The Surprise of Jazz from Israel: Assaf Levitin’s The IsREAL Book

An Israeli singer (a cantor as well as a modern musician) based in Berlin has released his first jazz album titled The IsReal Book: The Real Book of Israeli Songs, proving language is no barrier when it comes to a theme, a vibe, a melody and some kick-ass rhythms.

Leader and singer/songwriter Assaf Levitin’s perspective is that while jazz has thrived in Israel for the past several decades, the genre hasn’t been mainstream. The IsReal Book is his first jazz album and has 11 tracks that show imagination, attitude and swing. The lyrics are in Hebrew intermingled with English so the topic or theme of each song is gleaned through context. But taken purely as jazz, the language is universal.

Levitin’s band consists of wonderful artists who can wail away, soothe the soul or inspire one to dance. “I’m Gonna Be a Has-Been” has humor and a great vibe. “The Princess and the Wind” pairs a shimmering, ethereal start with the warm depth of bass clarinet. Watch for the Latin head in “Im Kol Haguf” and the sax that caresses the melody.

Many of the songs clearly show their roots in traditional Israeli music while adding a layer of jazz on top in a way that blends the ancient and the contemporary. The sound of the Hebrew language itself is going to be very novel and unexpected for many listeners, but give it a shot, because the jazz idiom is undeniable.

Why hasn’t jazz been prevalent in Israel?

Jazz has never been mainstream in Israel, particularly not back in the early years when the dominant culture was Eastern European. The drive to establish a new, authentic Israeli culture shunned foreign influences, particularly American ones. Even the Beatles were banned in Israel, to make sure they would not “lead our young people into decadence.”

And yet, jazz has found its way into Israeli music. Even those two icons of Israeli songwriting, Naomi Shemer (Yerushalayim Shel Zahav) and Sasha Argov, drew inspiration from jazz in some of their songs. The generation that followed them, with composers such as Yoni Rechter, Alon Oleartchik and Matti Caspi, found inspiration in jazz as well as in samba, bossa, rumba and world music. Jewish musicians who immigrated to Israel from England and America brought new styles and were warmly welcomed. The famous Israeli curiosity very quickly appropriated these sounds into the country’s own culture.

Israeli jazz musicians have belonged to the elite of this genre for over 20 years. Well-established artists like both Avishai Cohens (the bassist and the trumpet player), Eli Degibri, Omer Avital and many others have long been playing with the biggest names in the field.

When we designed The (Is)Real Book, we deliberately avoided “jazzed up” versions of Israeli folk songs. We have chosen Israeli songs that in themselves have a jazzy element. Most of them are very well known, some have been more moderately successful. We think all of them are great.

What is the jazz scene like in Israel today?

There are wonderful jazz musicians in Israel (I’m not really a part of the jazz community in Israel because I’ve been living in Germany for 25 years now, and this is my first jazz project). Music schools and academies offer the finest education on theory and the history of jazz. Many graduates continue from there to the finest schools, like Berkley and the Manhattan School of Music find their way to the very top of the world-class scene. There’s no lack of talent in Israel.

At what age did you know you were a singer?

It’s funny. When I was about 9 years old, my schoolteacher gave us pieces of paper and asked us to write down what we would like to be when we’re grown-ups. My fantasy was to become a rock-star. I just wrote “singer.” But it took much longer than that. First I took the drums, then saxophone and later the clarinet. I actually started singing in a choir at age 20, while doing my military service, just to remain close to music. It turned out to be the thing I love doing best. 

Talk about the different mindsets to be a cantor vs. a jazz vocalist? Do you combine the two?

I don’t really consider myself a jazz vocalist because I hardly improvise. My inspiration for this jazz project is the legendary album John Coltrane released with Johnny Hartman. The singer just sings the tunes and the jazz is happening around him with the band. 

I think that our project is really a sort of art-song album accompanied by a jazz group. This is the reason why the solos are relatively short and the structure of a song is usually kept: two verses, refrain, solo, last verse, last refrain. 

