Derek Gray ©Brett Delmage, 2018
Derek Gray's nuanced and precise drumming accented the Hoffman-Lemish Quartet's music ©Brett Delmage, 2018

The Hoffman-Lemish Quartet
Black Squirrel Books
Sunday, June 10, 2018 – 9 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Jazz has a remarkable ability to encompass and absorb music and rhythms from around the world. It started with the blues, spirituals, and ragtime, but over the years it's melded with music from Brazil, from Cuba, and from the Roma. Chamber jazz brought in classical influences; jazz fusion blended in rock music styles; and Broadway shows became a major source of jazz standards.

And one great source has been music from the Middle East and the Jewish diaspora. Dave Brubeck's “Blue Rondo à la Turk” is an obvious example; so are the Benny Goodman big band numbers “And the Angels Sing” and “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön”.

On Sunday evening, Ottawa heard an appealing and well-presented reeinterpretation of this music, as the Hoffman-Lemish Quartet performed at Black Squirrel Books as part of the release tour for their first CD, Pardes.

The quartet is led by pianist Noam Lemish and guitarist/oudist Amos Hoffman. They're both originally from Israel; Lemish now lives in Toronto and Hoffman in South Carolina. Both have been collecting melodies and rhythms from the Jewish communities of central Asia and the Middle East throughout their careers, and they used some of their favourites as the basis for the jazz pieces on this album.

Rounding out the quartet are drummer Derek Gray and bassist Justin Gray, both from Toronto. However, Justin Gray couldn't make this tour, and Toronto multi-instrumentalist Andrew Downing stepped in. He was an inspired choice, since he also plays music inspired by the Ottoman Classical tradition in a collaborative project with Turkish oud player Güç Başar Gülle.

The eight pieces they played had their origins in songs from countries including Turkey, Yemen, Morocco, and Syria, and the Caucasus Mountains. Lemish introduced and explained each piece, including translating some of their titles.

They included a wedding song, a song for the high religious holiday Yom Kippur, and a song for the Sabbath. All had strong melodies and memorable rhythms, and the quartet expanded on these motifs to create jazz pieces which immersed you in a rush of music or wove a stately yet constantly-evolving pattern. The jazz interpretations felt natural and true to the originals while working with this blend of instruments.

I particularly liked Hoffman's exploration of the Turkish Samai style in “Samai”, with resonant and resolute oud rhythms contrasting with Downing's fluid bowed bass; and Lemish's “Aji Tu, Yorma Aji?”, whose romantic piano intro poured out, clear and full, and then was counterpointed by Hoffman's pointillist rhythms on oud and guitar.

This was a strongly interactive performance, with each musician contributing to the interlaced sound: Hoffman with strongly-outlined rhythms ringing out on oud and guitar, Lemish with both flowing romantic piano passages and intense flurries of notes, Downing with thoughtful bowed and pizzicato bass lines. I was particularly impressed with Gray's nuanced drumming, precise and ever-changing and carefully attuned to the space. He even used his wallet to damp one of his drum skins to get exactly the right sound.

Throughout, the audience applauded strongly and warmly. Unfortunately, it was small – completely unlike the quartet's 2016 Ottawa show, where they packed every inch of Black Squirrel Books. I suspect this was because of the time. Late on a beautiful, summer Sunday evening is not a good time to attract Ottawa listeners.

Those who did attend heard talented and inventive musicians present music that was clearly close to their hearts, and easy to enjoy.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Set List

  1. Dalale Dalale
  2. Ets Harimon [The Pomegranate Tree]
  3. Harabi Meir
  4. Samai (Amos Hoffman)
  5. Adon Haslichot
  6. Aji Tu, Yorma Aji?
  7. The Foreigner (Amos Hoffman)
  8. Deror Yikera [Let Freedom Ring]

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