Jerusalem Jazz Festival lights up Israel Museum

The results of that 17 years-and-counting odyssey from the A train into the textures, sonic undercurrents and spirit of the east will be out there for all to enjoy at the Israel Museum next week.

HAGAI BILITZKY – bringing jazz to the Israel Festival. (photo credit: RONEN GOLDMAN)
HAGAI BILITZKY – bringing jazz to the Israel Festival.
(photo credit: RONEN GOLDMAN)
There are a number of sayings that liken life to riding a bicycle. One suggests that if you don’t move you simply fall over. Hagai Bilitzky has been on the move for a couple of decades now. His developmental continuum has taken him on an unlikely musical road, from the harmonics, chord changes and improvisational elements of straight-ahead jazz right into the heart of the Middle East, and the modal structures, scales and complexities of Arabic music. The fruits of that ongoing journey will be on show at the Israel Museum next week, when the double bass player-composer fronts his Tarabass septet on the last day of this year’s Jerusalem Jazz Festival (June 24, 8:10 p.m.), which takes place as part of the Israel Festival.
It promises to be a moving and stirring occasion for the performers and the members of the Israel Museum audience alike. For starters, Bilitzky has put together a top-notch ensemble, with the likes of fêted Andalusian-leaning violinist Elad Levy and Hillel Amsallem on percussion in the mix. It is also the first time Bilitzky will get to unveil the fruits of his own eastern music compositional skills in front of a live audience. The septet had a staged run out, at the Yellow Submarine in Jerusalem, a few months ago but that was a Zoom-transmitted affair.
I started out by quizzing Bilitzky, whom I have known for over 20 years, about the band name. I discovered that “tara” is a form of Buddhist meditation, which I thought eminently appropriate for the bassist’s output. I was wrong about that. “Tarab refers to the sense of enjoyment one gets from listening to music,” Bilitzky explains. “It is the feeling of elation you get when you listen, and you are moved to express your excitement by exclaiming ‘allah’, or ‘yeah’ in a jazz environment,” he adds with a laugh.
Tarab has another meaning. “It is a musical style, such as the style used by [iconic Egyptian singer] Oum Kulthoum, [famed Egyptian composer-oud player] Mohammed] Abdel Wahab during the 1940s through the fifties and into the sixties. The idea was to evoke that sense of pleasure from their music.” 
Bilitzky was firmly entrenched in a jazz environment for quite some time. As a youngster, his bass playing skills, and appreciation for the African American improvisational art form was nurtured with the help of American-born Jewish saxophonist and educator Arnie Lawrence, who played with such jazz giants as Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Mingus before making aliyah in the late 1990s and setting up a small music school in Ein Kerem. Lawrence helped to develop several generations of budding Israeli jazz and other musicians, Jewish and Arab, including Andalusian-jazz pianist Omri Mor and Jerusalem Jazz Festival artistic director, and internationally renowned trumpeter, Avishai Cohen.
BACK THEN, the local jazz scene was far less developed than today and, if you really wanted to advance your know-how and learn from your peers, there was only one place to go. Bilitzky duly relocated to New York in 2001 and spent almost three years performing with a whole host of musicians, from across a range of styles and genres.
He came back here when his mother became seriously ill and, sadly, she passed away shortly after Bilitzky returned to Jerusalem. The Tarabass repertoire includes a tribute to her, in the form of a piece called Junem. “Junem was the name of a cuddly toy my mother gave me when I was small,” Bilitzky explains. Junem, or joonam, is a term of endearment, something along the lines of “dear,” in Farsi.
And, if there are any jazz fans out there who are wondering what the hefty four-stringed instrument is doing in an Arabic music setup, Bilitzky has news for you. “One of the special things about this [Tarab] style is that it adopted the double bass. Oum Kulthoum refused to sing if there was no double bass in the orchestra.”
That was part of the evolution of Arabic music, as it emerged from the fringes of society and found its way into the heart of 20th century Arabic culture, and became a bona fide, and much-lauded form of entertainment. “When Arab musicians and ensembles began to move out of the cafés and into theater auditoria, they had to bring a larger orchestra and everything changed.” The shift of locale necessitated some personnel swelling, and instrumental category complements. “They added more violins – one was not only enough – and, as early as 1910, they tried out with a clarinet and then cello, double bass and accordion, and later electric guitar,” said Bilitzky.
The acceptance of the double bass into the Arabic musical fold, Bilitzky continues, is basically down to the efforts and talent of one artist. “It is really thanks to Fuad Abbas [who played with Oum Kulthoum]. He really knew how to do that.” The yesteryear Egyptian musician continues to fuel Bilitzky’s development. “I’m still learning from him,” he says. “He is a source of inspiration for me.”
So, the double bass is well and truly in the Arabic music mix. “I think that the feeling of tarab, which you get from the microtones and quarter tones, I feel also comes from the role of the bass. It connects the percussive side with the melodic side of the music. It doesn’t add harmonics – there is no harmony in Arabic music – and it doesn’t play all the notes in the melody. That is very complicated for the bass. It plays some of the tune. So, although there is no harmony, there is a kind of melodic counterpoint there, and it has its own beauty.”
In fact, Bilitzky’s own transition, from jazz into music from this region, was the result of the deficient circumstances he faced after returning from New York. “I had a crisis here because the scene here was much more limited. There wasn’t much point in leaving the house for a 200 shekel gig. OK, in New York I’d go out for a $20 gig, but it was New York. You could go from gig to gig, and also you’d take the A train. You were there in the actual place.” The latter refers to a line on the New York subway, but also the name of popular Duke Ellington standard – Take the A Train.
Old sparring partner, Mor, helped to point the way eastward. “Omri had started to play with [Algerian-born oud master] Nino [Biton] and he kept asking me about joining in,” Bilitzky recalls. “For some reason, I kept on turning him down until, one day, it felt right and went along. That was it for me.”
He became a regular with the Biton crowd and gradually his own approach to eastern expression on the ostensible western instrument developed. Today, Bilitzky teaches that technique and line of thought to students at the Academy of Music and Dance of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The results of that 17 years-and-counting odyssey from the A train into the textures, sonic undercurrents and spirit of the east will be out there for all to enjoy at the Israel Museum next week.
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