As a cantor, I do not perform, but rather officiate. This is a different state of mind. The main goal for me is not to have people enjoy themselves or enjoy my singing (although I hope they do!), but to wake their consciousness to the prayer. When I pray Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur evening, I’m not just a singer trying to sing the piece well, but also a Jew praying.

Which artists or genre or period of music do you most like in jazz and why?

My list is quite boring, really. Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Chick Corea, Weather Report, Michael Brecker. I like the intellectual side of jazz, but for me, the jazz I like the best has to have a strong emotional side.  

What was the moment when you realized there was not enough known about jazz in Israel?

I think many Israeli jazz musicians have a certain attitude to the Israeli songbook, and I have a different perspective. Most of the Israeli jazz I’m aware of is based on very well-known old Israeli songs that originally have had nothing to do with jazz.

I tried to find Israeli jazz songs. Some of them are very well known (like Yoni Rechter’s “Ma Ossot Haayalot”). Other songs are less well known (like “Im Kol Haguf”). It was important for me to show this side of Israeli popular music that’s less known to the world: the fact that there are fabulous jazz composers in Israel. 

How did you choose the songs in this album?

I only take what turns me on. Then I tried to put a list together that is versatile. No song should sound like any other song in the album. For this reason, we have both bluesy pieces (“The World is Getting Colder”), swing, cool jazz, Latin, Oriental, etc. I also took some songs that I wrote and composed in a jazzy manner. 

Talk about your bandmates.

I saw Albrecht Gündel-vom Hofe during COVID accompanying a colleague of mine on livestream. I was very impressed by him. I called him and we started meeting every other week, just to go over stuff and get to know each other. This is how the concept came to life. 

Albrecht then had a gig for us and he brought his people: double-bass player Christian Fischer, who makes his living as a machine engineer, and multi-horn player Richard (Richie) Maegraith (who is a pastor).

I love Christian’s sound, which is the most clear and clean sound I’ve ever heard from a double-bass player. 

Richie’s ability to master both the flute, the bass clarinet and the saxophone is stunning. Not only is the fact that he produces great sound on all three instruments worth mentioning, but also the fact that he manages to think totally different phrases for each one of the instruments. It’s like he has three brains – a sax brain, a flute brain and a bass-clarinet brain. For me, it’s like hiring three artists for the price of one.

Albrecht Gündel-vom Hofe is a math professor who just retired now. His love for experimental harmony is part of his mathematical way of thinking. He is very creative and has a unique talent for finding great musicians to play with him. 

For the recording, I insisted on having a drummer on board, and I contacted Peter Kuhnsch, who once played with me on another recording. Peter was a perfect match for the team, and he stayed with the band ever since.

One more person I have to mention is Volker Greve, our sound engineer, who was far more than a technician. His incredible ear and his taste in music made the best possible outcome out of the raw material.

Since most Americans do not know Hebrew, do you find this an obstacle or do you feel that listeners in the US understand by context and by the few English words in your songs?

If you buy the CD, you’ll find all the texts in English, too. I always read the texts in English and German before I sing them. Understanding what the song is about is certainly a very important part of the experience. 

Is “Female Chauvinist Bitch” going to be offensive to people?

I don’t think it’s offensive. It’s a humorous song about the Hebrew language. “She” (“language” in Hebrew is female) is the “Chauvinist Bitch” because she makes us decide about gender all the time. If I say to you in Hebrew: can you pass me the salt, please? The “you” will be different if I talk to a male or a female. Also the “me” depends on my identity – I’m a different “me” as a male than I would be if I’m female. The song is a cry against my mother tongue – which is also my father tongue. 

How do you convey the groove you want to your ensemble?

Normally, I have an idea about what I want. Sometimes, the group has a better idea than mine, and I let them win if I’m convinced. Once we work together, I don’t really see myself as the bandleader. I’m honored to work with four fantastic musicians, and we learn from each other a lot.

For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.

© 2023 Debbie Burke

Klezmer for the Joyful Soul

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