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Considering this is the 20th anniversary of the Red Sea Jazz Festival, a celebratory anniversary ambience was expected at Eilat Port between August 27 and 30, as thousands of music fans - as is the case every year - flock to catch class jazz and world music sounds from around the globe. However, the hostilities up north have made serious inroads on the program. Bands have canceled, the four-dayer has been reduced by one, and this year's festival now starts on August 28.
In fact, the festival might not have happened at all this year.
"Had the war continued, I don't think we would have gone ahead with it," says perennial artistic director Danny Gottfried, who has been at the helm since the event's inception in 1987. "It wasn't even a matter of which artists decided not to come. It was more a question of whether it was the right thing to do, to hold a jazz festival in the middle of a war," he adds somberly. "After all, it's only a jazz festival, not a matter of life or death."
That's a remarkably pragmatic viewpoint for a man who, more than anyone, is identified with the country's premier jazz event. But Gottfried remains upbeat, despite the festival shrinkage and criticism leveled at him from certain quarters of the jazz community, including charges of nepotism. The latter refers to the fact that Gottfried's older son, conductor-pianist Yaron, played at the festival a few years ago, and his younger son, pianist Aviram, heads a quartet at this year's event.
"I've become used to the flak over the years," Gottfried states simply. "I don't take any of it personally, and just try and do the best job I can with the festival. Anyway, I don't have much to do with choosing the Israeli artists who play at the festival. There are two other people on the artistic committee who make most of those decisions. Besides, Aviram tried to get into the festival several times but was rejected until now."
Despite the reduced festival agenda, there is still a handful of acts that warrant making the trek south. Firebrand Cuban-born pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba - who last graced the Red Sea stage in 2003 - will be there with a trio, as will the eight-piece New Orleans Ambassadors and the Rick Margitza-Franck Amsallem Quartet.
Another returning act from abroad is the Mingus Dynasty combo, which last performed in Eilat in 1993. The ensemble is, in fact, one of three groups named after jazz icon, double bass player Charles Mingus who died in 1979, and strive to perpetuate and renew the late master's work.
Mingus was one of the most colorful characters in the jazz world. His works reflect his fiery temperament but also the torrent of creative ideas that he tried to express through his music.
"That's why I like to focus on some of the things he wrote in the Seventies," says Mingus Dynasty double bass player and arranger Boris Kozlov. "Some of them are often overlooked, but I think he knew he didn't have much time left to live then. That's probably why he tried to cram so much into, say, a 40-bar piece. I can take something like that and turn it into a whole, larger, work. Charles took an idea and compressed it, just like you can compress a file on a computer. I find that fascinating."
Kozlov also points to Mingus's across-the-board appeal.
"We've played in Malaysia, to audiences that know nothing about Mingus and his work, but they dig it all the same. That applies to me, too. I was born in the Soviet Union and I knew nothing about Mingus when I was a kid, but look at me now."
In fact, Kozlov was inspired to delve into Mingus's works by chance. "I was busking on the street in New York soon after I got there - I had to make a living somehow - playing a guitar, and I got talking with someone who passed by and he said, 'If you play bass, you must listen to Mingus.' That was it for me."
But, considering Kozlov's obvious admiration for the late legend, isn't it somewhat presumptuous to take Mingus's compositions and try to reshape them?
"We don't try to emulate Charles's work - he would have hated that and probably would come and persecute us from wherever he is now," says Kozlov. "Some of his stuff was a bit sketchy, possibly because of lack of time, or maybe he didn't have enough money to pay for more studio time. Some critics have even said that we have taken some of his charts and taken them to a higher level. That's a great compliment."
However, even with the likes of the Mingus Dynasty ensemble, the forthcoming Eilat jazz program isn't quite what Gottfried had hoped for before things turned nasty up north.
"Of course, it is disappointing to have to cut back on the program - particularly because of the 20-year landmark; but I think we've still put together a good festival, and I hope people come to hear what we have to offer."
Besides the foreign jazz acts, there are several world music shows, including a 10-piece ensemble led by Guinean vocalist-guitarist-kora (African harp) player Mory Kante, powerful and highly theatrical South African singer-dancer Suthukazi Arozi, and the Latin Groove Orquestra which combines strong jazz themes with sultry Latin grooves. There will also be a sizable contingent of 10 local bands, including the likes of pop-jazz singer Gidi Gov and his Moon Dream band; guitarist Kobi Shefi's Common Band troupe that will offer a rich mix of jazz, blues, rock and a variety of ethnic strains; and Eliran Levy's "I Wonder" tribute to Stevie Wonder's musical output.
For more information, visit www.redseajazzeilat.com