Ptashka’s super jazz bash

Jazz transcends geography, believes Ashdod festival artistic director Leonid Ptashka.

Valentina 521 (photo credit: Courtesy )
Valentina 521
(photo credit: Courtesy )
I n these dismal days of dwindling budgets for culture in all its various guises, artistic directors often find they have to keep on cutting their program coat to suit the shrinking budgetary cloth at their disposal. The formerly annual Tel Aviv Jazz Festival, for example, has been reduced to a biennial affair, and this summer’s Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat had to manage with a budget cut of 30 percent. So, what hope could there possibly be for a jazz event taking place beyond the confines of the long-standing festival venues? Leonid Ptashka is evidently made of sterner stuff. The founder and artist director of the Super Jazz Festival in Ashdod, a veteran jazz pianist himself, is delighted to be presiding over the two-day musical affair – this Wednesday and Thursday – in his hometown, for a fourth time.
“I started the jazz festival in Ashdod quite a few years ago, and then we had to move it to Rehovot and now, thank God, it has returned home,” he reflects.
As far as Ptashka is concerned, home is where the heart and the jazz are, regardless of its geographical location.
“You know, I tour around the world a lot, probably more than any other jazz musician from Israel,” he states.
“What difference does it make where you have a jazz festival? To my mind, people who don’t believe you can have a jazz festival in Ashdod take a very parochial view on life. You know what? I wouldn’t be surprised if, one day, a jazz festival springs up in Dimona. Why not?” Ptashka has certainly gone for broke this year, with a program that takes in several styles of jazz as well as acts from other musical domains, all of which will take place at the Ashdod Performing Arts Center. One of the headliners is a quartet fronted by Argentinean-born Canadian pianist Mario Romano. Romano has several strings to his professional bow – pardon the mixed musical metaphor – and describes himself as “musician, entrepreneur, philanthropist, sometime poet, philosopher and comedian.”
Romano grew up in a traditional Italian household and, as a child, learned to play a wide repertoire of Italian songs on accordion. When he was in his teens his father brought home an old piano and young Mario began to get into jazz. Today Romano tours the world with his quartet, which includes US-born Canadian saxophonist, clarinetist and flutist Pat LaBarbera who played in legendary powerhouse drummer Buddy Rich’s band from 1967 to 1973, and also worked with groundbreaking saxophonist John Coltrane.
There is also a healthy helping of blues-oriented acts in the festival lineup.
“I wanted to have a strong emphasis on blues this year,” explains Ptashka.
“There is a very special blues band coming from Russia called Stalin Blues Gulag Jazz. They come from the area in Russia called Gulag, which is where Stalin killed people, and killed jazz. They also put humor into their music, which is important, too.
There’s also a great jazz band coming from the United States called Carolina Jazz Dixie Band.”
The local blues community will also be represented, in the shape of the long-standing SOBO blues band. The Jerusalem-based group comprises American, Russian and Israeli influences, with Haifa-born, American-raised guitarist Assaf Ganzman, Russian-born guitarist Daniel Kriman and Israel-born, NYC-raised drummer Elimelech “Fish” Grundman. The members of the band cite ‘60s rock and pop acts, as well as soul and blues bands, among their influences.
One act Ptashka believes will really bring the crowds in is 43-year-old Italian-American pianist Antonio Ciacca. Ciacca was born in Germany, raised in Italy and educated in America. He cut his jazz teeth with some of the giants of the art form, including saxophonist-flutist James Moody, trumpeter Art Farmer, and saxophonists Lee Konitz, Johnny Griffin and Dave Liebman. He also studied with leading pianists Kenny Barron and Jackie Byard, and has gained valuable bandstand time with players from the mainstream and avant garde sides of the jazz tracks. He has put out half a dozen albums to date under his own name.
“Antonio is very popular at the moment, says Ptashka, “and it’s great that we were able to bring him over for the festival.”
There is also an all-female band in the lineup which goes by the unsurprising name of Lady Jazz, while there is also room for US vocalist Charenee Wade, who was last in Israel in June as part of the Hot Jazz series.
There is also some extracurricular entertainment lined up, in the shape of Spanish flamenco guitarist Vicente de Andres, who will perform alongside flamenco violinist, dancer and choreographer Tania Vinokur.
Veteran Israeli singer-songwriter Shlomo Gronich is also on the two-day roster.
Ptashka is clearly keen to stretch the musical boundaries in order to bring in the crowds. “You could say that the festival program is wide,” admits the artistic director, adding that it is very much his baby.
“The official name of the festival is the Super Jazz Festival with Leonid Ptashka. There is no artistic committee here that chooses the artists, it is all me. That gives me free rein to bring whomever I want, which is wonderful. If I didn’t have complete freedom I wouldn’t have the festival. I am already at an age that I can’t work with something above me. The people who come to play at the festival are my friends, and musicians I play with around the world.”
The opening slot of the festival program features a work written by Ptashka, and performed by him together with the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra.
“The composition is called Jazz Suite and I wrote it especially for the festival,” says the pianist. “It is something between classical music and jazz. They are the worlds I come from.”
Ptashka is also grateful for the support he has received from the local municipality, and says he is looking forward to bigger and better things in the not-too-distant future.
“Next year I hope we will have the use of the brand new amphitheater, which will seat between 4,000 and 7,000 people. That will really open things up for the festival.”For tickets and more information about the Ashdod Jazz Festival: (08) 768-1536, (08) 956-8111, 1-800-100- 012 and www.mishkanashdod.