Scott Krane
a baal teshuva and self-proclaimed dilettante

A Recorder Without Borders: A Conversation With Musician Tali Rubinstein

Tali Rubinstein in Brooklyn (photo by Dror Pikielny)

שיחה עם המוסיקאית: טלי רובינשטיין

Tali Rubinstein is one of the Jewish stars in the music world to be on the lookout for. An Israeli transplant in the United States, she is a virtuoso recorder player and vocalist who performs: renaissance music and baroque, Latin music and Israeli, jazz, vocal and pop.

For more than a decade she has trailblazed a niche as an obscure instrumentalist and a diverse and versatile career in musical excellence. Funny, despite the buzz, I hadn’t heard of her…until one night, I came across a video of Tali on Facebook playing the jazz standard, ‘A Night in Tunisia’ by Dizzy Gillespie, a Middle Eastern (or North African—as it were)-inspired song. It had been shared to a friend’s ‘wall’ and caught my ear when I came across it in the ‘news stream’. The performance was incredible, and I needed to know more, so that I would be able to follow her exciting career in detail, and shine a light so that others may do so, as well. I was lucky when I asked her to do an interview and she acquiesced.

Ms. Rubinstein is a full-time teacher, composer and performer who has appeared on many records and live on-stage and even has a composition to her name which was included on a Grammy Award-winning record. She was educated originally in Israel, at the prestigious Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in Ramat HaSharon, and then at Berklee College of Music in the Back Bay area of Boston.

What follows below is a transcript of my interview with her:

Scott Krane: Your resume is robust, to say the least. You were the first-ever student of recorder at Berklee College of Music. You have worked on one Latin GRAMMY award-winning album. And you have collaborated with musicians of all styles and from all corners of the globe. Are you mostly into or at least, employed by, baroque and Latin music? Do you wish to break more into jazz? What jazz projects have you worked on? Where did you learn to play in the bebop or modern jazz style? 

Tali Rubinstein: I studied early music (baroque and renaissance) for many years, especially with my dear teacher Bracha Kol (a notable recorder player and opera singer in Israel) before I began learning jazz and improvisation. In fact, I never imagined I would play anything else professionally – it all almost happened by chance: when I was twenty, I went to study classical music and math at Tel Aviv University (until then I thought I’m going to have a career that would combine science and music), but I felt a little out of place in both, and wasn’t sure I’m [on] the right path, so I took a break in the form of enrolling to Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music. This was supposed to be…time off to clear my mind and have fun – learning some jazz, improvising, playing some groovy music; and after that I was going to go back to studying something serious, whatever that would be. That year[-off] changed my perception and opened my mind so much that it completely [altered] my plans. For the first time, I could imagine a career in music, nothing else. I continued [on] that path and went on to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Both Rimon and Berklee gave me a chance to explore a totally foreign musical territory in which I could take risks, create, go to extremes, and discover a new sound. Jazz became my new language.

The reason why I got so much into [L]atin music is Javier Limón, a world renowned producer and composer, who worked with Paco De Lucia, Buika, Alejandro Sanz and others. Javier was my professor at Berklee, and he invited me to record and arrange for an album he was working on at the time (“Promesas De Tierra”), and later on to record a duo album produced by him, together with my good friend, pianist / composer Tal Even Tzur (“Tal y Tali”). Since then, I was fortunate to be involved in many projects that Javier produced, and to immerse myself in [L]atin music and specifically in flamenco.

Although I feel the most comfortable playing traditional jazz, and that was the starting point for my musical career as I see it, I don’t really have any recording[s] in that style, but two jazz albums I’m very proud to have participated in (and composed for) are Alain Mallet’s albums: “Mutt Slang” and “A Wake of Sorrows Engulfed in Rage”. Alain was also my teacher at Berklee, and one of the best composers and pianists I’ve ever met, and it was an amazing opportunity to get to be part of these two beautiful albums with so many brilliant musicians.

Scott Krane: Compare Israeli jazz, as per the pedagogy and performance at the Rimon School to that of Berklee College. Would you say jazz is a language that permeates and unites nationalities?

