Baruch Velleman

Pure Jazz Magic – The Niggen Quartet

The Niggen Quartet

I’ll admit it. I’m a jazz aficionado. When living in London in the early 1970s and again in the late 1980s, Ronnie Scott’s was my bolt hole and I was proud to be called a friend by the eponymous owner. Hell, I even sang on his hallowed stage at a charity event (accompanied by the late, great Ramon Luder).
One evening Ronnie greeted me on arrival saying he wanted to introduce me to someone special. It turned out to be Nina Simone. One of my greatest claims to fame is when she turned to me during her performance and said, “This song is for a charming young man I’ve been introduced to this evening” and began, “My baby don’t care for shows” (My Baby Just Cares for Me).

All this is a preamble to telling you about a performance of one of the best jazz quartets I’ve ever come across and in the most unlikely of venues.

My son and his family live in Tekoa, part of Gush Etzion (shock horror for those who know my political leanings) and David has taken a year out at the end of his medical studies to help the family business grow. My daughter-in-law, Davida’s father, the renowned artist and author, Jean-Pierre Weill, is best known for his 3D paintings on glass (her mother is the sculptor Rachel Rotenberg who will be holding her first Israel exhibition from October 10 to November 28 at the Van Leer Institute as part of the Jerusalem Biennale). When David and Davida were married, he gave the young couple his entire stock. They built a studio in Tekoa, supplementing and enhancing Jean-Pierre’s work with the help of his brilliant, younger daughter, Safira.

Jean-Pierre and Rachel came to live in Israel a few years ago, joining David and Davida in Tekoa in what is truly a family art studio.

Last month, they transformed the studio into a magical, intimate space to put on their first musical soiree and welcomed the Niggen Quartet.

With our palates comforted by Tekoa, home-made beer and kugel, I pondered the connection between jazz and the four overtly religious guys who took to the stage.

One of them, with peot and wearing a tallitkatan, welcomes us and starts to tell a story. He relates a dream, a dream that becomes reality. Dusk in a Europe of 200 years ago. Saturday night. You’re walking down the street in a small town. You notice a building lit up outside and in, with a large gathering at the entrance. You make your way through the crowd. Inside the house, a boisterous company are enjoying a communal meal. The diners are diverse; all denominations of Jews; Hasidic, modern Orthodox, secular, as well as non-Jews, some young, some old, and all of them together. Suddenly, the Hasidim begin to sing a melody. Four musicians arise, instruments in hand. You hold your breath, and they begin. At first, the music sounds like an ancient prayer. But then the room is filled with unexpected sounds – jazz, gypsy, rock, even jungle beats. The Hasidic tune surges forth, accented by the billowing solos of wind instruments. The volume and tempo of the music swells until it seems the whole room is on fire and beginning to levitate.

This is a taste of a performance by the Niggen Quartet. They play Hasidic melodies with the rich musicality of jazz. Their music juxtaposes improvisational freedom and rhythmic and harmonious complexity with simple, repetitive melodies beckoning the audience to participate with their voices. The result: an altogether singular, magical, contemplative experience.
I was blown away.

So who are these musical magicians?

Moshe Elmakias: keyboard player. Despite his young age, and with his virtuosic personal style, Moshe is one of the most promising pianists among the new generation of Israeli jazz musicians. He is a graduate of Israel’s Rubin Academy of Music, and has played both throughout Israel and abroad with drummer Yogev Shitrit, singer Mor Karbasi, the Tal Gamlieli Trio, Tawil, and many others. He is taking a leave of absence from Niggen this summer having been invited to study for a Masters degree at the New England Conservatory.

Tom Lev: outstanding reedman both on the soprano and tenor saxophone. Tom is one of the most active musicians in the current Jewish music scene. A graduate of the Berklee and Rimon Schools of Music, he has appeared and collaborated with leading jazz artists including Ralph Peterson, Frank Gambale, Dave Samuels, Cachao López and Arnie Lawrence, as well as leading Israeli musicians Yonatan Razel, Eviatar Banai, Berry Sakharof, Idan Raichel and more.

Yosef Levi: drums. A well-known drummer from the Reggae African music scene, Yosef has played and collaborated in Israel and abroad with the bands, Roots of Afrika, Chevy and many more. In recent years, Yossi has been active in Israeli music with the Sheva band, Yuval Banai, Assaf Ayalon, Yossi Fine, the Ramot Company, Aharon Razel and many talented others.

Opher Schneider: contrabass. Opher has played in various jazz ensembles in Israel and abroad with musicians including Stefon Harris, Donald Harrison, Antonio Hart, Gregory Tardy, Bireli Lagrene, Jimmy Lovelace, Arnie Lawrence, Alon Olearchik, Itai Kris, and others. Opher has played at the best clubs in New York, e.g. Smalls, Blue Note, and Merkin Concert Hall, as well as in various jazz festivals in Israel: Red Sea Jazz Festival, Tel Aviv Jazz Festival, the Israel Festival, and more.
So it looks like Nina Simone had it more than a little wrong – I do in fact ‘care for shows’ very much. And I am absolutely certain if you saw the ‘Niggen Quartet’, an absolutely magical jazz band, you would too.

In fact, you can catch them this coming Sunday evening, October 6, at the newly reopened Shablul Jazz club in Tel Aviv.

Just click on the link for a taster.

About the Author
Baruch Velleman is a management accountant, social worker, educator, Masorti Jew, peace activist, and works for the Forum of Israeli Peace NGOs
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