Pianist, composer and educator Noam Lemish and his unbounded music
Noam Lemish has never felt inclined to pick a lane. Maybe his hyphenated identity as an Israeli-American-Canadian has helped inspire his multiplicity and general disinclination to follow stylistic guidelines. Whatever the reason, over the course of two decades of intensive musical study and creation he’s always sought to expand the scope of his exploration, often blurring or ignoring deeply etched boundaries between genres, peoples, and traditions. He’s a jazz artist and a classical composer of chamber works, an improviser and an accompanist, an intrepid cross-cultural investigator and an interpreter of contemporary composition. He contains multitudes.
Based for the past decade in Toronto, where he’s on faculty at York University’s Department of Music as Assistant Professor of Jazz Instruction and Pedagogy, Lemish is best known for leading or co-leading several celebrated ensembles. The critically hailed 2018 album Pardes features the quartet he co-leads with guitarist and oud expert Amos Hoffman, a player on the forefront of the brilliant wave of Israeli musicians who swept over the New York scene in the 1990s. The project documents their singular repertoire, a gorgeous collection of arrangements based on songs that reflect the diverse nature of Israeli society. Some are drawn from liturgical or folk tunes from Middle Eastern and Central Asian Jewish traditions, “for example, centuries-old songs that are common in Yemenite or Moroccan Jewish communities,” Lemish says.
Others are popular songs that have circulated in Israel since the 1950s, what Lemish describes as “an invented folk song tradition that some Israeli jazz artists use as source material like American standards.” They don’t serve as a lingua franca in the same way as say, “Autumn Leaves,” where any jazz musician can call one on the bandstand and expect her peers to know the piece. Rather, “artists will draw on specific songs and arrange them,” Lemish says.
While the quartet with Hoffman draws on the music Lemish heard growing up in Israel, the Israeli-Iranian Musical Initiative is a defiant project that brings together Canadian artists hailing from two nations that have been locked in hostility for decades. Founded by Iranian composer Parisa Sabet and Israeli composer Dan Deutsch, and with Lemish serving as co-artistic director, the ensemble’s sumptuous sound stems from an innovative blend of Western and Persian instruments. Among the music presented by the group was a program featuring songs beloved in Iran written by the Jewish-Iranian composer Morteza Neydavoud, who hails from a community with roots dating back 3,000 years to the Achaemenid Persian empire.
Lemish has also forged a deep creative bond with pianist/composer W.A. Mathieu, with whom he studied formally for nearly a decade. They captured the evolving relationship on the albums The Magic Clavier Book I (2015) and The Magic Clavier Book II (2018), showcasing compositions written by Mathieu especially for Lemish. As an artist whose career encompasses studies with Hindustani vocal guru Pandit Pran Nath and collaborations with Nubian oud maestro Hamza El Din, Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton, Mathieu draws on an unfathomably deep well of experience in his music. Whether playing Mathieu’s solo works or performing with him in a piano duo, Lemish treasures the relationship, which has touched “every aspect of my music, from my harmonic understanding to my composition and improvisation,” he says. “Mentorship isn’t nearly a strong enough word to reflect his influence.”
It’s an apprentice-joining-the-master scenario that has marked Lemish’s entire creative journey. He continues to perform and record with veteran drummer/composer George Marsh, with whom he studied as an undergraduate at Sonoma State University. Their recordings together include 2016’s The Turning with bassist Jim Kerwin, and the duo sessions Nightfall (2013) and Yes And (2008), an impressive debut recording focusing on Lemish’s original compositions. Best known these days as the drummer for the David Grisman Sextet and author of the influential book Inner Drumming, Marsh is an innovative improviser, new music composer and supremely versatile accompanist who has performed with many of the leading artists in jazz, contemporary classical music and rock.
They started playing together after Lemish graduated, “getting together two or three times a week for about two or three years,” Lemish says. “He set the bar for what I imagine collaboration looks like, what listening is like. We played mostly my originals and free improv as a duo.”
The Noam Lemish Quartet has been the primary vehicle for his original music since 2011. He’s also deeply engaged with ambitious, large scale works for 12-piece chamber jazz orchestra and jazz choir. “These are pieces that showcase elaborate, genre-bending, structure stretching compositions,” Lemish says.