When pianist Noam Lemish was growing up near Tel Aviv, he became a fan of jazz guitarist and oudist Amos Hoffman, one of a generation of young Israeli jazz musicians who moved to New York City in the 1990s to establish themselves.
“Amos was one of those musicians who I became aware of as a young, aspiring jazz musician myself,” Lemish said. Then, in 1998, when he was 16, Lemish became enthralled when he heard Hoffman playing the oud and guitar on bassist Avishai Cohen’s album Adama.
“I just loved the record and his playing on it, and over the following few years, I continued to get his records and to hear him on Avishai Cohen’s records. Amos’ oud playing is one of the most distinctive things you could hear,” Lemish said in an interview from his home in Toronto.
Some 15 years later, when Lemish was at the University of Toronto, interviewing Israeli jazz musicians for his doctoral dissertation, he decided to contact Hoffman.
Lemish travelled to Hoffman’s home in South Carolina to talk to him and, in 2016, he brought Hoffman to Canada for a tour of Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. “We played our original music – my music, his music – and we really clicked and connected,” Lemish said.
After the tour, they were having breakfast, chatting about what to do next, when they came up with the idea to form a jazz band that would incorporate music from Jewish communities and congregations around the world.
The group, the Amos Hoffman & Noam Lemish Quartet, which also features Andrew Downing on bass and Derek Gray on drums, has been getting rave reviews for its dynamic and engaging performances ever since. On a CD release tour this spring, they’ll be stopping at the Lula Lounge on June 3, as part of Jewish Music Week in Toronto. The group will also perform in Guelph, Ont., Ottawa and Montreal.
The quartet performs jazz arrangements of songs from the Jewish communities of central Asia and the Middle East, and Hoffman also brings North African influences to the table. A recipient of Israel’s Landau Prize for Arts and Sciences for outstanding achievement in the field of jazz, Hoffman is a pioneer in blending jazz with the music of the Middle East and North Africa.
Hoffman, who was raised in Jerusalem, started playing guitar when he was six years old and picked up the oud at 10, when his father brought one home. “It was a really unusual instrument for us,” Hoffman said on the telephone from his home in Columbia, S.C. A pear-shaped string instrument with a short neck, the oud is the central instrument in the Middle Eastern music tradition.
Hoffman began fusing jazz with North African rhythms and melodies in the early 1990s, when, in his 20s, he lived in New York for nine years. “I was playing two different things: I was playing the roots – traditional stuff – and playing jazz. Some people I was playing with, they came to my house for coffee and they said, ‘Let’s bring the oud out to the gig.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s try it,’ and then I kept trying it,” Hoffman said.
The Hoffman-Lemish quartet recorded their debut CD, Pardes, in 2017. “Pardes” in Hebrew means “orchard” and, etymologically rooted in Farsi, it’s the origin of the word “paradise.” A joyful album that will lift your spirits, Pardes includes instrumental versions of Yemenite Jewish liturgical songs, a Kurdish Jewish tune, a track whose melody comes from the Jews of the Caucasus region, a Bukharan Jewish melody and Israeli melodies.