Eli Magen is the definitive Renaissance Man. He is also something of a marathon man. He has been front and center in all sorts of sectors of the local music arena for so long, and with great success. Some, such as myself, were first introduced to Magen’s silky artistry in the jazz domain. I first caught his act around 35 years ago, when he performed at a basement joint on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street called Teatron Hamadregot (The Theater of Stairs). He was on stage alongside a number of the forefathers of the Israeli jazz community, such as pianist Danny Gottfried, late flutist-saxophonist Roman Kunsman, and drummer Areleh Kaminsky.
More recently, I saw him perform in the Galilee, in an adjunct slot to the Voice of Music Festival. This was nothing to do with jazz; it was a pop-soft rock show which featured many of the numbers Magen has played and recorded over the past four-plus decades, both as a singer and an electric and acoustic bass player. It was evident from the first bars of the opening number that Magen has taken good care of his vocal chops and, at the age of 68, the man is clearly very much still on top of his game.
He maintains a busy gigging schedule, with his next show scheduled for Saturday evening at the Tmuna Theater in Tel Aviv (9:30 p.m.), where he will be joined by longtime sparring partner, veteran keyboardist and trumpeter Adi Renart, with Yonatan Albalak on electric guitar and Ron Almog on drums.
The show will be based on a two-CD compilation album called Ish HaOlam Habah (Man of the World to Come) which Magen recently released on the NaNa Disc label.
The album incorporates 27 tracks from across Magen’s long and winding career to date, with hits such as “Ha’etz Hoo Gavoha” (The Tree Is High) and “Ad Soff HaKayitz” (By the End of the Summer). There are some synergies with Shalom Hanoch and the second incarnation of the High Windows pop group, with Magen replacing Arik Einstein, alongside original members Shmulik Krauss and American-born singer Josie Katz. There are also some new works in the Magen mix, five to be precise, as well as songs from way back that were not previously proffered to the general public.
Add to Magen’s fruitful pop and jazz endeavors a long stint as a double bass player with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which only ended last year, and you have yourself one well-rounded musician.
“I started on violin at the age of seven,” he recalls. “My parents already noted that I was musically gifted – I’d started singing loudly at the age of two.”
In fact, the fiddling didn’t last long.
“I stopped after about three years,” says Magen. “I didn’t really like the teacher.”
But the youngster’s musical muse could not be kept under wraps for too long.
“I started playing acoustic guitar when I was about 12, I think. I mostly played Israeli songs – the Beatles weren’t around yet.
I basically taught myself. I really wanted just to accompany my own singing. I started that on violin – after I stopped taking lessons. I’d strum it, like a mandolin, and sing,” he laughs.
Magen soon beefed up his Israeli pop-folk act and got a band together.
“When I was in high school I put together a sextet. We’d sing songs and we even performed a bit in public.”
His musical development progressed nicely, and he was accepted for the Nachal army troupe, although his vocal ambitions were largely frustrated.
“I mostly played guitar in the army band,” he says. “They didn’t really let me sing much. Anyway, I know lots of songs, so I could accompany anyone, on anything.”
The rookie soldier had some serious competition for the vocalist slot.
“There were a lot of stars around back then,” Magen continues. “There was Shalom Hanoch, Menachem Silberman, Sassi Keshet, Motti Fleischer and Shula Chen,” he notes, reeling off an impressive list of budding artists who were later to become bright fixtures in the Israeli entertainment firmament.
Despite his lack of formal musical training the youngster had benefited from high quality street-level education, under the aegis of Yisrael “Poli” Poliakov, who was later to become a member of the iconic Hagashash Hachiver comedy trio.
“Poli got me in to all shows of [1960s troupe] Hatarnegolim. That was really something for me back then. That was the best group around for me. That was my ideal.”
The various lineups of Hatarnegolim included the likes of Yehoram Gaon, as well as Poliakov and the other two members of the future Hagashash Hachiver, Shaikeh Levy and Gavri Banai.
After completing his musical army service, Magen teamed up with Hanoch and Silberman in a short-lived threesome, and quickly made significant artistic strides with such envelope-pushing acts as The Cape of Good Hope and Acharit Hayamim.
The latter was, it transpired, a musical bridge too far.
“We rehearsed for about a year [or] yearand- a-half, and we performed for over a year,” Magen recalls, “but it eventually broke up because we couldn’t make any money out of it. People didn’t come to the shows.
Israel was very conservative back then. We wanted to bring the rhythm n’ blues, and soul, here from America. Maybe Acharit Hayamim was too daring for the time.”
Still, Magen and his pals were not looking to become Americanized.
“I think there is something unique about Israeli pop and rock, in that they are strongly connected with poetry,” he muses. “The words are very important. I never felt I could sing in English. That’s not me.”
A few years ago, Magen’s penchant for poetry led to a successful collaboration with 60-year-old poet Miron Izakson, and there are plans for future creative confluences between the two.
Deep Israeli roots notwithstanding, Magen went on an extended Stateside foray, studying and playing classical music and, principally, jazz from the mid-1970s until his return here in 1983. Over the years he has done quality improvisational work with such luminaries of the global jazz community as saxophonists Stan Getz and Dave Liebman, singers Dee Dee Bridgewater and Sheila Jordan, pianist McCoy Tyner and bassist Eddie Gomez. The latter even appears on Magen’s compilation release.
Magen says that the release of Ish HaOlam Habah goes against the grain.
“I’m not really the nostalgic type, I don’t look back much,” he states. “I like to plan for the future. There are always new things coming up, and you never know what might turn up.”
For tickets and more information about the show at Tmuna Theater: (03) 561-1211 and http://www.tmu-na.org.il.