Israeli jazz pianist Tom Oren last week won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in Washington, D.C., the most prestigious prize for emerging jazz talent in the world.
“I didn’t really understand how big a thing this is until after winning, and just as well,” says Oren, the first Israeli ever to win the prize. “If I’d grasped it earlier I might have been stressed.”
“A moment before I started playing, I heard somebody cough,” says Oren. “I was supposed to start the piece alone, and this opening is critical – it brings in the other players, it sets everything. And at that dramatic second suddenly someone coughed. I don’t know if it was one of the musicians or someone in the audience. As far as I’m concerned it was a wonderful thing. Instinctively I played something like that cough. I sort of imitated it. It was funny. It was fun, and after that nothing mattered anymore. I just played.”
Oren, 24, performed a rendition of Cole Porter’s “Just One of those Things” and “Just as Though You Were Here,” a song recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1942.
“It’s an insane achievement,” says saxophonist Eli Degibri, who once took part in the competition, known as jazz’s most influential showcase for emerging talent, and didn’t past the semi-final stage. The biggest achievement by an Israeli musician in the Thelonious Monk Competition before Oren’s triumph was trumpeter Avishai Cohen’s coming in third in 1997.
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Some of the greatest jazz stars of our time – saxophonist Joshua Redman, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, singer Cecile McLorin Salvant, pianist Tigran Hamasyan – came first in the competition in the past. The judges who gave Oren first prize – worth $25,000 and a recording contract with Concord – included some of the world’s best jazz pianists, such as Monk Institute chairman Herbie Hancock, Danilo Perez, Joanne Brackeen, Cyrus Chestnut, Monty Alexander, pianist Renee Rosnes and Jason Moran.
“When he first started his intro on his first tune, you could hear that he was actually going to try something new but wasn’t sure if it was going to work out. But his ideas seemed to keep working out,” Moran told Downbeat magazine.
“You could hear him on the edge. He just kept taking these unexpected turns. At some point, I just closed my book and said, ‘Here’s a kid who is really trying to reach within the music right now,’” he said.
Oren was born in Tel Aviv and started playing jazz at 11. He graduated from Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Givatayim, Arison Campus of the Arts in Tel Aviv and the Israeli Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv. His first jazz piano teacher was Amit Golan, one of the most important jazz instructors in Israel, who died in 2010 at 46.
“I learned the second piece I played in the competition, “Just As Though You Were Here,” from Amit,” says Oren. “And I used all kinds of things he taught me. Later I found that the competition date, December 3, was the date Amit died.”
After high school Oren studied at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music. Rimon president Yehuda Eder says that when the president of Berklee College of Music, Roger Brown, visited Thelma Yellin in 2012, he was excited to hear Oren play and invited him to Berklee any time he wanted. A year and a half ago Oren went to Berklee with a four-year scholarship.
About two years ago, before going to Boston, Oren joined the Eli Degibri Quartet. “I was auditioning pianists at home and the moment Tom started playing it was clear he was the one. He’s a musician who’s all soul. When he plays there’s a feeling that the sounds bursting from the piano are attached to a parachute that leaves them in the room and in your soul a long time until they fall to the ground,” he says.
Oren didn’t want to enter the Monk competition. “The thought of winning seemed totally imaginary,” he says. But his mother, musician Dorli Oren-Hazon and his teacher Gilad Ronen persuaded him to enter. Thirteen out of numerous pianists were chosen for the semi-final (the judges didn’t know the musicians whose recordings they heard).