Tali Rubinstein: Yeah, I think any form of improvisational music is a way to unite between different cultures, just simply because first of all, it is music, so it is international, you don’t have to speak a different language and [also] the improvisational part of it, exchanging ideas in real time with other people, doesn’t necessarily need to be jazz…[that kind of] communication is kind of a bridge…[just from my experience] with improvising with different groups…sometimes music styles I’m not familiar with, sometimes I’m able to open my ears and my heart and try to immerse myself in the music…

As for the question about Israeli jazz versus Berklee…I went to Rimon School…Rimon school follows Berklee to a certain extent, it was founded by people who went there. As for the method with which they teach, it’s taken from Berklee. There were some differences, mostly Rimon is much smaller, so the community around it, everyone knew everyone and you had a very personal relationship with the teachers; and Berklee also, it was like that in some of the classes, but it was much bigger, so there is more of a variety, many more options, of course, in English, and just to meet people who come from different backgrounds. We come from Israel, where there is a combination of Israeli music that we grew up on and jazz, and there are people from all over the world with different kinds of concoctions.

SK: Did you discover jazz at the Rimon School or did you discover jazz before you started studying there?

TR: I discovered playing jazz at the Rimon for the first time. Actually it was my audition to the Rimon that I played jazz for the first time…they ask you to improvise over a jazz tune, so I had to do it…when I started to study in Rimon I went through all the theory…and I had different teachers and I got to Berklee with a lot of knowledge already and they set me up really well with everything I needed…[at Berklee I took it further with] not only jazz but many other styles of music, production or composition for film, which all of that you can do at Rimon, but just the fact that it is bigger and there are more people, different points of view, that was the advantage of Berklee. They complemented each other really nicely, and I am glad that I started in a smaller place, a bit more of a family kind of feeling; and I went to the big city, with all the different people from everywhere.

SK: Are you interested in fusing the cultural traits of your peers to the jazz tradition, to create music which both challenges you as a composer and, improviser, while paying homage to your own heritage?

TR: Another question to be asking is ‘what is jazz?’ which is something [I] don’t think I even know the answer to. I think everything I’m doing is kind of what you’re saying, but not only. The combination of Israeli music and jazz and classical music, of course, that’s my origins…and everything that I’ve heard since I moved to the [United States]…whenever I’m working on collaborations like these, the other person or people, we both just dive into our own world which is made up of our own personal influences…Some people would define ‘Tal y Tali’ like that. Some say that it is jazz, some say that it is classical music, and some think of it as world-music, I wouldn’t even know how to categorize it myself…I never really tried to do a proper jazz [album], (…traditional jazz from the ‘30s…), and with elements of Israeli music…I did not try to define a certain style and then make an album to it, I never did [that].

Now I am wrapping up an album in Hebrew that I am singing and playing and I don’t even know the genre…I think that it is a nice thing to not be able to define the music and have other people define it for themselves, and see what comes out. There’s actually another project that I’m getting ready to put out, it’s kind of jazz in a way, but it’s much more modern. It’s a duet of me playing the recorder, and a guy who plays the piano and harpsichord, and some of it is simultaneously…it is kind of modern European jazz…but with a recorder and harpsichord you could say that it is baroque because of the instrumentation. Some improvised, some sounds like modern classical music.

…Now a-days, since I’m teaching a lot online, especially since the pandemic started, that’s a lot of what I’ve been doing, and there’s really a lack of good jazz material out there, jazz play-a-longs for recorder—

Do you use Jamey Aebersold?

I use that for myself. Mostly for my students, I just make play-a-longs with some programs that I have. [I was working on a] recorder specific, jazz methodical book and play-a-long [that I might make] it’s something that I’d be very excited to do, if I find the time to do it; with a real rhythm section playing to play some head-in, solos…and write it out in notes so that students can learn from it…When I think about my students, I feel like there might be a need for there to be something very traditional…

What is the true history of the recorder in jazz? Has this experiment been carried out—as far as you know—by anyone but yourself?

I discovered a little bit, after I started doing it, there’s really not a lot…all the people who do it know each other, I think, because I can count them with one hand. There’s a guy called Benoit Sauvé, I’ve seen a lot of his transcriptions, of saxophone solos and different classic recordings. I have a good friend whose name is Tobias Reisige, he is a recorder player from Germany…A few years ago he reached out to me and asked me if I would join him for a few shows [sic] on a mini-tour in Germany with his band…and that’s just a band of recorder, acoustic guitar and upright bass, and they do some jazz, some classical music, baroque, but some of it is jazz and has an improvisational attitude as well as improvisation when they perform. So we did some music together that was incredible…

There are some students that are on the way, I think, I hope. At Berklee, for example you can only study the flute [not the recorder], there was no option for recorder, there was no teacher, also at Rimon, no recorder teacher…

What’s the recorder’s history among the Jewish population of Europe and the Middle East?

