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This year's Tel Aviv Jazz Festival (February 15-18 at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque) is one of the hardest to call in the event's 17-year history. Little of the mundane appears on the four-day program, which, considering artistic director Nitzan Kramer's track record in recent years, is not exactly surprising. Several years ago, when Kramer took over the Hot Jazz series at the Tel Aviv Museum, he unleashed a program of largely avant garde-oriented improvisational music on an unsuspecting public. Happily, the audiences responded well and the series seemed to mark something of a coming of age for Israeli jazz fans.
While the main foreign attraction at this year's Tel Aviv jazz bash is septuagenarian mainstream bebop saxophonist Phil Woods (Wednesday, 8:30 p.m.), whose quartet includes Italian pianist Tony Pancella - one of the mainstays of Kramer's first Hot Jazz run - there are plenty of concerts that veer far more to the wild and woolly end of the jazz domain. One of the most exciting prospects in next week's program is Austrian composer-trumpeter Franz Koglmann's Thursday evening gig (11 p.m.), enticingly entitled When Bacharach Met The Old Artist. The Bacharach in question is, of course, Burt Bacharach, composer of countless pop soundtracks and hit songs in the Sixties and Seventies for the likes of Aretha Franklin, Tom Jones, the Carpenters and Dionne Warwick.
Considering Koglmann is one of Europe's leading proponents of the so-called Third Stream genre - a sort of blend between contemporary classical music and jazz and free improvisation - one would have thought that Bacharach and his ilk might be anathema to Koglmann's far more exploratory artistic ethos. Koglmann explains that Bacharach is not just a highly successful producer of polished kitsch. "When I was a student I played a lot of Bacharach tunes in barrooms and nightclubs," the Viennese composer recalls. "Like any other student I had to eat." But it was not just a matter of fiscal survival that drew Koglmann to Bacharach. "Yes, his music is considered sort of easy listening, but I think he has some fine tunes too."
The Austrian's forthcoming show in Tel Aviv is based on a CD of Bacharach music - albeit significantly stylistically refashioned - that Koglmann put out in 2004, called Bridal Suite. "Bacharach's music came back to me because the editor of a newspaper in Vienna, who happens to be a friend of mine, asked me to make a small Bacharach CD, with about twenty minutes of music, for a friend of his who was getting married. That's where the title for the album came from." The editor also happened to have a friend with a record distribution company and the latter asked Koglmann if he could make the short disc into a full album.
"Some people may be surprised that I have done something with Bacharach songs," Koglmann admits. "On the one hand it is kitsch but I also think his songs are full of a bittersweet melancholy and an elegant in-between sound. I think the melodies and harmonies are very self-willed and sometimes he moves right out of standard popular music. For instance, his changes of measure, and weight, are very unusual for popular music. I think we have to remember he studied with [twentieth century jazz-influenced classical composer] Darius Milhaud. So I think you could say Bacharach is - or, maybe, was - a great composer in a specific era of popular music."
While some may consider any music with a contemporary classical content with a large dose of suspicion, Koglmann promises to entertain his Tel Aviv audience. Besides having a particularly sunny disposition, both as a person and a composer, Koglmann says he and his colleagues - pianist Oskar Aichinger and drummer Wolfgang Riesinger - plan on having a good time. "We [Aichinger and Koglmann] had a lot of fun making the record, and I think it'll be fun in Israel too."
Elsewhere in the festival program there is plenty more variety, with a considerable local contingent - an indication of the incremental growth the jazz genre has enjoyed here in recent years, both in quantitative and qualitative terms. One of the most enticing acts is the Jazz Pass 4 quartet (Wednesday 11 p.m.) featuring Israeli 19-year-old Berklee School of Music student trumpeter Niv Toar along with guitarist Amos Hoffman, double bass player Gilad Abro and drummer Shay Zelman. While Toar is wowing audiences around and outside the USA in between attending classes in Boston, Hoffman, Abro and Shay Zelman have become mainstays of the local jazz scene. The foursome is currently working on a new recording.
Over the last couple of years twentysomething Abro has become one of the busiest musicians on the local jazz scene, joining forces with celebrated visiting artists as well as being a constant in all manner of Israeli combos. Judging by next week's Cinematheque agenda he's got his work cut out for him there too. Besides the Jazz Pass 4 gig Abro will pluck his bass strings alongside soprano saxophonist Yuval Cohen - older brother of internationally acclaimed trumpeter Avishai and saxophonist Anat Cohen - guitarist Ofer Ganor and drummer Shay Haziza in the Esthetics quartet on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. Then there's the Jazz Voice concert fronted by erstwhile rocker Mazi Cohen with Abro, guitarist Meir Ben Michael and drummer Yonatan Rozen (Friday 9 p.m.) and the Woman Up Front show, with USA-born pianist Judy Lewis leading Abro and saxophonist Tal Gur, with Zelman once again behind the drumset.
One of the more intriguing local-foreign synergies this year is the encounter between Israeli free jazz star Albert Beger and Italian percussionist Roberto Dani (Wednesday 11 p.m.), who recently joined forces on a tour of Italy. Other notables from abroad include Australian pianist John Bostock, a graduate of the Tel Aviv Music Conservatory, who will play selections from his Journey to Gynthia CD along with double bass player Ora Boasson-Horev and drummer Danny Benedikt (Friday 9 p.m.), and an Italian trio led by pianist Luigi Martinale which will perform a tribute to legendary pianist Bill Evans on Thursday at 8:30 p.m., and material from the trio's own album, Simple Memory, on Thursday at 10:30 p.m. Add to all the above the intriguing (11 p.m.) Thursday pairing of guitarist Ofer Ganor and super-talented young Jerusalemite pianist Omri Mor and you have a festival which looks simply finger-licking good.
For more information visit: www.jazzfest.co.il