As swan songs go, this year's Red Sea Jazz Festival should send founding artistic director Danny Gottfried off to retirement - or his next project - with the sound of thunderous applause ringing in his 69-year-old ears. Gottfried may have had his detractors from among the local jazz fan base since he took the helm at the very first Red Sea jazz bash back in 1987 but this year's program is littered with big names. And just in case anyone hasn't noticed, and it would be hard to miss, the annual Eilat jazz four-dayer is an unqualified success, attracting thousands of jazz fans of all types and ages to the Port of Eilat each year. Check out this year's foreign roster. For a start, there's seminal jazz-classical-world music band Oregon, then there's celebrated sixty-something pianist Carla Bley and her band, award-winning Chicagoan vocalist Kurt Elling, former Miles Davis sideman guitarist Mike Stern, the Soulbop combo led by trumpeter Randy Brecker and saxman Bill Evans, and an all-female quartet led by drummer Terri Lynne Carrington. It is an impressive lineup, and the local contingent ain't bad either. For a start, our most famous artist on the global jazz stage, bass player Avishai Cohen will be there with his trio. Considering that next year Cohen takes over the Red Sea Jazz Festival reins from Gottfried, it seems only fitting he should get a slot this year too. Add to that trombonist Avi Lebovich's popular Orkestra - the 13-piece ensemble will play material from their long awaited brand new CD Groove Collage - the Mafrum Sextet, featuring six highly talented artists who generally either study or work Stateside, and a quartet led by young Israeli saxophonist Shauli Einav who recently released a well received debut CD and is currently completing a masters degree at the University of Rochester in New York. After 21 years in charge of the artistic content of the festival, Gottfried can be forgiven for basking in a modicum of nostalgia. "I never thought it would grow so much and last so long," he confesses. "The first festival, in 1987, was held indoors and only attracted a few hundred people. We certainly didn't break even but the sponsors backed us all the way and, as you can see, the festival survived and thrived." The Red Sea Jazz Festival is a bona fide member of the international jazz circuit and each year thousands of Israelis, and a few tourists too, throng the Port of Eilat compound, grooving in the ship container delineated concert stage areas and hanging out in the central esplanade, munching their way through a wide variety of gastronomic delights, washed down with a pint or two of beer or a glass of wine. There are even those who just go there to soak up the vibes from the central area and chill out - at least emotionally - as a warm breeze wafts in from the sea. Despite criticism, from some quarters, that he has not always pushed the boat out in his program selection, Gottfried remains unrepentant. "I have never cared about stuff like that," he declares. "You are always going to get people who are dissatisfied with what you do. Contrary to what some people might think, I have not always chosen artists I like, and the program has never been based on my own record collection." Gottfried and the festival have had plenty of highs and lows over the years. "I can't remember the worst concert we ever had there, but sometimes things just don't work out the way you want. But that's jazz." And what about the high points? "The [trumpeter Randy and saxophonist Michael] Brecker Brothers played in Eilat a few times, and they were always great. Then there was [sax player] Joe Henderson and [pianist Michel] Petrucciani. When Petrucciani played, the piano began to sing." Among this year's acts, Oregon should certainly pack 'em in. Epithets like "legendary" are often bandied about by marketing people with gay abandon, but the Oregon band members have collectively and individually paid their dues over the last 38 years and maintained a large following all over the globe. "When we started out no one talked about 'world music'," says Oregon's Paul McCandless in a telephone interview from Italy where he was touring prior to his Eilat foray. "There was no commercialism in what we did before the New Age stuff became identified as a trend. When that eventually happened, that limited our image for a while, but we survived that period basically by not subscribing to a definition of something less than the music is." McCandless and his fellow Oregonians have proven durable and successful. The reedman, guitarist Ralph Towner, bassist Glen Moore and percussionist Colin Walcott initially met as members of world music pioneer Paul Winter's Consort ensemble in the late sixties. The foursome broke away from Winter to form their own band in 1970 and quickly established themselves as one of the leading cross-cultural outfits around. The members brought a wide range of influences to the group, including western classical training, Indian music - particularly Walcott, who was killed in a car crash during a tour of East Germany in 1984 - jazz, folk and avant-garde experimentation. The band has won several Grammy Awards and, despite a number of furloughs over the years, Oregon has always maintained the highest standards of artistic endeavor and has enjoyed a large and loyal fan base around the globe. "We develop a lot when we do things outside the band too," McCandless continues. "Then get back together and bring new skills and material to the band's work. We have a strong seamless relationship in that respect." Fittingly, this year's festival program includes a tribute show to Gottfried, including some of his contemporaries who were around in the event's earliest years and, indeed, at the inception of the Israeli jazz scene. "It will be fun to play with people like [drummer] Areleh [Kaminsky], [saxophonist] Albert Piamenta, [saxophonist] Mamelo [Gaitanopoulos] and [bass player] Eli Magen," says pianist Gottfried. "They were there when it all started so it's nice to have them around for my last festival." Gottfried says he is looking forward to the coming festivals too, and plans on being there as a fan. "I wish Avishai Cohen luck. It's a tough job and we'll see how it works out. I hope I will be invited to attend the festival but, even if I'm not, I'll be happy to pay for tickets." The Red Sea Jazz Festival runs from August 25-28. For information visit www.redseajazzeilat.com.