Tel Aviv Jazz Festival: The Difference Between Successful and Excellent

Performances by foreign guests were enjoyable at the three-day Tel Aviv Jazz Festival, but they lacked the added value of true excellence and surprise.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

The Tel Aviv Jazz Festival 2012 that ended on Friday showed the difference between a successful festival and an excellent one. The former type has many or at least quite a few high-quality, interesting performances, and this festival definitely accomplished that. However, in contrast to past years, it seemed that this year’s three-day event lacked the “added value” of truly excellent and surprising performances by foreign guests, the ones whose music makes you feel uplifted or which gives you a positive vibe simply from the encounter with a top-notch artist. Such was the case with Kahil El’Zabar and Mario Pavone in 2008; Lee Konitz and Gutbucket in 2010; and Dee Alexander and Jaleel Shaw last year.

This year I didn’t really enjoy that kind of experience (I attended about one-third of all the festival performances), and particularly not at the concerts by foreign jazz artists. It’s possible that a different selection of performers would have yielded the hoped-for added value, but such is the nature of a festival: It’s impossible to do everything.

Avishai Cohen. Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

The best performance I attended was by an Israeli artist, Avishai Cohen. It it made a mockery of those who had had reservations about his participation after the release of the festival program around a month ago. There were no less than four concerts by musicians like Cohen, from what can be referred to as the “extended” Third World Love family. Ahead of the jazz fest, people wondered: Isn’t it a bit much, with all due respect to this wonderful band?

No, it was not over the top. True, I didn’t see the performances that featured Third World Love contrabassist Omer Avital, but the duo of saxophonist Yuval Cohen and pianist Yonatan Avishai was terrific. Furthermore, the concert by Avishai Cohen (Yuval’s brother), Yonatan Avishai and American drummer Jeff Ballard was a real plus: a fantastic performance.

All this was not surprising. Cohen (with a bearded look that would allow him to fit in perfectly if The Band were ever to reunite) is not just the leading Israeli jazz trumpeter: He is one of the best contemporary jazz trumpet players in the world. He does smart compositions with emotional depth; has a great sound that is sometimes dry and at other times generous and warm; and his playing verges on perfection. What more could one ask for?

There was also one more thing: featuring partners like Ballard and Avishai together. In the first section of the concert it seemed as if a contrabass could have improved the music, but very soon this impression dissipated. The trumpet-piano-drum trio produced a thin, vibrant, fresh and light sound. Every drumbeat of Ballard’s, every rustle he elicited from the cymbals, was imbued with imagination and the joy of invention. Meanwhile, Cohen and Avishai to a certain extent switched the traditional roles of the pianist and wind instrumentalist: Instead of the piano supplying a supportive and “responsible” base, and the wind player letting loose, Avishai was the one who took the strange turns (true to his nature), while Cohen was the one who played responsibly, which did not at all detract from the tremendous freedom he displayed in his playing.

The repertoire included a wonderful piece by the pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (before Cohen presented it, I mused that it was an original piece that could be called, “Thelonious Gronich”); a piece by Ornette Coleman; and five or six original pieces, each one nicer than the other. Between “A Song for a Dying Country” (as the second piece was called) and the concluding piece, “It Could Have Been Uganda” there was an hour and a half of Israeli jazz at its best.

The sort of theatrical, mixed tone typical of the Cohen brothers’ performances with Yonatan Avishai was also evident in the concert of drummer and accordionist Koby Israelite, an Israeli working in England who records with John Zorn’s Tzadik label. Israelite performed in a duo with English tuba player Oren Marshall, and their playing was characterized by two layers. The first was a dialogue between the accordion and the tuba, and it was excellent. Israelite has the stage persona of a funk musician who earns a living from working with movers, and his refined and delightful accordion playing in contrast to his seemingly tough image was refreshing. The same was true of Marshall, who produced surprisingly clear tones from his cumbersome tuba.

