Professional at Being You
The entry Assif Tsahar in Wikipideia describes an Israeli tenor sax and bass clarinet player. Although no genre is quoted, his collaborations disclose a noteworthy link to free jazz and improv. They also bare a hint to possible noteworthy skill. However, amongst his many hats, Tsahar is mainly known as the co-owner with Daniel Sarid at Levontin 7 – now in it’s 10th year as a mythical meeting place for indie cultures in Tel Aviv.
Childhood friends and collaborators, Tsahar and Sarid left Israel for NY, and specifically for jazz studies at The New School. Tsahar was already embedded in free/improv practice and did not find his place in the standard jazz studies. So he continued a bug started with the late Arie Shapira and his theory studio in Israel, and enrolled into Mannes for classical theory; all along making ties within the local improv scene: “I learned through colleagues and my involvement in the scene. It seemed odd to study in a school a practice in which one was required to have a personal expression. And teachers – they have their own egos, and want to take you their direction. That’s why I loved theory – it was a distanced practice, ideal as it were.”
Assif Tsahar took up a guitar at 13, and immediately he recognized it as a potent tool for self-expression. His teacher at the time was into jazz, so that’s what he studied… but it also got him hooked! At a later age, with his trio, Tsahar actively tried to veer away from standard jazz forms. By this time he had already realised a duality: “People say: ‘you have to know this, you have to know that’. It creates a struggle between external and internal forces. Today I realise that this sort of struggle aids creativity; one can’t afford to fall in love with ideas, as they tend to change.” True to this experimental mark, Tsahar felt no need to commit music to paper when it came to small formations. He immersed himself within the NY improv scene and was taken by its inclusive approach: great jazz heads playing with novice musicians in an act of mutual learning and abundant freedom. However, Tsahar is a professional improviser and quite particular in his tastes: “Total freedom doesn’t feel like my aesthetic; it’s simply not fulfilling for me. I find something must control ego, and for me – that’s listening. I enjoy crossing boundaries but it isn’t my journey – I need a music that perpetually pushes forward with a momentum.“
Returning to Israel, Tsahar rejoins the small but vibrant improv scene championed by Harold Rubin, and Sarid, who had already returned a few years earlier. Sarid was manager at the mythical Gada Ha’Smalit, and it wasn’t before long the idea of opening their own place came up: “The Gada presented an alternative – it was the closest we ever came to an improvisers collective in Israel – and it was with this spirit in mind that we opened the Levontin.” Taking a step back from his own career as player, Tsahar dedicated his time solely to the new venue, and his sacred practice hours (“I would go mad if I didn’t play”). Needing an expressive outlet, Tsahar returned to his Shapira and Mannes days, and took up writing. He enters the Master program in composition at the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem and discovers what he describes as: “the meditation of composing… “When you write, the art is different – it’s not real time on paper… a different kind of expression.”… “You also need to convey it to the player. True, playing is my practice, but it’s a meditation for me, so to speak. How do I relate my compositional ideas to non-improvisers? For instance, I took my own improv set dedicated to the late Arie Sapira, and transcribed it for oboe. Now you must go into dialogue with the player via his or her instrument. And you are going to commit – a written piece is not meant for change!”
So enamoured is Tsahar these days with the art of composing, he is even contemplating a PhD in the field and its research. Unsurprisingly, the focus is on ‘the independent player’, or ‘the communication with a player via the written score’: “Free improvisers have alternative technical abilities, usually unique. Classical practice begs to obliterate the individual. Avant Garde is the same bullshit – at the end of the day it’s a human thing that cannot be escaped. But I want the unique player, and this requires of them a process that would have enabled them to create their own world – ‘professional at being you’. The difference in attitude is between: ‘where does this take me?’ vs. ‘I want to go there!’ Tsahar lauds Bach’s approach towards technical detail or expression. In his strictly hand-written scores he leaves much room for interpretation, or in comparison to standard contemporary writing – doubt. His process is that of inviting the player into a dialogue, and about accepting their differences in approach towards the score: “This immediately is an invitation for them to play it differently every time. I’ve created a conflict in the score – this prompts a different approach from the player. I want the player that is like a kid who sits at the piano for the first time. Then, years of bombardment later – that kid, that place, is still there. The performer and I should both relate to the piece through the instrument – using it externally to our inner meditation of playing it. I believe in the energy of playing – this is the source for composition. But you must let the instrument lead.”
In immediate relation to his playing, Tsahar has always supported “open ends” in his improv style, as well as an instrumentalist. Relating to past artists such as Coltrane and Stravinsky, he welcomes change and its inherent writing off of the past: “Even with Coltrane, people had to accept that ‘this is what I sound like now’.” Tsahar’s current practice as improviser acts more as a meditation for him: “It’s improv, but these days I’d be working mainly on a particular technique, sound or phrase. As preparation for stage performances, I meditate. The shape they will take is a gestalt of everything we, the performers, are. And then there’s fumbling… like with William Parker… it’s like a circus in many ways – you’re both trained, and taking risks. But it all happens within clear bounds. No doubt, though, composition has promoted brevity in my playing: Today I explore similar ideas and don’t stray as much. Even if I heard an old recording of mine and liked it, I couldn’t play like that anymore. Playing in meditation, for me, is like: listen… loosen up… take control… trip yourself… listen… loosen up… take control… trip yourself, etc. With my writing, I will always attempt to promote the player’s own tripping into the notes on the score. Listening.”
When musing together on why one is the way Assif is, and why more people than ever find this way of expression favourable, Tsahar adds these thoughts: “… looking at free jazz – Coltrane went to church! It was a period of personal boundary crossing and shedding based on a higher political ideology championing freedom. This is the ideology, in jazz, that prompted freedom, and it’s this spirit that an African-American community brought to Europe. It’s important to say this. But looking at the world in a similar way today would simply be odd. Today’s journey is a personal one – of suggesting alternative realities and seeing how they resonate within your surroundings. The sociological system today is so crazy – we have no illusions like they did in the 60s, so even to simply watch and react in your own way is interesting.”