At Tel Aviv's Jazz Fest, More Questions Than Answers

The first night of the festival was spotty, with an Israeli duo outshining some American stars.

Ben Shalev
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Ben Shalev

Henry Grimes - the outstanding contrabassist who disappeared at the end of the 1960s (people thought he had died ) was rediscovered a decade ago. He came back to life at an age when other musicians would be retiring. It's still unclear what happened to him between 1968 and 2002.

At the end of Grimes' performance at the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival Tuesday night there was a similar feeling: more questions than answers. Was it a good performance? If so, why was I often bored? Was it a bad performance? If so, how is it that after two hours I badly wanted Grimes and his partners to keep on playing?

Henry Grimes Credit: David Bachar

Was it was a mediocre performance? If so, why didn't I forget it right after I left, as happens with other mediocre performances? In short, it's still unclear what exactly happened there the other night between 10:30 and 12:30.

Fortunately, the festival's organizers like to bring in trios linked to the wonderful tradition of black pre-jazz. Three of the festival's best performances of the past 10 years were just this type: the Jemeel Moondoc Trio in 2004, the Pyramid Trio in 2005 and Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio in 2008.

These left no questions, only the best answers. On the other hand, two acts that played the past two festivals - the Ritual Trio's return engagement in 2010 and the Indigo Trio last year - were disappointing.

The performance by Grimes (with saxophonist Andrew Lamb and percussionist Newman Taylor Baker ) fell somewhere in the middle, between superb and disappointing. It had some good qualities (freedom, searching, that deep and massive tone ), and some disappointing qualities (weak melodic material, playing that went nowhere ).

The performance swayed between these two poles, and I couldn't decipher any rules guiding the journey. One moment Grimes was playing like an old lion who had come in from the cold, with depth and dynamism, and the next he sank into a circular pattern of wandering bass. One moment the trio was expressing an interesting aesthetic in which the distance between the artists spawned emotional depth, and the next moment only scattered playing remained.

"It's as if the music refuses to be classified as anything meaningful," an Israeli jazz musician said at the end of the show. He was right. It's better not to try to force the issue.

Two hours before, two other shows elicited a clear reaction, one negative and one positive. The Mary Stallings Trio's performance, the festival's unofficial opening act, was very weak. Stallings is an older jazz singer with a strong range of soul that tends to become raspy - in a good way.

On paper, her performance should have been simple and good. But something went wrong. Stallings' singing was flat and imprecise, and the accompanying band was anemic. Not only did the show not find its groove, it never got close. On a day when superstar singer Cassandra Wilson canceled her appearance in Israel, the date with Stallings provided little solace.

I didn't see all of Stallings' performance. After about 40 minutes, I went over to see saxophonist Yuval Cohen and pianist Yonatan Avishai, which was going on at the same time. I got to see the final third of their show.

What a contrast between the two performances! The duo of Cohen and Avishai was excellent - airy music that made you want to dance; wonderfully melodic yet totally free, full of humor and playfulness. It was contemporary Israeli jazz at its best.

Tel Aviv Jazz Festival, first evening. Henry Grimes Trio; Mary Stallings; Yuval Cohen and Yonatan Avishai. Cinemateque Tel Aviv, February 21.