Jazz Pianist Tamir Hendelman on Adapting International Influences

Tamir Hendelman discovered jazz while growing up in Tel Aviv, but after moving to Los Angeles when he was thirteen years old, the pianist, who already had seven years of keyboard studies under his belt, took his musicianship to another level. Hendelman, who performs with his trio at Nocturne on Thursday, October 15, went on to be a longtime member of the Jeff Hamilton Trio and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, and he has worked with Barbra Streisand, James Moody and Natalie Cole and others along the way.

While living in Los Angeles, Hendelman was mentored by Misha Segal and Joe Harnell, both film composers and jazz pianists.

“These people opened me up to their experiences — by exploring writing classical music, inviting me to their film scoring sessions, and listening to great jazz recordings.,” Hendelman says. “As I got a little bit older as a teenager, I started to go out to some of the jazz clubs around South Central L.A., where there were a lot of jam sessions into the night and people like Branford [Marsalis] or whoever would come and sit in. I got to meet with Teddy Edwards, who was part of the old South Central scene.”

Around the same time, he was encouraged to study classical composition at the Tanglewood Institute, where he spent a summer and wrote a piece for a forty-piece orchestra, “but at the same time going to the jazz clubs and getting your butt kicked and hearing these amazing musicians,” he says. “And that feeling of, ‘What do I need to do to get to that level?’”

Hendelman continued to study classical composition at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1993. After moving back to Los Angeles, Hendelman considered film scoring.

“One of my mentors sat me down and suggested that I really think about life as a musician,” he says. “And life as a musician and writing music for film is very different than being a touring jazz musician where you’re presenting your music directly to the audience as opposed to writing for a specific film. So, in a way, even though you’re not writing for a film, you can still have a certain story in your mind that you’re conveying, whether it’s through an arrangement or through a composition.”

Although film scoring might be on the back burner for now, Hendelman is staying busy as a jazz pianist, composer and arranger.

“I look at people like Billy Childs, for example, who’s a great jazz pianist, and they’re writing these very evocative pieces, and they’re just instrumental pieces,” Hendelman says. “And to me, in a way, that invites the audience to create a film, their own story in their mind.”

After graduating from Eastman, Hendelman played around Los Angeles, sitting in on jam sessions, leading trio gigs and working with different vocalists, as well as being part of the jazz faculty at UCLA. Around that time, he started delving into the Great American Songbook, which includes some of the most important jazz standards and popular songs written in the twentieth century, and the more he got into it, he discovered what a perfect marriage of lyrics and music there was in the songs.

“And one of the interesting things for me was I started playing in this particular venue, and it was duos with various vocalists,” Hendelman says. “And every week I would play with different vocalists and they would bring in their book of 300 tunes, and I would be playing some songs that I’ve played with a bunch of vocalists, but it would be a totally different take on it. They would bring their own experience. They would bring their own style to it, and I was kind of blown away by that.

“It made me want to learn more of these tunes and get more in depth into it, listen to different renditions. And so that’s also been another source of inspiration. And for me also as an arranger, for my own trio or when I’m playing with Jeff Hamilton’s trio, is how we take a song, listen to few different versions of it and then dig a little deeper to try and find something personal that you can say with that song.”

Hendelman has plenty to say musically on his most recent album, Destinations, which includes brilliant takes on tunes by Keith Jarrett, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Charlie Parker and Maurice Ravel. Hendelman says the album was inspired by his journeys around the globe as a jazz musician.

“Coming from Israel and coming to the U.S., there’s already that mixture of culture, and getting into jazz is an international thing. And then everywhere you go, you get to interact with the people there and get a feel for the place. I’ve always loved Brazilian music and various kinds of classical music – impressionistic music from France – and folk music from different places. And all these things, they kind of become this gumbo that you can draw from.” 
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon