Sax appeal

Since returning here after his staggering success in the US, Eli Degibri’s star has continued to rise.

Eli Degibri 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Eli Degibri 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Eli Degibri’s career path to date has been nothing short of a roller-coaster ride. The 33-yearold Tel Aviv-born jazzman relocated to the US at the age of 18, ostensibly to study jazz at Berklee College of Music in Boston. But the saxophonist did not last too long at the music academy, for good reasons and bad.
“I was homesick. I am an only child and I missed my parents. I was just a kid,” says Degibri. But there was something very positive hovering on the horizon, too.
“I was selected for the Thelonious Monk Institute. That was an important break for me,” he recalls. “That really saved me, because without that I would have just come back to Israel and that would have been that.”
After a period back in Israel, to find his bearings, Degibri returned to the US a few months later and became one of only six students selected for the Washington, DC, institute that year, on a full scholarship.
There, he would benefit from the wisdom and seasoned artistic know-how of a star-studded teaching staff, including trumpeter Clark Terry, saxophonists Benny Golson and Jimmy Heath, and bass player Ron Carter.
Just how much progress Degibri has made in the interim will be evident this Saturday evening (doors open 8:30 p.m.), when the reedman joins forces with American pianist Aaron Goldberg, compatriot bassist Reuben Rogers and 16-yearold Israeli drumming sensation Ofri Nehemya, for a concert at the Zappa Club in Tel Aviv. The local gig comes at the end of a highly successful European tour by the quartet.
Selection for the Monk school in Washington not only constitutes recognition of a budding jazz musician’s talents, it also makes the jazz community sit up and take notice.
Degibri’s berth at the Monk institute duly proved to be the springboard for a meteoric start to the youngster’s performing career.
At the age of only 19 Degibri landed a dream spot in legendary pianist Herbie Hancock’s band and spent two full years touring the world with him, including a triumphant concert at the Performing Arts Center in Tel Aviv.
“It was fantastic being with Herbie,” says Degibri, “but probably the best part of that whole time was playing here, in Israel. That was one of the best moments in my life.”
However, suddenly the honeymoon was over. Hancock decided to change his lineup and Degibri was left high and dry.
“That was tough,” says Degibri. “I had had such an amazing start, playing with Herbie all over the world at such a young age, and then I found myself having to start all over again, from the bottom.”
Naturally, having Hancock’s name in his resumé didn’t do his chances of launching a successful career as leader any harm, but it was still a tough passage in Degibri’s professional life. “I went to New York and had to start from scratch,” he says.
He quickly started performing at various venues across the Big Apple while maintaining a disciplined writing schedule. His debut album, In the Beginning, came out in 2003 and garnered an abundance of praise, and there have been four more releases in the interim. The last, Israeli Song, came out in 2010 and featured the saxophonist’s former teacher at the Monk institute, veteran bassman Ron Carter, celebrated pianist Brad Mehldau and former Miles Davis sideman drummer Al Foster, with whom Degibri has toured extensively.
AFTER 15 years of globetrotting from his New York base, Degibri decided itwas time to return home, and he has wasted no time at all in setting out his stall here. Mind you, he hasn’t exactly been a stranger here during his long sojourn abroad, and has performed here on a regular basis. The local cultural establishment has also been keen to recognize his achievements and Degibri landed the prestigious Prime Minister’s Award for jazz composition in 2006, followed by the Landau Prize for Jazz last year.
Since his relocation here Degibri has made a name for himself as a respected teacher. Last year he oversaw an ambitious project to nurture the talents of gifted high-school-age jazz students, and he now teaches at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem.
Degibri’s work at the institution is highly appreciated and, while we chatted at the academy café several students passed by to exchange pleasantries with their teacher. He says he is just as enthused to convey some of his insights to his disciples.
“I didn’t specifically think about teaching after I came back to Israel. I just want to teach, anywhere, to pass on my knowledge. I think I have a special method of teaching. One thing I said when I started here was we’re not going to just open the Real Book [compilation of popular jazz numbers] and run with it. I write and arrange music for the students. I put a lot into it.”
For Degibri it is about more than just introducing his students to the history and wonders of improvisational music.
“My objective is not to just turn all these students on to jazz, I want them to love music. I bring two iPods with loads of music with me. I play them some numbers and play my saxophone along with it. I point out all sorts of things in the music which they may not have noticed.”
But it’s the first-hand listening experience that Degibri really wants to convey to his youngsters.
“I’ll say something like: ‘you didn’t grasp that? OK, here it is on the saxophone,’ and then I’ll play it for them live. When you have a saxophone playing right in front of your face you can’t ignore it. It really gets the message, the feeling, across.”
It is also very much a two-way street.
“I learn a lot from the students, and from working with them,” says Degibri. “Today I often listen to music, not just for me, but also for my ‘children’ here at the academy. I hear something and I think that maybe the students could benefit from listening to it, too. That is very motivating for me.”
And it’s not just a matter of enriching the students’ knowledge and understanding of the jazz greats.
“I’ll play a Britney Spears number in class if I think they can learn something from it,” he declares.
It is not only in the classroom and on the stage that Degibri is making strides here and, when bass player Avishai Cohen ended his three-year tenure as artistic director of the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, Degibri was offered the job along with radio presenter and Red Sea Winter Jazz Festival chief Dubi Lentz. This summer the festival will move from its regular end-of-August berth to the middle of the summer vacation, and will run from July 30 to August 2.
Degibri brings a wealth of experience, besides his natural talent, which is rare to find in someone still closer to 30 than 40. The saxman says his time with Hancock certainly helped to toughen his backbone, even though it was a testing time.
“After almost every tour we did I considered calling Herbie’s manager and telling him I was quitting. It wasn’t easy playing with such a genius like Herbie. It was a lose-lose situation.
If I took a solo spot before Herbie no one would remember it after Herbie did his, and if I soloed after him no one would take any notice of me.”
That’s not quite accurate, and Degibri received plenty of positive reviews during his stint with Hancock. Either way, the Hancock sideman job and his ensuing work as a leader have left him with a rich professional baggage to pass on to his students and audiences here.
“Look at me today,” he states. “I have plenty of confidence and I think I am doing good things.”
Tomorrow evening the Zappa Club audience will, no doubt, concur.
Eli Degibri will perform at Zappa Club in Tel Aviv tomorrow. Doors open at 8:30 p.m., show starts 10 p.m. For tickets and more information: call *9080,