Excellent. Well-respected. Professional. Traditional. A guaranteed pleasure, exciting, and adventurous, though to a slightly less degree.
This description may be applied to every one of the recent Red Sea Jazz Festivals in Eilat, and in fact to all of them during Danny Gottfried's lengthy term as artistic director, running from the late 1980s until last year.
Musician Avishai Cohen replaced Gottfried as artistic director in 2008, and said a few months ago that his goal would be not only to preserve the festival's demonstrated excellence, but to also update it and inject a youthfulness into it.
And so it is disappointing to discover that the festival, which opens August 23, is to be, at least on paper, excellent, well-respected, professional, and traditional, with guaranteed pleasure, excitement and adventure, though to a slightly less degree. And from one important vantage point, the exposure of young Israeli jazz artists, this festival does not represent an advance, but a step backward.
The jazz festival is mainstream and appeals to all jazz-lovers. This is its nature and so it will remain.
But it seems that Cohen, like Gottfried before him, sees only one side of the equation. He knows that most festival goers are people who like their jazz accessible and easy on their ears. It appears that he doesn't understand that even inside the bubble which encloses the festival and separates it from real life, the audience would not object to less friendly and more daring music, and would even welcome it.
Anyone who heard Israeli avante garde jazz pianist Slava Ganelin playing during the 2003 festival to a crowd of 1,000 - which at least appeared to enjoy his music - knows that the festival audience does need to be protected from innovation.
The list of foreign guests at this year's festival may be divided into a few groups: good, refreshing mainstream; good, predictable mainstream; and boring mainstream.
In the first group, mainstream with an element of novelty, are guitarists Lionel Loueke and Kurt Rosenwinkel (if he has a good day and doesn't repeat the sleepy performance he gave in Tel Aviv five years ago), the excellent drummer Dafnis Prieto and the sly pianist Jean-Michel Pilc.
In the second group, of good, if familiar, mainstream artists, are the wonderful saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, terrific singer Dee Dee Bridgewater (who appeared in Israel just one year ago), pianist Chano Dominguez and saxophonist Jimmy Greene (who also recently played here).
In the third group, boring mainstream, are singer Robin McKelle (she also visited here recently), guitarist Rob Ickes (who plays jazz standards on a slide guitar), and guitarist John Scofield. Scofield is a musician with much to his credit, one of the outstanding jazz guitarists of the last decade, but the group he is bringing with him to Eilat, focusing on gospel and R&B, sounds (to judge by the album) worn-out.
If Cohen had dared to invite artists outside the mainstream (at one point he announced that he would try to bring representatives of what he termed "downtown shit," that is, freer and more adventurous New York City jazz), the festival would only have benefited.
What about Israeli musicians? About half of the local shows are not jazz performances (and this estimate assumes that singer Marina Maximilian Bloomin will offer a actual jazz show).
The fabulous Apples have a slight relation with jazz (I hope they emphasize it in their show), but the other four groups (Habanot Nechama, Funkenstein, Danny Sanderson and the drum ensemble Kabako) are not connected to the genre in any way.
It may be that these choices are connected to the fact that this will be the first Eilat jazz festival to feature Israeli artists on main stages. It's a welcome step, but the price - lowering the presence of local jazz practitioners - is extremely problematic.
Of the five true jazz performances by Israelis, three of them are by excellent musicians who are veteran players on the Israeli scene: saxophonist Eli Degibri with his great trio, including organ and drums, guitarist and oud player Amos Hoffman, and drummer Rea Bar-Ness.
The two remaining shows are dedicated to symphonic jazz. One features saxophonist Peter Wertheimer.
The second is the Israeli Big Band conducted by Danny Rosenfeld, a great orchestra of excellent young musicians who devote their time to more anonymous pieces in the repertoire. Cohen's idea to have them open the festival is a brilliant one.
But can it be that, aside from the Big Band, there will be no other representative of young Israeli jazz? Earlier festivals featured at least two or three groups of Israeli jazz players in their 20s. Who knows better than Avishai Cohen (who had to go to New York to foment his own career) that Israel lacks any other stage where talented musicians at the start of their careers can present their music in front of a large crowd.
It is strange and disappointing that he did not grant them a chance at the first festival under his direction.
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