Pacific Jazz Ambassador wins top prize for undergraduates

Tal Kalman

Tal Kalman '22, tenor saxophonist for the elite Pacific Jazz Ambassadors, has been named by Downbeat magazine as the jazz soloist of the year

In many ways, Tal Kalman ’22 is helping to bridge cultural gaps between Tel Aviv, Israel, Stockton and New Orleans, where jazz originated.

And he’s doing it with a bit of flare.

Kalman, tenor saxophonist for the elite Pacific Jazz Ambassadors, has been named by Downbeat magazine as the jazz soloist of the year in its Undergraduate College Outstanding Performance category. The Downbeat awards will be published worldwide in its June edition.

“It is quite a big honor for me,” Kalman said from his Tel Aviv-area home where he returned as the COVID-19 pandemic caused Pacific to transition to remote learning. “Downbeat magazine is the biggest and most valued resource for jazz musicians for decades now. I’m grateful for every award and recognition, although this one opens a new territory for me. This magazine is being published worldwide. I feel proud to be listed there among so many great musicians I admire and even more proud to represent my country at the same time.”

Kalman’s soloist recognition came from playing tenor saxophone with a trio during a performance in Tel Aviv. He also won a Downbeat award for a big band arrangement of a George Gershwin song, “I Loves You Porgy.”

He met Patrick Langham, director of Pacific’s jazz studies program, during a Jazz Education Network conference in Dallas, Texas, while there with his high school band. The high school’s director, Yossi Regev, wanted Langham to hear Kalman play.

“After watching the groups’ performance, I immediately knew that this young man was special,” said Langham, himself a saxophonist. “We chatted after his performance and I was impressed with his maturity and desire to learn.”

Langham wanted him for the intensive three-year Pacific Jazz Ambassadors program, but it took about two years for Kalman to finish high school and earn a deferment for his compulsory military service in order to study abroad. It was in 2019 that he joined fellow Pacific Jazz Ambassadors Kate Williams (trumpet), Nico Martinez (bass), Austin Kim (drums) and Toby Keys (piano).

“I chose this program and I would definitely choose it again,” Kalman said. “It is a rare opportunity you can never experience anywhere else. … I’m glad I found my place and glad to call Pacific my home.”

Part of that comfort for Kalman is the manner in which the jazz studies program allows him to grow as a musician and person.

“Pacific, unlike any other place I know of, allows me to focus and do my music as I want to, while keeping me away from distractions,” he said. “I get so much out of the guest artists and performers who regularly visit our program, and still find myself practicing in the middle of the night. This is so unique to this place. I would say the skills I’m getting from Pacific involve independence, maturity, self-motivation and anything related to what being a professional musician and composer is.”

Langham agrees that Kalman is absorbing what he needs to learn.

“Tal is an extremely focused musician who loves jazz and is committed to learning all music deeply while also performing at the highest levels,” Langham said. “As a student, he is a joy to work with. Curious, challenging, gifted, team player, hard-working and hungry for information. His star truly shines brightly.”

He is also learning to play with the other ambassadors.

“I like creating moments with the people I play with and the audience who listens,” he said. “I like the delivery of a statement, an idea or an emotion through music and to perceive those of others. … I love that the music is already so locked together and it just doesn’t stop growing between us. I really enjoyed the momentum we had on our trip to New York just before the whole coronavirus thing started. I always think about how amazing the music would be without this pandemic.”

Even with the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the ambassadors got together electronically to perform “Quarantine Project 1” written by Martinez.

After graduating from Pacific, Kalman will finish off more than two and a half years of military service for Israel and likely attend a graduate program in the United States with the ultimate goal of being a working musician and composer in New York City.