Indian winter in Eilat

New York-based Israeli saxophonist Oded Tzur brings his cross-cultural musical baggage to this year’s Red Sea Jazz Festival.

EVERYTHING – Indian music, Arabic music, and other things – all meet at some point... but it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of work and time,’ says jazz musician Oded Tzur. (photo credit: STEFAN HEIGL)
EVERYTHING – Indian music, Arabic music, and other things – all meet at some point... but it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of work and time,’ says jazz musician Oded Tzur.
(photo credit: STEFAN HEIGL)
Not only is Eilat the ideal winter vacation destination, around this time of the year you can also get to hear some quality live music down there, betwixt taking dips in the hotel pool or the ever-enticing gently lapping waters of the Red Sea. The latter inviting body of water also gave its name to the country’s leading jazz event, which has been taking place annually in Eilat in August for the last three decades.
The newer and smaller kid on the Eilat jazz block, the three-day winter edition will take place February 9-11, for the seventh time, with an international roll call of artists lined up by perennial artistic director Dubi Lenz. The festival also offers an opportunity for homegrown musicians to strut their stuff, including some who have flown the coop and are now part of the New York jazz scene.
Oded Tzur has been spreading his musical and cultural net far and wide since he opted to further his education, and performing experience, overseas.
The Israeli jazz saxophonist-composer, who will play in Eilat on the final day of the festival, with his quartet, has been plying his improvisational way through Indian music for some time now and has developed a saxophone technique which he calls Middle Path, that extends the instrument’s microtonal capacity.
Tzur’s aural entertainment beginnings were of a fundamentally home-based nature.
“I listen to a lot of Israeli songs. I’d fall asleep listening to speeches by David Ben-Gurion,” he recalls. “When I was 16 or 17 I inherited a pile of records, and there were lots of LPs by [Israeli vocalists] Nurit Galron and Hava Alberstein, you know, ‘good old Israel’ songs.” In fact, the youngster had already developed an ear for jazz, and the new-old Israeli influx got a little bit in the way.
“I listened to all that old Israeli stuff so much it ate into the time I used to spend listening to people like [iconic jazz saxophonist] Dexter Gordon.
I really loved that Israeli music.”
That may have widened and enriched the youngster’s musical hinterland, but it also caused some confusion.
“I didn’t really know what to do with all that – how to equate Dexter Gordon and the other jazz giants I listened to with all the Israeli music. It was too much information for me at the time.”
Although Tzur felt a little swamped back then, it was actually the discovery of a new, seemingly very different area of creative endeavor that helped set his evolving musical house in order.
“I started to listen to Indian music, and then it all seemed to make sense. It sort of connected everything for me,” he says.
Jazz paved the way to the music of the Asian subcontinent. That may seem somewhat incongruent but if you take a look at the beginnings of jazz, you will note that New Orleans, the art form’s birthplace, was a bustling cultural melting pot that took in communities from all sorts of ethnic backdrops, from African Americans, to Irish immigrants, French-based Creoles and descendants of the early Spanish settlers.
Jazz musicians, like saxophonists Yusef Lateef and John Coltrane, began exploring the tonal and rhythmic treasures of non-Western cultures back in the 1940s and ‘50s. So it was perfectly natural for Tzur to find his way to Indian music through Coltrane’s work.
“That’s where my interest in Indian music began, with Coltrane. People ask me how come I went off in such an unexpected musical direction. If you really study the history of jazz, I think taking that line [to Indian music] is perfectly natural.”
It may be natural but, coming from a background of Western music, the transition is still a demanding one.
“Everything – Indian music, Arabic music and other things – all meet at some point,” says the 33-year-old reedman, “but it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of work and time.”
It was at the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, in Givatayim, when things became serious for Tzur, in a jazzy sense.
“I met a wonderful bass player there, who played trumpet at the time, called Max Vater,” Tzur recalls. “From him I learned how to really listen to jazz. That’s really when I thought about becoming a musician.”
With his interest in Indian music well established, after the army Tzur got himself over to Rotterdam where he studied with now 78-yearold venerated Indian flute player Hariprasad Chaurasia. He spent four years navigating his way through the intricacies of Indian music, which followed a couple of years of classical training at the Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem.
“I prepared for Rotterdam in Jerusalem. I studied with Gersh Geller in Jerusalem. I learned a lot from him.”
That included breaking down musical and conceptual barriers.
“I remember Gersh used to say there is nothing you can’t play on saxophone. I came from jazz. I was in the army at the time, and I told him you can’t make a legato transition over two octaves.
Then Gersh would get a 14-year-old student of his, and he’d play across two octaves, legato, about 15 times with great ease. That was a jaw dropper for me.”
It was a good primer for Tzur’s studies in the Netherlands, and for his subsequent work when he relocated to New York, around five years ago.
He now works with the mostly Israeli quartet with which he is coming to Eilat, with Shai Maestro on piano and Ziv Ravitz on drums, with Greek bassist Petros Klampanis completing the lineup. Judging by the band’s debut release, Like A Great River, which came out on prestigious Dutch label Enja in 2015, the Eilat audience is in for a treat.
For tickets and more information: and