Much like Americans of means, who seek refuge from the ravages of winter in, say, New York or Chicago with a spell in the Florida sun, at this time of the year some of us get down to Eilat – not that our winter can compete with the weather at this time of the year in the Big Apple or the Windy City. Tal Gamlieli, on the other hand, is currently basking in 35 degrees of heat with, mind you, in excess of 90 percent humidity.
The Jerusalemite double bass player is on the roster of performers at this year’s Panama Jazz Festival which runs in Panama City until January 16. The program features a galaxy of stars from across the international jazz spectrum, with 89-year-old pianist Randy Weston the brightest and most venerable of them all. He is joined this week by the likes of high-energy saxophonist David Murray, ever-adventurous pianist Geri Allen, trumpeter Dave Douglas and Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez. The latter is the internationally renowned Grammy Award nominee who founded the festival in 2003 and who does much sterling work as an educator and social activist. The festival was inspired by Perez’s father’s efforts, in the mid-Sixties, to use music as a means of helping youngsters with behavioral problems.
Gamlieli, who is in Panama with his current trio of keyboardist Chai Bar David and drummer Amir Bar Akiva, has chalked up some history with the festival founder.
“I saw Danilo for the first time in Israel in 2005 and, as soon as I saw him perform with his trio, I knew I had to get to him, to study with him,” he says. “I asked him where he teaches and he said NEC [New England Conservatory of Music in Boston], so I thought I have to go to NEC.”
It entailed some challenging logistics but the Jerusalemite eventually made it over to Beantown.
Once ensconced at the century-and-ahalf- old music school Gamlieli also had to find his way into one of Perez’s classes.
“It wasn’t easy,” says the bass player.
“He was probably the most in-demand jazz teacher there. He ran workshops for a large ensemble and also for a trio.”
Gamlieli persevered and got into the trio class.
“It was an amazing experience. Danilo taught a lot of African and Caribbean rhythms, and there was a lot of dancing and a lot of oral skills. Danilo incorporates a lot of listening skills, developing the ear and developing the body as an instrument.”
The latter approach wasn’t foreign to Gamlieli as he had previously been through the highly capable tutoring hands of late American saxophonist and educator extraordinaire Arnie Lawrence, who revolutionized the jazz scene here after making aliya in 1999.
“That was a direction to which Arnie channeled me, and everyone who learned with him here,” says the bassist. “Arnie always said that every good musician has to be a good dancer too. That’s a holistic approach. Jazz, and music in general, is a holistic profession. It makes perfect sense.
That’s how I teach too.”
In addition to gracing the stages of jazz venues up and down the country, and at festivals around the world, Gamlieli is also continuing Lawrence’s educational ethos here as a teacher at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance.
“You know, you have to take risks with art,” Gamlieli muses. “You can be the most gifted musician in the world but, if you are not going to go for it, to go out on a limb, you are wasting your time. I said that to a couple of my students just the other day.”
Although he earns much of his crust at an educational institution Gamlieli says the real place to learn your craft is out there in the university of the streets. His current sojourn in Central America is his second, having been a member of an NEC ensemble that was invited to perform at the Panama Jazz Festival in 2007. Naturally, as Perez’s student, he had some idea of what he was heading for. Even so, Gamlieli says there is nothing like the real thing.
“One of the things this festival talks about is the bond with the community – giving the music back to the people.
They bring indigenous people, from the jungles, to teach them music and they even have to give them some of them clothes. Danilo is very connected with the traditions and the cultural heritage of Panama. The music and the tradition are interconnected.”
Gamlieli also bonds natural with Latin music.
“I am very strongly influenced by Latin music, and there is a lot of that in my own music,” he notes. “Arnie noticed that and he encouraged me to develop that side of my playing. He loved Latin music. I remember him telling me about a club in New York which they got to by climbing something like 50 floors, and he said the atmosphere there was fantastic, with great music and the most beautiful women and the best looking men, and the best dressed people around,” Gamlieli chuckles. “Arnie could really tell a story.”
Latin music, says the bassist, is a natural fit for most Israeli jazz players.
“There is a lot of groove in that, and the Yemenites and the Kurds brought a lot of groove to Israel, as did the North African Jews. People sometimes ask me how I connect with jazz and, if you think about it, there is no more natural place in the world for jazz than Israel. This country is a crazy cultural melting pot. There are influences here of Arabic music, African music, European music and music from all over the world. The interface of different kinds of music generates electricity, and high energy, and you end up with great music.”
In addition to a couple of gigs, Gamlieli and his cohorts are being kept busy in Panama City this week moderating workshops on improvisation and the bass, while Bar David and Bar Akiva will present master classes on their own instruments.
“Music is about giving,” says Gamlieli.
“It is wonderful to give something back.”