It's no secret that jazz is somewhat past its heyday. Back in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, jazz was king. But then Elvis and the Beatles won over the younger generations, and jazz was left fighting to survive. That's not to say that jazz doesn't have a considerable world following. Jazz festivals in New York, Montreal, Holland and Switzerland have been thriving for over four decades, and next week's Tel Aviv Jazz Festival (February 20-23) is taking place for the eighteenth time. The line-up for this year's Tel Aviv bash reflects an eclectic, all-bases-covered take on the art form. Los Angeles-based Judy Wexler appeals to music lovers of different ilks. Considering her upbringing, that really is no surprise. "I didn't start out with jazz," said Wexler in a telephone interview from Miami Beach, where she was performing prior to her trip here. "I started playing classical piano as, I suppose, any good little Jewish girl should. Then, later, I got into musicals. I loved musicals, and I am still inspired by the Great American Songbook." Wexler believes there are cultural-ethnic reasons for her choice of career. "Look at all the great writers of musicals, and the composers in the Great American Songbook. I'd say about 98% of them were Jewish." Does she think the East European/Russian element comes into play at all? Almost all the aforementioned Jewish songwriters hailed from that part of the world, including the likes of George Gershwin and Harold Arlen - whose popular works, respectively, include "Summertime" and "Somewhere over the Rainbow." "I'm not sure about that, but the Jewish coloring comes through. Arlen's father, for example, was a cantor." Wexler also says she was exposed to contemporary pop and rock during her formative years. "Of course, you couldn't get away from Beatles songs and that kind of thing. Actually, I didn't really get into jazz until some time later. My husband [and manager] Alan was always into jazz, so when we met when I was in my mid-twenties, that helped move me along into the idiom." And it has been an ongoing professional love affair ever since. "I love the freedom of jazz, and I love being able to connect with the audience and express myself through the lyrics," says Wexler. "There is so much great material to explore and share. And living in southern California, I get to play with some of the finest jazz musicians in the world. It's a privilege that I never forget when I get up to sing." She plays her set at the festival next Friday night at 9. WITH EIGHTEEN YEARS of increasingly successful endeavor behind it, this year's Tel Aviv Jazz Festival appears to offer the most comprehensive and well-balanced program for some time. Undoubtedly, the biggest name on next week's roster is 66-year-old saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. Sanders first attracted notice in the mid-Sixties, when he performed and recorded with legendary avant garde jazz reedman John Coltrane. Intriguingly, despite Coltrane's more challenging "sheets of sound" playing technique, he also had a highly melodic, across-the-board approach. Indeed, Coltrane records such as A Love Supreme and My Favorite Things captivated millions of jazz fans across the globe. That all-embracing ethos is shared by Sanders, whose output encompasses atonal explorations as well as synergies with West and South African musicians, and even some pop-funk ornamentation. Sanders and his trio will open the festival with his first concert at the 2,500-seater Mann Auditorium on Tuesday at 9 p.m. followed by a softer, more ballad-based program on the morrow, at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, at 11 p.m. Other attractive names on the roster include Italian pianist Stefano Bollani, who gave a highly successful show at the Performing Arts Center in Tel Aviv last year, and has just put out a new solo album on the ECM label. For his two gigs next week, Bollani will have a quintet in tow. The Hammond B-3 organ-led Organissimo trio also promises to keep the energy level somewhere in the stratosphere, while saxman Matt Renzi will offer glimpses of the numerous cultural influences that inform his work. His 2004 album The Cave, for example, incorporates mainstream jazz alongside more ethereal departures. Fittingly, the album was inspired by a four-year period during which Renzi lived in Japan, New York, India and Italy. Jazz fans of all persuasions should enjoy the Renzi Trio's two performances at the cinematheque. The Israeli side of the program also offers some intriguing synergies. The Daniel Zamir-Omri Mor confluence, for example, will feature some of saxophonist Zamir's free-spirited Hassidic-oriented ventures, complemented by Mor's mellifluous and highly energized piano contributions. Although just into his twenties Jerusalemite Mor has been making waves on the local jazz scene for some time now. Other shows of particular interest include the Israeli-Russian collaboration between keyboardist Slava Ganellin and Russian bass player Vladimir Volkov, guitarist Uri Braha's quintet and the Nadav Haber Quartet high-energy show infused with Ethiopian folk sounds. As always, there will also be free shows in the Tel Aviv Cinematheque lobby every evening. For more information about the festival, go to www.jazzfest.co.il or see under the Popular Music listings in Billboard.