Elite entertainment down by the sea in Eilat

That was a memorable concert, although the Eilat showing was something of a letdown.

Joshua Redman at the Aarhus Jazz Festival in 2009 (photo credit: HREINN GUDLAUGSSON / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Joshua Redman at the Aarhus Jazz Festival in 2009
The 32nd edition of the Red Sea Jazz Festival presented the faithfuls with something of a new look. Gone was the traditional four performance area format, with the program trimmed down to three days from the original four.
The latter may have been down to budgetary considerations, but artistic director Eli Degibri, with his seventh tilt at drawing the crowds down to our most southerly resort, clearly had a generous sum of readies made available to him. The musical agenda featured some bona fide big guns, the likes of saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, French accordionist Richard Galliano, trumpeter Tom Harrell and preeminent pianist-keyboardist Herbie Hancock.
All of the aforementioned appeared in the New Port Arena – presumably, the name of the new slot is a play on the title of the 64-year-old-and-counting Stateside Newport Jazz Festival, or references the Port of Eilat location.
In years gone by, all the audience and stage areas were cordoned off by freight ship containers on all four sides, piled two high. This year, the stages were positioned on the side of the sea, with no containers behind. While that made for aesthetic viewing, especially with the full moon rising over Aqaba during the first slot each evening, it also unfortunately meant that the stage was exposed to the blustery conditions that were particularly palpable on the first evening.
Some of the jazz aficionados around me in the audience questioned the decision to open the festival proceedings with a solo piano show. They suggested that Degibri would have been better off with a numerically bigger act as a curtain-raiser. The experienced heads may have had logic on their side, but Rubalcaba is one hell of a powerhouse character and artist. Anyone who attended the festival around a decade and a half ago will have witnessed the Cuban’s scintillating virtuosity as he compensated for the absence of his bass player in what had been planned as a trio concert. Back then it was fascinating to watch Rubalcaba’s forays to the nether regions of the keyboard, as he managed to fuse melodic intent with rhythmic underscoring.
Last Sunday Rubalcaba unfurled his prodigious technique coupled with expansive emotional intent, oscillating seamlessly between feral thunderclap attacks to gossamer lyricism, laced with Monkesque lines and romantic departures reminiscent of Bill Evans. Even the gusts of hot dry wind, which threatened to blow his sheet music into the nearby sea, didn’t manage to put the evergreen 55-year-old off his creative stride.
The quality ante was kept in the upper regions when 72-year-old trumpeter Tom Harrell followed Rubalcaba onto the New Port Arena stage. Harrell has played at Eilat before, and if the patrons came expecting more of Harrell’s trademark lyricism, they were not to be disappointed.
The band leader preferred the flügelhorn to the trumpet for the gig, possibly due to the passage of time, and he maintained his mellifluous output throughout. He was more than ably supported by pianist-keyboardist Danny Grissett, long-serving sideman bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Adam Cruz. There was a pleasing checks-and-balances feel to much of the show, with the sideman producing some solid high energy complements to Harrell’s more delicate leads.
And the A-lister entertainment just kept on coming in the capacious 3,000-seater arena. At the age of 49, Redman is one of the acknowledged titans of the global jazz scene, and his powerhouse trio of bass player Reuben Rogers and drummer Gregory Hutchinson, seasoned performers in their own right, kept the crowd duly focused and riveted.
Meanwhile, over at the smaller Red Note Club spot to the south, Bulgarian-born Nigerian singer-songwriter Emily Johnson and her tight supporting instrumental cast had her audience grooving throughout, as she pumped out the calories and decibels.
Things calmed down somewhat as the Ketzat Acheret trio took the stage there. The threesome comprises pianist-singer Shlomo Gronich, pianist-flutist-vocalist Shem Tov Levy and guitarist-vocalist Shlomo Ydov. Their blast-from-the-past show fed off the prog rock band’s one and only 1974 eponymous release, which was considered too adventurous for more conservatively-minded Israel of four-plus decades back.
Judging by their reception last Sunday evening, Israelis of all ages have made the mind-set leap in the intervening time. This was not just about nostalgia, but also about appreciating the craftsmanship behind such now beloved numbers as Levy’s Hanesich Hakatan (The Little Prince) and Ydov’s anthemic Bein Arbayim (Twilight Time).
ELSEWHERE ON the local side of the program, Andalusian-based jazz pianist Omri Mor’s trio-plus slot, which opened the Monday program at the New Port Arena, was a roaring success, both in terms of crowd appreciation and artistic endeavor. Despite being only in his mid-thirties, Mor has been on the Israeli jazz scene for close to two decades, and we were all getting impatient with his seeming refusal to put out an album of his own. The wait finally ended earlier this year, with the release of his cheekily titled It’s About Time CD, and it was worth the wait, as patently demonstrated in Eilat.
Mor marries straight-ahead jazz material with Andalusian music in seamless fashion, and his cohorts – bassist Gilad Abro, drummer Amir Bressler and violinist Elad Levy – are on exactly the same creative and stylistic page.
Mor’s official CD launch gig, at The Zone club in Tel Aviv three months ago, erred somewhat on the side of the spectacular. Megastar guitarist-vocalist Beri Sakharoff was on the list of guest artists, but the Mor essence seemed to dissipate in the eclectic array of musicianship. Mor comes across best in smaller group formats, and the Eilat trio-plus Levy lineup and his show down south were a joy for the ears, eyes and heartstrings.
And, if you were looking for an earthy, honest-to-goodness jazz offering, you would have got that, in bucketloads, from the trio of drummer Johnathan Blake. Blake and counterparts, saxophonist Donny McCaslin and bassist Dezron Douglas, all put in a shift, and kept the swinging, grooving, bluesy ante flying high throughout. McCaslin’s polished delivery was neatly and pleasingly balanced by Blake and Douglas’s more intuitive playing.
DEGIBRI SAVED the biggest name for last, with Hancock’s eagerly anticipated return to these shows taking place late on Tuesday evening. The last time the 78-year-old American played in this country, around 20 years ago, saxophonist Degibri was a member of his band. That was a memorable concert, although the Eilat showing was something of a letdown.
If the jam-packed crowd had come to hear some of Hancock’s peerless melodic meanderings, they would have felt more than a little short-changed. What we got was mostly a return to the Hancock’s early Seventies halcyon synth-based fusion days, with material from his signal 1974 record Head Hunters front and center, as guitarist Lionel Loueke, bassist James Genus and drummer Trevor Lawrence kept pace with the leader. There was a nod in the direction of Hancock’s early, more lyrical period with a deft reading of his 1964 hit “Cantaloupe Island,” but overall the high hopes were not met.
At the end of the day, however, Degibri deserves a resounding pat on the back for compiling a top-class multi-stratified program, and the festival producers and support team should get more of the same for having the courage to make necessary changes to the festival format and, not least, putting comfy covers on the traditional and perennially uncomfortable white plastic chairs.
As a footnote to the three-day program, the unscheduled addition of an off-the-cuff duo slot at the Crowne Plaza Hotel – which hosted most of the artists – of Mor together with New York-based Israeli flutist Itai Kriss was a delightful experience for one and all who hung around after the official end of the festival proceedings. This, in a nutshell, is what jazz is all about.