Jazz on the edge

Mitzpe Ramon provides the perfect backdrop for Ehud Ettun’s expansive music.

August 17, 2019 19:42
Jazz on the edge

EHUD ETTUN: ‘Our festival at Mitzpe is small and intimate, a place where artists come to enjoy a special musical experience'. (photo credit: JACEK LALAK)

When one thinks of the great hubs of jazz, where the improvisational entertainment scene is really jumping, the names of such metropolises as New York, Berlin, Paris and London readily spring to mind. Then again you can find jazz festivals, with intriguing cross-disciplinary international lineups, all over the globe, some in the most unlikely of places of which the ordinary Joe on the jazz street may never have heard.

For most, Mitzpe Ramon would probably answer to the off-the-beaten-track description. The Negev town, perched on the edge of the world’s largest erosion crater, is a special place. It exudes an atmosphere of being not only on the precipice of the vast geological depression that stretches to the South, but also has a pervading sense of freedom about it, of being so far away from “civilization” that anything is possible. That vibe over the years has attracted all kinds of artistic ventures across numerous disciplines that have established a base at Mitzpe Ramon – aka simply Mitzpe – that not only take advantage of the lower overheads and clean desert air; there is also an energy to the place that attracts a motley range of people of a creative bent looking to let it all hang out and go with the artistic flow.

Ehud Ettun is one of that ilk. The 31-year-old Jerusalem-born jazz bass player resided in Boston together with his wife for some time. But when he eventually returned to these shores, it was the South that drew on his heartstrings, rather than the capital city of his birth.

Three years on, Ettun is giving his all to keep the embers of envelope pushing endeavor burning brightly in Mitzpe on several fronts, all of a jazzy nature. To that end he established the Internal Compass Summer Jazz Festival in his adopted town, which this year runs from August 18-24. The bassist has lined up an international roster of artists for the week-long program, including musicians from the United States, Italy, Peru, Serbia, Poland and Japan, in addition to a bunch of leading artists from this part of the world.

Ettun says the festival is a reflection of his ongoing endeavors down South. “The festival is a celebration of our work. During the course of the days [of the festival] there will also be a seminar for musicians from all over the world, and in the evenings there will be concerts and jam sessions at the jazz club.” The venue in question has been around for 12 years under the steady guiding hand of Gadi Leibrock, who forsook the trendy trappings of Tel Aviv’s Sheinkin Street for the wide open spaces of the Negev. Over the years the club has attracted big stars from across the international jazz and rock firmament, and provides a home base for all kinds of local musical projects.

It has also been incorporated into Ettun’s burgeoning artistic and educational work at Mitzpe, which takes in cultural studies, music entrepreneurship and community work, and instruction in a range of core elements of musicianship, such as ear training, harmony and music theory, as well as ensemble work.

The bass player-educator says the festival focus is very much on working together for the common creative and spiritual good, and subsequently spreading the word further afield. “Our festival at Mitzpe is small and intimate, and it is a place where the artists spend the entire week and where they come to enjoy a special musical experience. You can’t see the shows anywhere else because the mix of musicians has never happened anywhere else.”

ETTUN HOPES the event will have an enduring ripple effect. “The fact that there is a seminar too makes this week into a kind of conference to which musicians from all over the country and the world come. A lot of musicians meet through the jam sessions, and this generates musical fusions and partnerships which I hope will produce the great albums of the 21st century.”

No doubt the interface of artists from here and around the globe will help to push the creative envelope, with Ettun bringing an intriguing spread of jazz adventurers from different cultures and approaches.

The “intimacy” Ettun notes also comes across in the artistic director’s choice of festival guests, which include American pianist and educator Bert Seager, with whom Ettun has played and recorded. US-based Italian singer Sissy Castrogiovanni and Serbian flutist Milena Jancuric will bring more than a whiff of European endeavor to the festival proceedings, with Peruvian-born Boston-based drummer Jorge Perez-Albela and Polish cellist Julia Bilat also on the Mitzpe roster.

Ettun explains that the program blend is very much a matter of personal as well as musical chemistry. “As a bassist and band leader, I travel around the world quite a lot, and I get to festivals and showcases. As an artist, I meet other musicians and we talk about music and life. I met some of the musicians who will play at the festival at festivals around the world, and some I met in Boston and New York when I lived there. I know all the musicians who are coming this year personally, and I know they are not only amazing musicians, they are also wonderful people. When you put superb musicians who are also terrific people together they make incredible music.”

Ettun started out on his own path to musical excellence on a different instrument, and subsequently made his way into non-jazzy domains as well. “I got into jazz as a young guitarist,” he recalls. By the time he was in his teens he changed course and also got the best of educational underpinnings.

“When I got to high school and started learning double bass, thanks to the wonderful teacher Prof. Michael Klinghoffer, I fell in love with solo playing of classical works. “I spent my years at high school, in the army and at the academy playing Bach, Vivaldi, [19th century Romantic composer Giovanni] Bottesini and Brahms in the mornings, and at night I’d play jazz and avant-garde at Hamarakia [eatery] in Jerusalem.

Ettun drew on a broad swath of inspirational sources. “I am greatly influenced by my teachers, and by the people I have worked with, people like [saxophonist] George Garazone, [bassist] Dave Holland, [pianist] Danilo Perez, [pianist] Fred Hersch and others.” He also mines deeper, older seams. “I am also very much influenced by the music I listen to, like [bassist] Ray Brown, [pianists] Bill Evans, Chick Corea and Carla Bley, [saxophonist] Dexter Gordon and many others.” There is one bassist who, for Ettun, stands out from the crowd. “If I had to choose just one influence, when it comes to bass playing, that would be Charlie Haden. When I listen to him playing I feel I can really get into his head.”

Ettun is also naturally impacted by his chosen physical and geographic environs. “The transition from life in the United States to living in Mitzpe Ramon makes me think differently about the way I manage my musical career. Mitzpe is a small place and relatively detached. That makes me take a different logistical line – on the one hand more gigs abroad, but also more collaboration with international artists who come to Mitzpe Ramon. That is more challenging, but this week I came back from five weeks of shows abroad, and coming back home and taking a walk with my dog in the desert, and seeing meteors, that’s the greatest joy there is.”

You don’t have to have a personal canine pal in order to enjoy the week’s jazzy offerings at Mitzpe Ramon, but filling your lungs with fresh non-urban air, and maybe taking a stroll along the crater ridge, can’t do any harm.

For tickets and more information: internalcompassmusic.com.

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