Blast from the blue-and-white past

The 30th annual Red Sea Jazz Festival focuses on local talent.

Trumpeter and saxophonist Mamelo Gaitanopoulos (photo credit: ABRAHAM KABILIO)
Trumpeter and saxophonist Mamelo Gaitanopoulos
(photo credit: ABRAHAM KABILIO)
This year’s Red Sea Jazz Festival, which will take place at its usual berth of the Port of Eilat from August 27 to 30, is a boon for local jazz lovers of a certain vintage, as well as members of the younger crowd. Artistic director and saxophonist Eli Degibri has used the fact that the upcoming four-dayer is the 30th edition of our biggest jazz gathering to focus on homegrown talent. The single offshore band leader in the lineup is veteran keyboardist Chick Corea – with stellar Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen in tow – with the only other foreign guests performing as sidemen in Israeli-led bands.
The program features a significant number of musicians who ventured into the incipient jazz community here more than half a century ago.
Quite a few of the pioneers of the Israeli jazz sphere will be on show over the four days, such as 77-yearold Red Sea Jazz Festival founding artistic director pianist Danny Gottfried, who will team up with veteran sparring partner 78-year-old clarinetist and saxophonist Albert Piamenta and 74-year-old drummer Areleh Kaminsky. Gottfried and Piamenta were one half of the Sadnat Hajazz quartet, which performed and recorded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including at the legendary Barbarim club in Tel Aviv, run by Kaminsky. Sadnat Hajazz will star in Eilat on August 28 in a show based on the band’s only release, Mezareh Yisrael Yekabtzenu, with popular 30something bassist Gilad Abro completing the lineup.
Barbarim was Israel’s first real jazz club and ran for a decade from the mid-1960s. Practically every local jazz artist, as well as quite a few luminaries from abroad, strutted their stuff there, such as Jerusalemborn trumpeter and saxophonist Mamelo Gaitanopoulos (aka Mamelo), who will front a sextet in Eilat on August 28 (at 8 p.m.).
Mamelo took his initial steps along the road to artistic discovery on a very different instrument.
“I began on piano at the age of seven,” he recalls.
That infant keyboard foray was inspired by his piano playing dad, but the youngster eventually looked for a different, more corporeal, means of musical expression.
“I started on saxophone when I was 15. I felt that the piano wasn’t really connected to me physically,” he explains. “You play the saxophone with your own breath.”
That may sound admirably spiritual and deep, but the 71-yearold horn player admits to a comfort zone consideration too.
“You play the piano with all 10 fingers, and there are so many notes to read. It’s tough. But with the saxophone, you only have a single line [of notes] to read,” he laughs. “You could say it was a combination of blowing and laziness that led me to the saxophone.”
In fact, fired by iconic jazz trumpeter, singer and band leader Louis Armstrong, Mamelo’s first jazz object of desire was the trumpet, but a temporary lodger diverted the teenager’s interest to another direction.
“There was a Brazilian pianist who stayed with us for a while named Max, who said, ‘Why don’t you play saxophone?’ So I went for that,” he recounts.
In the young state of Israel of the mid-1950s, that turned out to be easier said than done.
“Back then, you couldn’t buy a saxophone in Israel. I rented a soprano [saxophone] from the music academy, and I started to study with [American-born local jazz pioneer] Mel Keller. Later, some saxophones arrived in Haifa, so I went all the way up there to buy one,” he says.
The burgeoning musician complemented his early training by catching live gigs around Jerusalem at places such as the old Artists House, then located next to the King David Hotel, and by listening to LPs.
“I used to buy records from a shop called Sapir on Ben-Yehuda Street,” recalls Mamelo. “The first record I bought was Seven Steps to Heaven by Miles Davis.”
But, truth be told, Mamelo is damning himself with faint praise in the aforementioned sloth department. Over the last half century or so, he has maintained a busy performing schedule up and down the country, as well as around the world.
Mamelo got his first break at age 17 when he replaced British-born saxophonist Merton Cahm at a regular gig at the Mandarin restaurant in Jerusalem. The band was fronted by Gottfried and offered the teenager some valuable ground level experience.
After completing his army service as a musician, Mamelo crossed over to the western end of Route 1 and quickly became a fixture on the Tel Aviv jazz scene, playing at such music hot spots as Barbarim, Kalif and the Dan Hotel.
He also cast his musical net into other areas, including a stint with singer Arik Einstein.
By the time he was 27, Mamelo was looking to get a taste of the big wide world, as well as furthering his formal education. He earned a bachelor’s degree at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, followed by a master’s in composition, orchestration and arranging, with celebrated trumpeter Herb Pomeroy.
After Boston, it was time to hit the real jazz scene, in the Big Apple.
“New York is like a school in itself,” he says. “There is so much to see and hear there.”
Mamelo began playing in the big band of now 87-year-old drummer Charlie Persip. He also tried his hand – with great success – at writing arrangements for the ensemble. It was during his 13-year sojourn in New York that Mamelo finally made good on his adolescent dream and added the trumpet to his instrumental arsenal.
“Maybe it was a mid-life crisis, when I turned 40,” he laughs. “I basically taught myself to play trumpet.”
As any jazz horn player will tell you, the trumpet is the most demanding of instruments, and Mamelo worked hard at his newfound craft.
“I took a few lessons here and there and, don’t forget, I wasn’t starting from scratch in jazz. It takes longer to work things out on your own, but I like to do things my own way,” he says.
Mamelo returned to Israel in 1988 and has been plying his trade here and abroad to unstinting effect ever since. For his upcoming Eilat slot, Mamelo will play both tenor sax and trumpet, supported by an all-star cast that includes bassist Eyal Ganor, flutist Ilan Salem and saxophonist Jess Koren.
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