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Israeli musician Guy Mintus brings to Hartford “a whole lot of Gershwin” – and some surprises too

By Stacey Dresner

WEST HARTFORD – Guy Mintus has been described as “a trained concert pianist with the energy of a rock-star and a jazz musician’s sense of adventure, who’s unafraid to throw into the mix his native Middle-Eastern scales and rhythms.” 

Mintus will bring his musical energy to West Hartford when he performs with his group – the Guy Mintus Trio – on Nov. 21 at the Mandell JCC’s Herbert & Evelyn Gilman Theater.

The trio – which includes Omri Hasdani on bass and Yonatan Rosen on drums – will perform numbers from their most recent album, “A Gershwin Playground” – but Mintus said they will throw in some musical surprises as well.

“There’s no telling what is going to happen every time we go on stage, even when we have a repertoire and songs we know we are going to play, it’s still going to be very different every night,” Mintus said. “And that is really a great thing for me.”

“I have always believed in the power of the arts to inspire, uplift and build community, and have so missed that in the Gilman Theater,” says Mandell JCC Executive Director David Jacobs. “This will be the first community performance in the theater since the onset of COVID.  We are requiring everyone who enters the JCC to show proof of vaccination; masks will be required; and we have just installed a brand new HVAC system in theater. We are so thrilled to be opening the doors once again. 

And hearing Mintus’ music live in the Gilman Auditorium will be like a mechayeh — a real jog — after the dearth of live performances during the long pandemic.

“Guy is one of the first Israelis to be touring since the beginning of the pandemic,” says Jacobs. “He is a gifted musician and composer and it’s hard not to be immediately drawn to him. He loves to bring his music to audiences all over the world. You can tell how much he loves George Gershwin as he puts his own signature stamp on each tune.”

Mintus says he gets inspiration from many different music sources: “Classical, Western classical music. There is the spontaneity and the spirit of jazz. There are the colors and flavors from different parts of the world – the Middle East, Spain, South America. There is an energy and emotions and spirit that is hard to explain with words, but hopefully when you hear it, you can feel it,” he says.

Perhaps this rich mélange of music styles comes from his background growing up in Hod Hasharon, Israel. 

“My parents were born in Israel but my grandparents came from three different countries – I have two Iraqi grandmothers, a Moroccan grandfather and a Polish grandfather,” he notes.

Mintus’ love of music began early. He recalls as a child reaching up to tinkle the keys of his grandmother’s piano. 

“It started kind of gradually. I heard a melody on the radio and I wanted to find it on the keyboard. My mother didn’t play, but somehow she helped me figure it out on the keyboard and I played it with one finger.

He says his musical training didn’t start on the “normal classical path.”

“I was just playing around – some Beatles, some Israel pop, and a little bit of Gershwin. After a while they figured maybe I should take lessons,” he says. “I started lessons when I was 10 and I got my first piano for my bar mitzvah.” 

While his parents and grandparents were not musical, he thinks he may have inherited his abilities from his late uncle.

“My uncle, who died unfortunately at 19 in the Yom Kippur War and who I am named after, had perfect pitch and could play pretty much any instrument he could grab. After him no one else in the family is musical or knows how to play an instrument…I never met him but I feel like I meet him through music.”

As a young teen Mintus fell in love with Jazz.

“First I really got into jazz great [Thelonious] Monk and I got know his piece ‘Round Midnight,’” he recalls. “I went to a record store and decided to find all the records that had that song on them, even though I knew nothing about jazz music or about Monk. But I knew the song. And that led me to Miles Davis to Coltrane. So jazz was my gate into pursuing music more seriously. That was around age 13.”

Mintus says he loved the improvisation of performing jazz.

“I loved the spirit to improvise – to really be in the moment,” he explains. “I didn’t know anything about improvising until I heard Monk. I thought you could only play the notes. Then I heard him just trying things and that really raised my curiosity. To create something, sometimes on the spot really excites me until this day.” 

After a while his jazz teacher and mentor, noted musician Amit Golan, told Mintus he didn’t have anything else he could teach him and that he should go study classical music.

“Of course, he had a lot more to teach me, but it was his way to kind of say ‘if you really want to get better you need also to dig deeper into the foundation where piano music comes from.’ That was when I was around 15.”

Mintus went on to study at the Israeli Conservatory, until he served in the IDF. 

“I had special status that’s given to musicians and it allowed me to continue my studies and go on music related trips abroad,” he says. 

Around that time, he became “connected” with the music of the Middle East. 

“It has always been a big part of me and who I am,” he notes. “But I started opening myself to those Middle Eastern expressions and that was a huge thing.” 

When he completed his army service, Mintus moved to New York and received a full scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music. Now based in both Tel Aviv and New York, Mintus has performed in Brazil, India, Bulgaria, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Switzerland, France, Germany and cities throughout the U.S. and Canada. 

The Guy Mintus Trio’s debut record “Giuy Mintus Trio: A Home in Between,” was selected as DownBeat Magazine’s Editor’s Pick and led to performances of the trio at Lincoln Center, Winter JazzFest and the Montreal Jazz Festival. Their second recording, “Connecting the Dots,” features Israeli vocalist Sivan Arbel and jazz saxophone legend Dave Liebman. 

Mintus,a recipient of ASCAP’s Leonard Bernstein Award” and the Bernstein Family Foundation and Prix du Public at the Montreux Jazz Festival’s solo piano competition, has been commissioned to compose works by the American Composers Orchestra, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and the Jerusalem East & West Orchestra. 

In 2018, he performed ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ with the Bayerische Philharmonic, composed music for ‘Fiddler’ the documentary about Fiddler on the Roof by HBO director Max Lewkowicz and premiered his first piano concerto with the Israeli Chamber Orchestra. 

Most recently, he released a musical short film called “Can You Tell the Difference?” shot at various Jewish-Arab primary schools in Israel that support the idea of coexistence.

“I wrote a piece of music called “Our Journey Together” in 2014 during the Gaza War. It was a difficult time and for me [the piece of music] was like a prayer and a way to deal with what was happening,” he says. For the video project, Mintus and his trio played the song for children at three schools in Israel – one Jewish, one Christian, and one Muslim. 

“We played for them and took portraits of them with the camera. And when you look at these 100 portraits of kids in the video you can’t recognize who is Jewish, you really can’t tell the difference. They are all just people.”

Mintus believes it is important to connect to others through his music. 

“I think wherever there is music and people gathered together, there is a sense of peace automatically. Music alone can’t do it alone. I’m not naïve, but I am very aware of the political power of music. It is a strong experience going around the world and performing and meeting with people who are supposed to be your enemies – Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians. But through music, for me, there are no restrictions.”

In between his busy schedule, Mintus was recently married to his wife, Naama – just in time to begin touring live again.

As for his upcoming performance at the Mandell JCC, Mintus says the audience can expect a “whole lot of Gershwin, but there will also be surprises, from Israeli music, to my own originals. And Omri Hasdani on bass and Yonatan Rosen on drums are top-notch musicians.”

In fact, says Mintus, you can even hear some strains of Jewish music in Gershwin’s work.

“For example you look at a piece like ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’ There is nothing particularly Jewish about that, but in the opening with the clarinet [wailing] you can hear some Ashkenazi prayer, you can hear some klezmer,” Mintus says. “In my feeling, you can’t really escape from your background, so it’s in there.”

Main Photo: The Guy Mintus Trio with Guy Mintus, center, Omar Hasani (left)and Yonatan Rosen, right.

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