Jazz on the (southern) edge

What chance does a music venue in a small desert town stand? When it’s the Mitzpe Ramon Jazz Club, quite a good one, it seems.

mitzpe ramon jazz club 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
mitzpe ramon jazz club 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A brief description of the jazz club at Mitzpe Ramon may, to the unsuspecting ear, convey a sense of the surreal, if not the downright weird. Still, while an expression of wonderment at the existence of such a musical establishment in a geographical – let alone cultural – backwater might smack of big-city elitism, truth be told, jazz venues in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem don’t always pack ‘em in.
So what chance does a jazz club in a small desert town stand?
Images of Baghdad Café – the 1987 movie about a remote truck stop full of colorful and improbable characters – come to mind as you enter the premises in the hangar district near the northern entrance of Mitzpe Ramon. The decor is a patently incongruous blend of esthetics from worlds unbridged. But, somehow, it all fits. The oxymoronic hybrid of insulated industrialized metal sheeting walls and the quasi-grandiose velvet curtain backdrop to the stage, the small, round, red formica-topped tables and plastic chairs with the well-stocked bar in a back corner all contribute to a unique ambiance.
And there are the prerequisite black-and-white photographic portraits of some of the jazz greats, with all the usual suspects – Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, et al.
The club was opened in March 2007 by Gadi Lybrock, a fifty-something exile from Tel Aviv’s trendy Sheinkin Street district. He had run a successful photography store for some years and was drawn to the southern “outback” by matters natural.
“I moved here 11 years ago after a wonderful woman called Rahel Bat-Adam enticed me to help run a place she had called Sukka Bamidbar (Succa in the Desert), which was an ecological tourism spot,” explains Lybrock. “I’d come here from Tel Aviv every few weeks until we settled here.”
Lybrock received a helping nudge toward an active role in the minimal local jazz scene from his wife.
“I’d played trumpet for a couple of years as a kid. One day, my wife told me she’d found a saxophone teacher for me, here in Mitzpe. She took up the flute, and later saxophone, my son started playing and gradually a local scene starting developing. Now we even have our own big band.”
The Mitzpe Ramon Jazz Club proprietor may, in some subliminal way, be drawing on energies from a distant and venerable past.
“Someone told me that, in [Martin] Luther’s translation of the Bible, ‘lybrock’ is interpreted as a garment worn by priests in the Temple,” he says.
While the southern music venue is not exactly a holy sanctuary, Lybrock certainly devotes a lot of love and hard work to keeping it running, and to providing as rich and varied a program as possible.
My confluence with the club coincided with yet another biannual cycle ride to Eilat, and with a show by a couple of topliners the likes of which don’t always grace Lybrock’s stage.
“It’s wonderful to have people like [jazz vocalist] Ayelet [Gottlieb] and [jazz pianist] Anat [Fort] here,” says the owner. “It certainly adds interest to what we offer.”
Gottlieb and Fort recently returned to these shores from long sojourns in New York. Both have recorded several albums, and Fort is about to release her second offering for the prestigious German label ECM. Despite the sparse audience, Gottlieb enjoyed the experience.
“I played at the club a while back, at its previous premises,” she said. “It’s quite special to perform in a place like this.”
Lybrock says the Mitzpe Ramon venture has a twofold aim.
“We want to entertain and interest people in all kinds of music, not just jazz, and we also attach great importance to sowing the seeds of the musical infrastructure of the future here, and that means offering education.”
To that end, the club holds regular workshops, both on the premises and at local kindergartens and schools, with classical musicians such as viola da gamba player Sharon Rosner and harpsichordist Zohar Shefi.
Veteran Chicago-born bluesman Mark Rashkow has also graced the Mitzpe Ramon club’s stage, as has fellow blues artist Noam Dayan, jazz saxophonist Daniel Zamir, pop star Itai Pearl and ethnic act Istikal Trio, to name but a few.
While the audience for the Gottlieb-Fort gig was limited – somewhere in the region of a couple of dozen – the punters represented a wide demographic cross-section. One forty-something man came with his silver-haired mom; a young Russian couple listened while sipping vodka under a monochrome photo of Duke Ellington; and three serious-looking teenagers sat close to the stage, following Gottlieb and Anat with seemingly cerebral interest.
Meanwhile Gottlieb and Fort grappled with a sound system that was a little short of the audio technology they use Stateside, and probably at most other venues in this country.  Fort also managed to eke out an impressive range of textures and colors from the weatherbeaten upright piano, while Gottlieb went through some of her repertoire from several of her albums, including Deep Waters, Up to Here from Here and her impending Betzidei Derakhim (On the Roadside) release.
They even offered the club faithful an encore to complete the hour-long set.
Lybrock has been nurturing the burgeoning Mitzpe jazz scene for some time now.
“I was a driving force behind the Mitzpe Ramon Jazz Festival [in 2005 and 2006], which Ofer Portugali directed,” he adds. “It was very important for me to establish that jazz presence here and, especially, to have our jazz orchestra involved in the festival.”
The club also gets plenty of encouragement from closer to home.
“When we first started out, with the band, we were given a bomb shelter to practice in,” Lybrock recalls. “Then someone offered us the sound system, and another guy who was closing a club down gave us the tables and chairs here.”
So the club starting taking shape, at least in terms of fixtures and fittings.
Now it only remained for Lybrock to find acts willing to make the trek to the edge of the Ramon Crater.
“I didn’t really know any jazz artists back then, other than Ofer Portugali. So I placed notices in various forums, asking for young bands to come to play at the club – and I was overwhelmed by a deluge of responses.
“At the time, I didn’t really feel fully qualified to weed out the good stuff but, on the
other hand, I couldn’t be too picky. After all, who was going to comeall the way to Mitzpe?” Those willing to venture out to the desertweren’t going to get rich on it, either.
“I could only offer them a percentage of the ticket sales, plusaccommodation at one of my bed and breakfast places here – sort of aday out in the country.”
Things have changed considerably since those early pioneering days,even though the artists’ earnings in Mitzpe still don’t bother thetaxman too much.
“I now book acts half a year ahead. I also get Israeli jazz artists wholive in New York and come to Israel for the summer, and want to playhere before their gigs in the rest of the country. That’s a nicearrangement.”
At the end of the day, Lybrock just wants to offer the locals,including people elsewhere in the Negev and the Arava – from KibbutzSde Boker to Dimona – as much and as varied a musical diet as possible.
“This place is actually called the Mitzpe Ramon Jazz Club and MusicalEducation and Enrichment Center. It’s a long name, but I think it’s anapt description of what we set OUT to do,” he says.
So, if you’re looking for some quality musical entertainment in anunusual setting, with an abundance of clean air and spectacular sceneryto boot, a jaunt down to Gadi Lybrock’s jazz club might be just theticket.
For more information about the Mitzpe Ramon Jazz Club andMusical Education and Enrichment Center:http://jazzramon.wordpress.com/