composition.
“When I play standards from the American songbook and have more awareness of the lyrics, I can put those feelings in there even when there’s no singing.” — Tamir Hendelman
“When I came back to L.A., I did a little bit of film scoring and played around town,” recalls Hendelman, whose brother Saar is a composer and vocalist. “I tried to learn from people who were more experienced than me. There was a great music scene in south- central L.A., and I often worked with vocalists.
“One day, I performed with Sandra Booker and Jeff Hamilton. A few months later, Jeff’s pianist had left, and he invited me to join his trio. We just recorded an album, Live from San Pedro.
“I also formed my own trio and joined the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. In the process of doing all this, I got to meet wonderful musicians. I recorded for the Resonance label and was invited to arrange and record with other artists on that label.”
Hendelman has appreciated the opportunity of touring and recording with many great singers, including Barbra Streisand and Natalie Cole.
“Working with them was the way I got to learn a lot of the lyrics of these songs,” he explains. “When I play standards from the American songbook and have more awareness of the lyrics, I can put those feelings in there even when there’s no singing.”
Hendelman, invited to record on the Streisand album Love Is the Answer, found the singer very natural and was pleased to be asked to collaborate on a duet, “Some Other Time.” The recording was made at a New York jazz club, where the audience was small and intimate. A couple years later, he toured with her and a full orchestra.
When the two were getting ready to record a song by Jacques Brel with the orchestra, Streisand had the idea to pare the arrangement down to a string quartet in the middle of the song. During rehearsal with the change, she decided to make the music more intense for a more poignant touch.
“I thought her ideas were very insightful, and they gave me more appreciation for her as an artist,” says Hendelman, who also has a special fondness for his bookings on many jazz cruises.
“Sometimes, on the cruises, we see musicians we haven’t seen in five or more years, and it’s just like we saw them yesterday because jazz is really kind of a small family. The music starts in the morning and goes late into the night. It’s a chance to play and also hear some of our friends join the company of great jazz fans out on the ocean. What could be wrong with that?”
Hendelman, whose two daughters (Zoe, 10, and Sophia, 8) are building their interests in music, uses his home studio to conduct workshops. While enjoying those experiences, he also likes presenting music in new places, and that happens as he makes his first appearance at Cliff Bell’s.
“I like to invite the audience into our musical conversation and tell them a little about the compositions,” he explains. “Different countries and cultures have inspired my music.”