Jazz's northern frontiers

If Santa Claus played sax in addition to his jingling bells, he would, no doubt, be ringing in the merry season of jazz.

Mark Rosco Jazz 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mark Rosco Jazz 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If Santa Claus played sax in addition to his jingling bells, he would, no doubt, be ringing in the merry season of jazz. In addition to several high class jazz acts at this year's Israel Festival, the annual festivals at Shuni and Caesarea are looming large on the imminent horizon. Besides both festivals taking place in the north of the country, there is very little common ground between the two events. While the Caesarea bash celebrates the insouciant rhythms of the earliest forms of jazz, as they evolved in its spiritual home of New Orleans at the turn of the twentieth century, the seventh annual Shuni Jazz Festival showcases some of our very own jazz talents, across a wide spectrum of genres. Some of the Shuni invitees are already making waves overseas, with the likes of trumpeter Avishai Cohen, sister saxophonist-clarinetist Anat Cohen, and pianist Omer Klein already garnering plaudits in New York and elsewhere on the global jazz scene. Besides our internationally acclaimed artists, the Shuni festival, which takes place in the venerable surroundings of the Shuni Castle near Binyamina, also features a wide range of local musicians such as avant garde saxophonist-flutist Albert Beger, erstwhile rock vocalist Mazi Cohen and genre-boundary-crossing outfit March Dondorama, which offers a highly energized fusion of gypsy tunes, ethnic Middle Eastern material, New Orleans jazz and original numbers. The Shuni lineup also includes pianist Alon Yavnai who has been mixing with some of the biggest names in the world jazz community, the likes of Cuban-born reed player Paquito D'Rivera and veteran trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, for over a decade. Yavnai will use his Shuni gig to showcase his latest CD, Travel Notes, which - as the title suggests - culls from a highly varied cultural and geographic landscape. Meanwhile, New York residents Avishai and Anat Cohen will be joined by their older, still Israeli-based sibling Yuval in a program based on their latest and highly acclaimed album Braid. There is also plenty in the way of local vibes on offer at Shuni with, for example, veteran flutist-singer-keyboardist Shem-Tov Levy performing material from his 2007 Radio Stations album, which incorporates plenty of Middle Eastern seasoning along with its jazzy inflections. Meanwhile, those who prefer the vocal side of softer jazz tracks should appreciate the Gidi Gov-Riki Gal synergy. Add to that performances by students of various jazz institutions around the country and, by its end, visitors to Shuni should get a pretty good idea of where the Israeli jazz community is heading. Caesarea is a completely different kettle of fish. While the setting is no less magnificent than the Shuni Castle, the entertainment on offer is of a more consistent nature. Jazz started out as dance music, before Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and the other founding fathers of bebop headed in a more cerebral and technically complex direction in the mid-1940s. But, judging by the enduring attraction of swing and Dixieland, it seems you can't beat the captivating and joyous rhythms and sounds of the earliest forms of jazz. Over the course of the festival, the majestic ancient port of Caesarea will groove to the infectious beat of a host of top class bands, such as the Ken Peplowski Swing Quintet and Duke Heitger's Jazz Band, with the gently lapping waters of the nearby Mediterranean providing a complementary sonic backdrop. Peplowski's ensemble, besides the saxophone-clarinet playing leader, includes pianist Cyrus Chestnut and guitarist Howard Alden, the latter also having made a name for himself on the soundtracks of a number of Woody Allen movies. And just to show that jazz is a truly global art form, the last day of the festival features stride pianist Jeff Barnhart's septet with players from the United States, Finland, the Netherlands and Scotland. Clearly, if you fancy shaking a leg or two down by the seashore next week, Caesarea is the place to swing. Shuni Jazz Festival (June 6-8) visit www.shuni.co.il; and, the Caesarea Jazz Festival (June 12-14) at www.jazz.caesarea.com.