Still blowing after all these years

This year’s Red Sea jazz bash has plenty of blasts from the past.

Albert Piamenta (left) will revive one of his earlier jazz projects at the Red Sea jazz bash in Eilat on August 28, alongside drummer Areleh Kaminsky (photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
Albert Piamenta (left) will revive one of his earlier jazz projects at the Red Sea jazz bash in Eilat on August 28, alongside drummer Areleh Kaminsky
(photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
When it comes to endurance, Albert Piamenta has most of us well and truly beat. Sitting opposite the evergreen clarinetist and saxophonist, it is hard to believe he is 78 years old. Close to six decades after he first took the bandstand, Piamenta is still blowing strong, and will revive one of his earlier projects, the Sadnat HaJazz (Jazz Workshop), at the forthcoming Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat (August 27-30).
Piamenta’s quartet show, which takes place on August 28 (9:45 p.m.), is based on the biblically titled 1971 album called Mezareh Yisrael Yekabtzenu – a quote from the Book of Jeremiah, which translates roughly as “He who scattered Israel will gather him in” – which the reedman recorded with pianist Danny Gottfried, who is a whole year younger than Piamenta. The rest of the original Sadnat HaJazz foursome included Jerry Garval on drums and Teddy Kling on double bass, whose places will be filled by long-time Piamenta collaborator the 75-year-old drummer Areleh Kaminsky, and ubiquitous thirtysomething bass player Gilad Abro.
This year’s Red Sea jazz bash has plenty of blasts from the past. Artistic director, saxophonist Eli Degibri, has made the most of the fact that this year’s fourday event is the 30th edition of the festival – which began life as a modest affair in 1987 – and has lined up an almost exclusively blue and white program.
The only big name leader from abroad is septuagenarian pianist-keyboardist Chick Corea, whose trio includes former sideman, and an international star in his own right, bassist and former Red Sea Jazz Festival artistic director Avishai Cohen, with American drummer Marcus Gilmore completing the lineup.
Otherwise, there are Israeli artists everywhere you look in the program, which, as always, also includes some extramural stuff, such as oud player and violinist Yair Dalal, a super duo pairing of pianist-composer-vocalist Yoni Rechter with iconic singer Esther Ofarim, and high-energy multidisciplinary outfit Balkan Beat Box.
There is a nice pan-generational mix of long-serving acts – such as Piamenta et al., 71-year-old trumpeter-saxophonist Mamelo, and envelope pushing keyboardist Slava Ganelin – and some of the middle generation and younger crowd.
The former feature guitarist Ofer Ganor and his cohort at the festival, US-based guitarist and oud player Amos Hoffman, and saxophonist Yuval Cohen and his sextet. The fresher faced section of the roster includes a trio led by pianist Shai Maestro, along with Peruvian-born bassist Jorge Roeder and effervescent drummer Ziv Ravitz, renowned New York-based guitarist Gilad Hekselman and his US sidemen – bass player Joe Martin and drummer Jeff Ballard – and the chronologically well-named The Young Collective six-piecer.
While most would identify Piamenta with the jazz sector, the man has truly been there and done that. He hails from a veteran Jerusalem family – the Piamentas came to this part of the world a full five centuries ago – and was surrounded by music from the word go. His father played oud and qanoun, although that did not necessarily draw the youngster to the eastern side of the music tracks.
“The fact that my father played oud meant that I wanted to play music, that’s all,” he says. “I was drawn to the popular music of the day – Italian music, French music of the 1950s, and a few American numbers.”
Piamenta got his early eclectic music mix by listening to Radio Ramallah.
He also caught some Arabic works, but that, he says, was not viewed as a kosher artistic outlet. “I heard Arabic music but, you know, it was considered the music of the enemy, so it was frowned upon,” he says. It wasn’t until he was much older that Piamenta was able to appreciate the subtleties and beauty of the genre, and even stake a claim to a pioneering slot of his own: he is considered the first musician in the world who succeeded in evoking quarter tones from his saxophone. “You have to mature not to be entrapped in the political stuff,” he notes.
The reedman clearly managed to carve his own path betwixt the various musical domains, and Mezareh Yisrael Yekabtzenu was the country’s first instrumental jazz release, and included material which today would be associated with ethnojazz.
Over the years, Piamenta has spread his musical wings far and wide. He began his musical tuition in earnest at the age of 15, when he took free lessons from Yehuda Polchek, a member of the Jerusalem Police Orchestra, before the youngster went to school in the morning.
Piamenta made good progress, and his time in the army was spent as a clarinet player in the IDF orchestra.
After demobilization, Piamenta joined forces with Gottfried, who founded the Red Sea Jazz festival and served as its artistic director for the first 22 years. Gottfried had served in the Israel Air Force orchestras, and Piamenta soon upped his jazz ante when he took classes with Mel Keller, considered the godfather of the Israeli jazz scene.
Keller made aliya from New York in the 1950s, and Piamenta, Gottfried and Kaminsky owe him their entry into the domain of improvisation music.
Piamenta maintained a busy gigging schedule, including a stint at the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv, in a band led by Peesee Osherovitch, a Romanian-born multi-instrumentalist who, along with Keller, sparked the burgeoning local jazz community. “I learned a lot from him,” says Piamenta. “After that time with Peesee, I remember Danny [Gottfried] said there was something new, and better, about my playing.”
The music room of Piamenta’s Tel Aviv apartment is awash with all manner of instruments, from all around the globe.
“I mainly play clarinet and saxophone, but I have always been curious about other cultures and their music,” he states.
Over the last 60 or so years, that thirst for new frontiers has led Piamenta every which music way. In 1968, Kaminsky asked Piamenta to join him at the former Barbarim jazz club in Tel Aviv, and together they formed the Habarnashim Shel Piamenta (Piamenta’s Guys) band. The group, which also included guitarist-bassist Shmulik Aroch and trumpeter Uzi Melamed, did brisk business outside the strict confines of the jazz sphere too, backing such leading lights of the pop and rock world as Arik Einstein, Shoshana Damari and Chava Alberstein.
During a seven-year sojourn in New York in the 1970s, when the Israeli jazz scene was pretty arid, he often earned a decent crust playing Arabic and Armenian music, as well as hassidic numbers at weddings. Incredibly, the chameleon- like reedman also performed with Indian and Chinese music troupes. On his return to Israel, Piamenta put out a solo record called Improvisation, with arrangements of Israeli oriental tunes, and Turkish and Greek folk tunes.
Despite being way past the official retirement age, Piamenta shows no signs of slowing down, and he still maintains a packed teaching and performance schedule.
The Sadnat HaJazz gig down south should delight the ears, and tug on the heartstrings, of the Eilat Port audience.
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