Spanish Harlem in Jerusalem

An innovative performance at the Jerusalem Jazz Festival merges modern jazz with Ladino song

Yell.submarine.ensemb.88 (photo credit: Courtesy photo)
(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
espite its relatively small size, Jerusalem is home to a lively jazz scene. This week, that scene will be further jazzed up in the form of the first annual Jerusalem Jazz Festival, which brings four evenings of top-notch concerts and workshops to venues around the capital. With all the international stars it would be easy to miss one of the more compelling performances of the festival, an ambitious fusion of traditional Sephardi songs with hard-hitting jazz carried out by the Yellow Submarine Ensemble with singer Odelia Dahan. "We've been working on this for a year," explains guitarist Atcha Bar, who is also director of the Yellow Submarine club and one of the main organizers of the festival. "We did a similar project with Kurdish singer Elana Elia, mixing jazz with ethnic songs at the Israel Festival [in 2002]." The project also features the addition of a string section, making the music, in the words of pianist and arranger Ittai Rosenbaum, "fascinating, heavy and complicated." "The strings and Odelia play their own authentic style and don't improvise, but since the arrangements are elaborate, they have a lot of work to do. I tried to write and arrange around the lyrics... most of them are very short and are supposed to be wedding songs, but if you listen to the words there is something else and some songs are surrealistic." A preview copy of one of the pieces - they have recorded three tracks of the eight-song project - reveals a complex, eclectic arrangement of the short love song "Senora Novia." The piece begins with a tangoesque intro by the strings and piano which segues into Dahan's lush vocals over a latin/funk groove. A short sax solo backed by an intricate string accompaniment breaks up the lyrics a bit, and the piece then leads into an extended piano and drums workout, ending with a nicely composed coda with the strings. "Ittai has done wonderful, very high level work," says Dahan, who is currently working on her masters' degree in musicology at the Hebrew University focusing on Sephardi song traditions. "We chose rare, special material and he didn't want to change the melodies, his treatment was really gentle. Everyone who has heard the music says there is something special there." The Yellow Submarine Ensemble was formed in 2000 with the aim of performing original jazz. The membership has varied slightly over the years but the core members have remained: Ittai Rosenbaum, Atcha Bar and saxophonist Yaron Mohar. The other current members are the rhythm section of acoustic bassist Hagai Bilitzky and drummer Udi Shlomo. In addition to its performance at the Israel Festival, the ensemble has also appeared at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat and in countless venues around the country. This performance is the only one in the Jerusalem Jazz Festival that features specific Jewish content, although some of the other Israeli acts performing will undoubtedly display some Middle Eastern influence in their playing. This is a growing trend as young Israeli jazz musicians, many of whom spend extensive time in New York, seek a way to make the music their own. Once, big name artists came to the Holy City often. Both Bar and Rosenbaum are longtime Jerusalemites and remember the 1980s when many top jazz acts came to perform in the Sultan's Pool area. Some of the greats that made it to Jerusalem during that time were Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, McCoy Tyner and others. "I even saw Miles Davis!" recalls Rosenbaum in wonder. "I was in high school when all these musicians came and I met some of them; they were all happy to be here and to play. As a teenager these kinds of shows give such stimulation; this is why people move to Tel Aviv and then to New York." Later the Israeli scene shifted with the popularity of the Red Sea Jazz Festival and the opening of clubs in Tel Aviv that host international talent. Occasional greats like guitarist Pat Metheny would occasionally appear in Jerusalem for the Israel Festival, but the Jerusalem Jazz Festival marks the return of Jerusalem to the international jazz scene. Not that jazz has been missing. The late, great saxophonist Arnie Lawrence hosted legendary jam sessions over the last several years, and there are opportunities to hear live jazz several times a week - including a free show at the Sub on Tuesdays. In addition, many of Israel's top jazz artists, such as renowned bassist Avishai Cohen, grew up in Jerusalem. "I do a lot of teaching and the students have a good time here," says Rosenbaum. "For such a small community there is a lot happening." The Yellow Submarine Ensemble and Odelia Dahan with Nitzan Canetti, violin, Galya Hai, viola and Maya Belzitsmann, cello, perform at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 20, at the Cinematheque. Tickets cost NIS 70 and can be ordered at 622-2333 or 623-7000. The Jerusalem Jazz Festival runs from June 19-22. For a complete listing of concerts, workshops and jam sessions visit