Arts: Touching bass in Jerusalem

Veteran improv musician Barre Phillips, in town for the Deep Tones for Peace project, has an upbeat take on the local vibes.

Barre Phillips 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Barre Phillips 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Barre Phillips has been around the block a few times, all over the world. But, says the 74-year-old bass free improvisation player, he was moved by his time in Jerusalem. California-born Phillips, who has been living in France for almost four decades, was in town to take part in the Deep Tones for Peace (DT4P) project overseen by Jerusalemite bassist and free improv scene leading light Jean Claude Jones and his Kadima Collective organization. The main event in the DT4P program, which involved various bassists from different countries in gigs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, took place at The Lab on April 26. Despite being well past pension age, Phillips was not taking it too easy here. Besides his performing and rehearsal duties in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, he also managed a foray to Ramallah, where he performed for and chatted with some budding local musicians. The Ramallah excursion took place under the auspices of the Romain Gary French Cultural Center in Jerusalem. "It was very interesting," says Phillips, and not just for musical reasons. "To begin with, there was this sort of no-man's-land where I was told no police go. There were just a few shops and a few goatherds and that sort of thing. Then we got into Ramallah and I felt like I was in a kind of Mexican border town. The bulk of the population was poor, the cars were old, and the stores didn't exactly stock consumer goods." As he got closer to the city center, the scene changed. "Going towards the main square, it reminded me of the south of the United States in the Fifties. Then we got to the area of the concert venue [the Sakakini Center] and you started seeing the BMWs, and then I thought: 'Oh, there's not only poor people here.' And then you see the newer buildings of the settlements and you see the difference." Phillips says he was only observing and was not looking at extraneous associations. "I am not going to get into the politics of that. That's not what it was about." The Ramallah trip, says Phillips, reminded him of his visits to Lebanon in the 1960s when he went to play at the Baalbeck International Festival there. "There was a money and social structure there that, presumably, had been in place for centuries." He also remembers some American intervention that didn't exactly work out as planned. "The Americans were giving local farmers money to compensate them for growing sunflowers instead of cultivating pot. The farmers did that, and just moved the pot to fields further up the hills." A working trip by Phillips to the Edouard Saïd Music National Conservatory in east Jerusalem, scheduled for the day after the Ramallah concert, didn't work out. "I wouldn't say that was disappointing, but it was a bit surprising. I had been told, beforehand, something about the dynamics of what goes on here, and I understood it better after that concert didn't happen. I heard they are more, shall we say, conservative in their politics in east Jerusalem." Considering the whole point behind the DT4P project, the negative fallout in east Jerusalem was doubly disappointing. "Yes, it was a shame, mainly for the students who wanted to hear me play," says Phillips, ever the pragmatist. "In fact, we thought - just for a short while - of having the concert in another place and letting the students know about it. But that would have just put pressure on the students, and that could have caused problems. That would have been negative." In professional terms and his mind-set, Phillips is the perfect ambassador for promulgating the ethos of freedom of expression on all levels. He has been a major player on the free jazz and free improvisation music scene for more than 45 years when he left his native California and moved to New York. "I wanted to be where it was happening," he recalls. "I quickly got involved in the free jazz scene in New York. I wasn't making much money, as you don't in the free sector of the market, but I was playing a lot of music and having the time of my life." His permanent move to Europe was serendipitous rather than the result of forethought. "I was in Europe for a tour, and I planned to stop off in London to spend two months there doing some stuff that was unrelated to music." It didn't quite work out that way. "I got a call from [German jazz producer] Joachim-Ernst Berendt, who said he'd heard I was in Europe and would I be interested in doing a production with him? Well, of course I was." Things just spiraled from there. He was asked by a French film director to contribute to a soundtrack and was asked to play in a scene in the film. By then, word was really getting round Europe that Phillips was available for hire and he was recruited for theater work, followed by work on the contemporary dance scene. "Yes, one thing led to another. The dance thing ended up with me working for six years with the Paris Opera. The two months I'd planned on staying in London became a year and a half, and I kept extending the sublet on my apartment in New York. And I've been in Europe ever since." In terms of the freer side of the jazz tracks, Phillips's efforts fell on fertile soil in Europe. "I also played quite a lot in East Germany, with people like [drummer] Gunther 'Baby' Sommer. There was a very healthy free jazz scene in the East back then. And there was a sort of community in Paris of American musicians. Paris was sort of the hang-out place for American jazz players in Europe, although there were others working in countries like Sweden and Germany. It was a sort of musicians' ghetto in Paris. It was quaint." While Phillips may not be quite the bundle of energy he was in his youth and didn't travel around too much during his stay in Israel, he feels he got a good handle on the vibes in Jerusalem. "Oh yes, I'd say I got into the ambiance here. I think that maybe things are very concentrated and amplified here in Jerusalem. Because JC [Jean Claude Jones] lives near the Agrippas shuk, I went wandering around that area and the scene around there is interesting - like a sort of microcosm." Phillips says his local education was also furthered by some taxi rides he took here. "You get a lot of information - and the vibes - from taxi drivers," he says, adding a surprisingly positive opinion on road etiquette here. "I've experienced a lot worse than Israeli taxi drivers. Try Istanbul - the driving there is really something. The drivers here are really quite conservative in comparison." Although the Deep Tones for Peace concert may not bring an instantaneous healthy change in regional politics, Phillips certainly brought a positive ethos with him, and not just on the musical front.