It’s a Western European instrument, it’s the ancestor of the flute, and it kind of faded away, the flute kind of took over, but in Israel, there is a kind of, everywhere people play recorder when they’re kids, but in Israel there is a little more, especially because on the kibbutz, people would play accordion, recorder and mandolin, for some reason these instruments because they’re able to carry around, or I don’t know what’s the reason. There was a bit of a tradition of that but I think mostly I started playing the recorder because everyone plays the recorder. And that’s a pretty global phenomenon.

What different recorders are there?

Most people play the soprano, that’s the one most people start on, and alto is the second most common.

And you were playing a sopranino?

I think. It depends on which video. In the ‘Stablemates’ video I play sopranino. I play a lot of soprano and alto…I [also] have tenor, bass and great bass. That’s the lowest one that I have, but there are bigger ones than that.

Who are your biggest Jazz influences?

Charlie Parker, I’ve studied a lot of his solos. [John] Coltrane…a lot of saxophone players. I really like Chet Baker a lot, especially his singing, and his playing also…I like [Thelonious] Monk, and my sister [laughs].

Tell me about your sister.

She’s [sic] a real reason why I started playing jazz.

What’s her name?

My sister’s name is Tammi Rubinstein. She could play, but she used to study and she was on the route to become a musician…she played piano and saxophone, and she went to the same high school that I went to…but I went to the classical program and she went to the jazz one. So she was into jazz much before I got into it…I think that influenced me a lot, and she also auditioned to Berklee and she went to Berklee workshops but she decided to become a doctor. She had a full scholarship to Berklee and she didn’t use it, [laughing] which is amazing to me.

Your vocal projects are very impressive. Do you prefer singing in Hebrew or English?

Thank you. I prefer singing in Hebrew by far. It’s easier for me, not easier, it’s more musical for me, either because I don’t know whether Hebrew sounds more musical to me, or I’m just used to hearing songs in Hebrew…[sic] so I associate the syllables and the vowels more easily with music, than in English. I feel like when I sing in English I have to fake it a little bit. I try to make it my own but in Hebrew there are so many associations, with the language, that it just comes more naturally.

 Who are your biggest influences?

My teacher Bracha Kol. I studied with her many many many years, probably like thirteen, I can’t remember. [She helped me with] my connection to this instrument and my vocabulary, and technique and musicality and character and everything that made me able to pick up jazz and other styles, that is really thanks to her. And she was an amazing teacher, and also incredible recorder player and performer and opera singer…I just sing because I like to do it, but she’s a really professional singer…

Two people who were really important in my musical life, Alain Mallet, who taught many classes at Berklee, he encouraged me to write my own music and I was very…[sic] happy when he invited me to [work] on two of his albums, and we also recorded one of my songs, we also have a very special musical connection…He’s an amazing composer, an incredible pianist…he is a very good role model to me for someone who is an exceptional instrumentalist but also has very good taste and likes to involve different styles and people from all different backgrounds.

Another very important person who I’ve been working with…is Javier Limón [as mentioned]. He’s a flamenco producer, he’s very successful, very well known in the flamenco world and world-music in general, he also was my teacher [at] Berklee and he got me into flamenco and we recorded a bunch of albums; he also produced ‘Tal y Tali’ that was his idea.

Is he the one that won the Latin Grammy?

Yes. He’s the reason why I was involved in [that album]. It’s his production and he invited me and Tal [Even-Tzur] to compose a song for it; so he’s been not only involving me in these really prestigious projects.

Any last thoughts you wish to impart before we cut out?

I want to encourage all the musicians out there to try doing things that are not necessarily meant for their instruments or, just to go with their heart and with their ears and what intrigues them. The options are really endless when you erase those borders.

About the Author
Scott Shlomo Krane has been blogging for TOI since 2012. His writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Tablet, Ha'aretz, The Jerusalem Post, the Daily Caller, JazzTimes and he will be the host of a forthcoming blog on AllAboutJazz.com. Scott was a columnist and breaking news editor for Arutz Sheva (2011-2013). In addition to holding a degree in Judaic Studies and a Master's in English from Bar-Ilan University (for which he wrote his thesis on the poetry of American master, John Ashbery), he has learned Judaism at Macon Ha'Gavuah L'Torah in Israel and Hadar Ha'Torah Rabbinical Seminary in Brooklyn.
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