The second layer of the concert was embodied in the combination of acoustic instruments and computerized manipulative devices, including two iPhones and a looper (an electronic device for looping music that mimics live playing and enables a musician to build layer upon layer of music). From the standpoint of this encounter between live and computer-generated music the concert by Israelite and Marshall was fairly predictable and did not create a surprising or truly riveting musical atmosphere. One segment was called “Circus Mayhem” and at the end of it, Israelite called out “Touche, how do we translate that?” Writer Ofir Touche Gafla, who was in the audience, called out “Kirkas Balegan” immediately. The mayhem was lively, but not really amazing, and the circus took the form of mild acrobats with nice juggling but without the breathtaking demonstrations by a trapeze artist and sword swallower.

Israeli oldies

The tribute to Horace Silver by American saxophonist Ronnie Cuber was another example of a very good and enjoyable festival event that was not able (actually, did not attempt) to take the next step and reach the level of an outstanding performance. Silver is not only one of the leading jazz composers of the last 60 years he is also one of the funkiest people in the universe: the closest thing in jazz that there is to Ray Charles.

Cuber took six excellent Israeli musicians and made them endure a rigorous rehearsal regime, and the result was tight, flawless renditions with an enjoyable sound from the winds section of some of Silver’s most famous pieces.

Cuber’s arrangements were very faithful to the original and managed to reconstruct the Silver mix of super-elegant melodiousness and super-rhythmic beats. No doubt the Tel Aviv Cinematheque’s maintenance staff will have to work hard to restore the auditorium floor to its former condition after the energetic foot-stamping prompted by the music. But was Cuber’s approach too faithful to the original? On one hand, a little less faithfulness might have lost the Silver spark. On the other, it would not have hurt to try and stray occasionally from the expected format. This concert was a bit like a long-term bank deposit. Very reliable, but you know exactly what will happen with it.

By contrast, the music of the French saxophonist David El-Malek, who appeared on the festival’s second day, was similar to a short-term bank deposit. He is very saxophonist who knows how to formulate rounded and polished musical sentences, but he’s not good with the “sting.” It was actually provided by the rhythm section, which consisted of a trio with excellent pianist Baptiste Trotignon. The encounter between the his angular brightness and El-Malek’s rounded forms produced a fine concert, which was weakened slightly toward the end when El-Malek, who lived in Israel for a few years as a child, did improvised versions of songs from the Israeli repertoire. These performances, for example, “Kol Hakavod” by Yehoram Gaon, made some in the audience think: “Wait a second, is he playing what I think he’s playing?” But El-Malek did not do anything particularly interesting with them.

At the end of the evening, I went to the stand selling discs and asked for a CD of the Baptiste Trotignon Trio without El-Malek. “They just took the discs and left for the airport,” the salesman told me.

Unlike Efrat Gosh’s concert at last year’s festival, Nurit Galron did not “dress up” as a jazz singer at this year’s event and that is a good thing. What Galron did do, with the help of musical director Guy Weingarten, was to perform with a slightly jazzier ensemble than her usual band, and with a slightly jazzier repertoire than usual. These modest pretenses yielded modest success.

There were a few things about Galron’s concert that bothered me. First, it featured songs that should had not have been done at a jazz festival. Presumably we could have managed without the “Hamystikanim Hasinim” (“The Chinese Mystics” a popular Galron song). Secondly, there were (a few) songs where Weingarten tried to forcibly jazz up things that cannot be jazzed up (this happened for example in “Zeh Hageshem” “It’s the Rain.”). Third, in concert Galron sometimes tends to replace original lyrics in the recorded versions with other ones. On paper, this is a welcome thing. After all, who wants to hear the same exact song when done live? Singers must innovate. But in practice, some of the live phrases sounded a lot less musical than the originals. They didn’t flow as well and were choppier, which was a shame. Galron could have sung even more songs from her early years, when she was closer to jazz. Indeed, she did perform a few of them (including the wonderful “Kim’at” “Almost”) very well, and after that the jazzy element of her singing became a little more organic and colored the second half of the performance in beautiful, natural hues. Particularly beautiful was Galron’s dialogue with the excellent saxophonist Ofer Peled; equally impressive was Galron’s encore, featuring “Od Lo Amarti Hakol” (lit., “I Haven’t Said Everything”), which she said she had never performed on stage: “... and the audience will disperse / and everyone will remember” Natan Zach wrote in this poem. And Galron’s great rendition guaranteed that everyone who left after the concert would remember its lovely end.