Giving ear in Eilat

New York-based Israeli guitarist Avi Rothbard brings his cross-cultural musical baggage to this year’s Red Sea Jazz Festival.

Guitarist Avi Rothbard (photo credit: Courtesy)
Guitarist Avi Rothbard
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The annual Red Sea Jazz Festival – winter and the summer editions alike – not only offers an opportunity to wrap our ears around some quality vibes from abroad, and from locally-based jazz and other artists, it also provides a stage for ex-pats to strut their stuff back here.
Avi Rothbard, who is on the roster of next week’s festival (August 27-30), has been doing his thing on the other side of the Pond for quite a while, although it took him longer than most to take the plunge. Rothbard will perform in Eilat together with fellow Berklee alumnus feted saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, as well as Hammond B3 organist George Colligan and drummer McClenty Hunter, on August 29 (10 p.m.).
“I started out late,” he admits. “I wasn’t in an IDF band, or anything like that. But I always played music, and I always tried to do jazz.”
The 50-year-old guitarist clearly made good strides on his own, and he quickly realized he had something to share with budding artists.
“I always loved to teach,” he notes. “In Israel too.”
It was a two-way street.
“The fact that I taught also enabled me to work on my own skills. Jazz is very complex music. You have to work at it.”
After a few years of earnest endeavor here, the Kibbutz Gan Shmuel-born guitarist came to the conclusion that it was time to take his craft to the next stage, and headed Stateside to study at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. He duly spent four years at the Boston facility, before relocating to the Big Apple, the global capital of the art form, in 1999.
He has maintained a steady growth continuum over the past 18 years, performing around the US and the world, and putting out half a dozen albums under his own name in the process. He has also shared a bandstand with a mix of artists, including members of the older generation such as now-84-year-old drummer Ben Riley and septuagenarian bass players Ray Drummond and Ray Leonhart, and younger lions such as 40-year-old trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and popular 46-year-old singer Gregory Porter.
It’s all grist to Rothbard’s creative mill, and the same can be said about the rich cultural baggage he took on board at a very early age.
“I spent grades 1-3 in Japan,” he explains. “My father got a training scholarship at the Japanese agricultural institute, so we moved there for a few years.”
And the infant Rothbard did not exactly pass his time in the Far East in a Western bubble.
“We lived in a small town, and there were no international schools there, so I went to a Japanese school.
I was the only foreigner there. It was a bit traumatic in the first month, but I could speak fluent Japanese within a month-and-a-half – street Japanese.”
The youngsters also took the whole local package on board.
“I listened to their pop music. They had their own Arik Einstein and Rolling Stones, but I also listened to their traditional music.”
Not that the New Yorker exactly plays eastern musical themes today, but those early influences left their imprint on his artistic sensibilities.
“I think Japanese culture influenced me a lot, especially at such a young age. I think I am a good imitator, which I got from there. And I can copy other guitarists’ styles if I want – not that I do that much. I have my own voice in music. The culture of imitation is deep-seated in Japan. You need to copy a bit in jazz too, en route to finding your own way.”
Rothbard also got an early helping hand from his domestic environment.
“My parents love music,” he says. “They were always playing records – [iconic classical pianist] Arthur Rubinstein, all the great classical composers – Beethoven, Mozart and all the rest.”
Rothbard benefited from a broad childhood sonic backdrop.
“There were also blues and gospel records. I remember I loved [George Gershwin’s jazz-inclined opera] Porgy & Bess, and there was Hair, the musical. And my older sisters listened to the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Peter Green.”
The musical education continuum was also moved along nicely by Rothbard’s peers on the kibbutz, and by another member of the family.
“On kibbutzim you always had people exchanging records with each other,” he recalls. “There was no Internet back then, but we got to hear a lot of music.
When I was about 16, my late aunt gave me her jazz record collection. There was stuff by [guitarists] Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass, and [diva] Ella Fitzgerald.
It was fantastic for me.”
At the time the teenager was not exactly a skilled guitarist, but he was making some headway. He immersed himself in Sixties and Seventies rock, along with the jazz material, but he always felt that jazz was his calling.
“I have always loved improvising,” he states. “There’s nothing more fun than that for me. I can improvise for hours and hours. Give me a chord or two, and I’ll improvise on them all day. I listened to those jazz records and I realized it was complex, but it also made me feel good.”
Rothbard has honed his skill over the years but says he is not looking to be a Hendrix.
“You have the crowd pleasers – the tricks, and fast riffs, but that’s not really what I am about. I love to create some kind of vibe. Over the years I have to come to realize that it’s not so much about what you play, it’s about what’s left to play.”
At the end of the day, Rothbard wants to connect with his listeners.
“The idea is to unite your audience and to create a common denominator. For me, that’s the challenge in jazz.”
For tickets and more information: *9066, and