Her long trip proves worth it

Boston Globe, August 10, 2007

Sometimes a jazz musician appears on the scene with a recording that is both so unique and so well-crafted that you wonder where he or she has been all your life. That kind of revelation came a few months ago with the release of “A Long Story,” the debut of Israeli pianist Anat Fort. Though she’s been active in the New York jazz world for more than a decade, Fort is just now coming into the limelight beyond those rarefied downtown circles, and not a moment too soon. Her visit to Regattabar tonight is a chance to catch up with one of the more original piano voices at work today, as well as one of the most elegant and subtle.

On “A Long Story,” Fort allies spirit-filled melodicism with evidence of an ongoing search for simplicity. Her pacing is exquisite: She seems to invest the silences with nearly as much meaning as the notes, yet never falls into austerity or abstraction. She enjoys sympathetic accompaniment from bassist Ed Schuller and legendary drummer Paul Motian, whose work with pianists like Keith Jarrett makes him a perfect foil. Clarinetist Perry Robinson joins on several tracks. But the compositions are Fort’s, and from the very first notes of “Just Now, Var. 1,” the alluring motif piece that opens the record and recurs twice in different instrumentations, it’s clear that this is her artistic vision.

On the phone from her Brooklyn apartment, Fort explains that the album’s coming to fruition was, as the title would seem to indicate, a long story indeed. The tracks were recorded in 2004, and the time it took to release the disc stemmed in part from the busy schedule of her label, ECM Records, a marquee name in jazz whose founder, Manfred Eicher, takes a hands-on approach to producing albums that reflect the label’s signature style.

Fort, who previously had put out just one album as an independent release, says that working with ECM – home to such artists as Motian, Jarrett, Dave Holland, Paul Bley, and Jan Garbarek – has brought her into the musical fold that helped shape her artistic development in the first place. “ECM has always been my favorite label,” she says. “I always had tons of their albums, and their sound was a big influence on me.”

Spending time mixing the album with Eicher, she says, was a thrilling experience. “Having had all those records for years, I had a lot of admiration and appreciation for him from afar,” she says. “His ears are insane. He hears stuff I don’t even hear in my own music. It’s really incredible.”

She credits Eicher for intuiting the album’s correct sequence, the gentle way it develops from sonata-like purity to more nervy, layered pieces with edges, angles, and sinewy, vaguely Middle Eastern clarinet lines.

Compelling as it is, “A Long Story” can only go part way toward introducing Fort or setting the tone for a live set. For one thing, she points out, ECM albums are quintessentially studio works that don’t even try to channel the energy of concert performance. Second, her work has evolved: “I’ve moved along a lot. The spirit is there because the spirit is timeless when something is real and true. As much as I can listen to it now, I can stand behind it. But I have moved on a lot – because you hopefully do.”

Though recordings of her current projects have yet to come out, she describes a range that well exceeds the conventional boundaries of jazz. “I hate to categorize my music,” she says, echoing an oft-heard musician’s grievance. She’s now working on orchestral compositions, contemporary chamber works, and even a choir piece.

The principal vehicle of her jazz work is the regular trio that she brings to Regattabar tonight, with Gary Wang on bass and Roland Schneider on drums. They have worked together since 1999, giving them the luxury of a close collaborative intimacy.

“I could tell you what is special and distinctive about each one of them,” Fort says of her partners, “but it’s really about what we do together. They’re both very naturally musical, very sensitive. They know how to leave space, which is very important for me.”

The ability to play less – to trust one another’s pace and instincts and refrain from filling the space with notes – is a trait that can take much work together to cultivate. Drummer Schneider says this is where the trio finds itself now. “We’ve never played so little,” he says. “We play fewer notes, and we leave out more than we used to. That’s a process that has been very important with this band. We’re getting to the essence of the tunes.”

Fort, who came to the United States in 1992 to attend William Paterson University in New Jersey, is one of a number of Israeli jazz musicians on the New York scene. It’s been a good year for this crowd. Trumpeter Avishai Cohen and his sister, clarinetist Anat Cohen, have put out well-received new albums. Another Israeli, bassist Omer Avital, has been prolific since the mid-1990s. The chamber intimacy of Fort’s work and her crossings into the classical and contemporary realms, however, set her a bit apart from her contemporaries.

Meanwhile, she tries as much as she can to contribute to the music scene back in Israel. “I spend as much time as I can there,” she says, working with both jazz and non-jazz musicians. She has played with her trio at the prestigious Tel Aviv opera house, in a collaboration with a local string ensemble.

All that is missing from Fort’s portfolio, it seems, are recordings to document her work in these different settings and to satisfy listening appetites whetted by the newly released album. It’s on the way, she promises: “The next thing I release will be a trio thing. We’ve begun to record some stuff.” But there’s no impatience in her voice. It’s still early in what promises to be, indeed, a long story.