These days it is far easier to say what does not qualify as jazz than to confidently declare that a work is a bona fide example of the genre.
A full 85 years ago, iconic band leader, composer and pianist Duke Ellington introduced the world to the music and the axiomatic concept inherent in “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” But the world of jazz, and the cultural world around, it, has moved on incrementally since then. While Ellington retained an open mind, and got into some pretty avant garde escapades himself later in his career, he would probably have a tough time equating the output of acts like Tatran with the art form he peerlessly championed for over half a century.
The young Israeli trio will play at this year’s Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat (August 27-30). I caught their debut appearance down south, in 2013, and the twentysomething threesome have clearly made strides in the interim.
Their debut album, Shvat, was released in 2014, and last year saw the unveiling of the live sophomore effort Soul Ghosts. Both are eclectic affairs and, as guitarist Tamuz Dekel notes, he and bassist Offir Benjaminov and drummer Dan Mayo are perfectly happy to go with the stylistic flow.
“We just play music,” says Dekel. “We play what we feel.”
That laissez-faire philosophy also comes through in the band’s name.
“I am anosmic,” explains Benjaminov, “although that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with our choice of name.”
The Hebrew word for a person who has no sense of smell is tatran, although spelled with a pair of tavs – the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet – while the trio’s moniker has two tets, the similar-sounding ninth letter of the alphabet, with an aleph betwixt.
“There’s absolutely no logic to our name,” says the bassist. “We later discovered that ‘tatran’ (correctly spelled) is the last word in the Hebrew dictionary,” adds Dekel. “But that’s not really important either.”
What is important is the ebb and flow of the three pals’ music making, and the vibes they put out to the audience, and to each other.
Their free-flowing works put me in mind of Swedish threesome the Esbjörn Svensson Trio, which mixed jazz with high energy rock to great effect, and with great global success, for a decade and a half, until the untimely death of the band leader in a diving accident in 2008.
But, in truth, you could cite numerous influences in Tatran’s works. There are slots of indie rock in there, electronica, ambiance and all manner of sound manipulation in the band’s albums and gigs, as the group has stretched it consumer hinterland and geographic spread. Over the past couple of years Tatran has performed in the United States, Holland, South Africa and Estonia. And there is a European tour planned for November which also takes in an appearance at the Sarajevo Jazz Festival.
Dekel feels the three pals have drawn creatively closer over the five years since they first hit the road together.
“I think, at the beginning, each of us brought something specific. I think I came with sounds and textures. That’s where I automatically go with my music. And I think Offir is more melodic.”
“I think that’s about right,” Benjaminov concurs, adding that each of the band members now embraces the others’ sonic line of thought. “I have learned a lot about textures from Tamuz,” he says.
Mayo wasn’t able to make the meet-up in Tel Aviv last week. He was over at the Rio Olympics, pounding the skins behind stellar Israeli vocalist Ester Rada at a couple of shows laid on for the athletes and games officials.
“Dan has got this amazing sense of rhythm,” says Dekel. “For him, a show may have seemed great, but if he didn’t achieve a certain energy level he will feel something didn’t work. He’s also got this great energy about him. He needs to feel that the energy is right too.”
During their five-years-and-counting journey, the three band members have drawn closer, personally and musically, and have become more – pardon the pun – in tune with each other’s outlook on how to get the band’s message across.
“We learn from each other the whole time,” Dekel continues. “There is more overlapping between how we each take things.”
Dekel began his musical path in 4th grade, thanks to a sort of oxymoronic role model.
“There was this kid at my school, he was a couple of years older than me, who was a real vandal. He was always getting into trouble. But then, suddenly, he took up the guitar and he really changed, so I decided to start on guitar and I went to the same teacher.”
The teacher was flamenco-oriented, and the reformed troublemaker was – naturally – into punk rock. But Dekel was drawn to neither style.
“I was into rock – [Red Hot] Chili Peppers, [Led] Zeppelin, Hendrix, that sort of thing,” he says.
“Yeah, Chili Peppers, I love them too,” Benjaminov chimes in.
Benjaminov’s push towards the world of music making came from unexpected quarters.
“When I was a kid I loved Bruce Willis.
I saw his movie Die Hard 3, and there was really militaristic music, like an army march,” he recalls. “My dad plays guitar and piano and I asked him to show me how to play the tune on the piano. He put stickers on the right keys and, after that, I took piano lessons for three years.”
Benjaminov says he changed piano teachers at a rapid pace and, one day, a schoolmate asked him if he wanted to join a band, and said he’d have to play bass guitar in the band.
“And the rest is history,” says Benjaminov with a smile.
Dekel quickly started testing his writing waters.
“I’d record stuff on primitive computer software, you know with a microphone, and then I’d record another line over that – sort of tracking. It wasn’t really very good,” he laughs. The guitarist subsequently took his art up several notches when he spent a year at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music, while Benjaminov and Mayo got an earlier start to their formal musical education, at the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts.
The bass player says he was wooed by the social advantages offered by the school’s jazz contingent.
“I wanted to hang out with them. I thought they were cool,” he chuckles.
Benjaminov also gained some valuable artistic experience as part of an Israel Air Force band. It was around this time that the three budding musicians got together.
“We’d sort of known each other, or of each other, through mutual friends and people we played with,” explains Benjaminov.
“It was really just a matter of time before we’d get together, and it worked well right from the start.”
That is evident from the band’s albums and live shows, and their audiences clearly get the energy vibe too. Even so, Dekel says the band members get down and dirty regardless of the decibel level of the applause.
“You know, you are really just a conduit for some energy that passes through you and comes out in the music. The clapping and cheering at the end isn’t about how great you are. You practice and work hard on your craft in order to be a pure channel for conveying inspiration and emotion, and to direct things into the collective subconscious.
It’s not really about us.”
The audience at next week’s Red Sea Jazz Festival at the Port of Eilat may beg to differ.For tickets and more information about the Red Sea Jazz Festival: http://redseajazz.co.il.