Jazz's northern frontier

The Haifa Symphony Orchestra now has a big band side project.

Jeff Howard 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jeff Howard 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In some quarters, there is a belief that classical musicians and their counterparts on the jazz side of the tracks don't always have a lot of regard for each other. The classical artists sometimes express the view that jazz musicians take liberties, while the latter simply state that "classical musicians can't improvise." As a classically trained musician with plenty of other genres in his artistic makeup, Jeff Howard has no such problems. Today, Howard is principal clarinetist of the Haifa Symphony Orchestra and has done stints with Ra'anana Symphonette and the Israel Chamber Orchestra, so his classical credentials are all in order. But, as a native of America's Deep South, Howard could hardly ignore the music he imbibed during his formative years - which he is now putting to good use as conductor of the Haifa Big Band. The first of the new jazz combo's impending four-concert series is called "Fly Me to the Moon" - eponymously named after the 1954 Bart Howard (no relation) pop standard - and takes place Tuesday at Haifa's Krieger Center for the Performing Arts. The series opener is already sold out and there are concerts scheduled for March, May and June with wide-ranging programs that take in Latin jazz, Gershwin numbers and a program entitled "Hits Forever," based on Stevie Wonder pop-soul songs and featuring the Mega Police rock band from the Haifa area. Considering most of the Big Band's 16 members also play with Howard in the Haifa Symphony Orchestra, one wonders whether the jazz material might not be a bit of stretch for them. "All the people in the Big Band are accomplished players and can handle the material," Howard states simply. "Besides, we have had such fun with the rehearsals. At the end of classical music rehearsals, musicians are often tired and just want to go home. But that has never happened with the jazz sessions. More often, the players want to run through the numbers again. And I'm sure that sense of fun and enjoyment will come across to the audiences during the series." While agreeing that classical roots and jazz endeavors don't always go hand in hand, Howard is well equipped to deal with both genres, and then some. "I'd say it is largely true that classical musicians can't improvise, but I grew up playing in jazz bands at high school and university, and I was surrounded by gospel music in Alabama. I can improvise pretty well, better than a pure classical musician. I have also played in rock bands." The reedman-conductor - Howard also plays saxophone - says he can tell when a classical musician is pushing himself to the limit to try to accommodate material that is outside his normal professional domain. "Sometimes I hear someone who is totally jazz-oriented playing classical music, and then I hear the 'accent' in what they do. The same applies the other way round. But I don't think I have an 'accent' when I play jazz, even though I don't improvise as well as a pure jazz cat. Our symphony orchestra plays Beatles material, but a big band has a completely different take on Beatles songs." The upcoming jazz series was spawned by a one-off show by the nascent combo three years ago. The audience responded enthusiastically and, eventually, the Big Band came into being. And, judging by the response to the series opener, there is certainly demand for jazz in the North. "We are keeping the music audience-friendly," says Howard, "but we take in a very wide repertoire, from 1930s material to contemporary jazz, Latin, bebop, salsa, straightahead and swing, and lots more. I'm also thrilled that the city of Haifa has a municipally funded big band." Indeed, the local powers that be are well and truly behind the new musical enterprise. "The mayor, Yona Yahav, has been very supportive," Howard adds, "as has [the main promoter of arts, sports and cultural events in Haifa] Ethos, and the symphony orchestra's principal trombonist Dennis Vull and our general director Motti Eines have also worked very hard to make the jazz series a reality." Howard, who stayed up North during the Second Lebanon War, also feels there is a wider message to be had here. "We have a big band that can represent the city and bring the music to the public. Haifa is more than just a place where Katyushas fall." For information and tickets, call: (04) 859-9499