Still strung out

Bass player Eli Magen disappointed his mother early on by giving up the violin, but it marked the start of a remarkably adventurous musical journey.

Eli Magen 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
Eli Magen 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
Eli Magen is something of a Renaissance man. Practically any Israeli jazz fan over 35 will recognize the celebrated bass player, who's been a mainstay of the local jazz scene for more than 25 years. Then again, classical music lovers are likely to recall Magen's contributions to concerts of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra since the early Eighties. And Magen was, of course, also on hand when the Israeli pop and rock scene burst to life at the end of the Sixties, when he played with groups such as Shlosharim, Keff HaTikva Hatova and seminal pop band HaHalonot HaGevohim. Magen will showcase his jazz and balladic talents Friday at Holon Theater's Yamei Zemer Festival, in a show based on the musician's recent solo album, Adam. How has Magen managed to move so comfortably over the years between such seemingly disparate genres? Not because of easygoing relations between performers in each field. Jazz musicians generally argue that their classical counterparts are constitutionally rigid and incapable of improvisation, while classical musicians often look down their noses at pop and rock artists (although, most admit privately they'd be more than happy to make the same money. "For me, it's all the same," Magen says. "I don't find too much of a fundamental difference between the different areas of music. It's like speaking similar languages. If you learn the idioms early enough in your life, moving between them comes naturally." Magen started on his musical path early, trying out the violin at age six before moving on - parental disappointment or not - to the guitar. "I didn't get on with my violin teacher too well, though like any Polish mother my mom wanted me to play classical music," Magen recalls. "And I wanted to sing, so it made sense to try the guitar." As is often the case with the important developments in life, Magen's transition to bass happened partially by chance. "I was in an army band and, when the bass guitarist left, I was given his role. I didn't mind. I found it easy to play bass," he says. After some earnest work in rock with the likes of Danny Sanderson, Magen discovered jazz. "I heard [late Sixties American rock-blues-jazz group] Blood, Sweat & Tears, and I really got into the instrumental side of improvisational music," he says. The bassist soon realized that, if he was going to progress, he needed to go to leave Israel for a period to formally study the genre. Eight years of studies and teaching at New York's Mannes College of Music led to gigs of all kinds. "I was married with a baby, and I needed to make ends meet," Magen says. "I played at all sorts of downmarket jazz clubs, [at] bar mitzvas and weddings, and even with hassidic musicians like Mordehai Ben David. I also did some shows at more prestigious venues, like Radio City, but it was tough back then ... It gave me a good grounding." Magen returned to Israel after being offered a job with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and quickly became one of the leading lights on the jazz scene here. He maintained an eclectic approach to his craft. "I played a lot of what is now known as world music," he says. "I played Arabic, Greek, Turkish, you-name-it music." He'll perform at the Yamei Zemer Festival with Ariel Horowitz, the son of "Jerusalem of Gold" singer Naomi Shemer. The pair will offer listeners music that doesn't sound much like what's currently dominating Israeli radio. Some of the lyrics off Adam,for example, were written by novelist and President's Award for Hebrew Literature winner Meiron Isaacson. "[Israel's pop scene] is in danger of making music so bland and unadventurous it will lose its artistic value," Magen says.