A few weeks ago, during a night trip on an empty road, the car radio was tuned to Yuval Meskin’s superb jazz program on 88 FM. Meskin was playing recordings by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers from the late 1950s or early 1960s (with Lee Morgan on trumpet and Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone). The music burst out of the radio in a tremendous crescendo of swing. Right away I was seized by a desire to hear live jazz, but of a kind that would beat with a spirit as close as possible to the music that streamed from that old recording.
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A few years ago, when jazz musicians from the United States were still coming to Israel reasonably frequently, one could wait for the arrival of a top American artist to sate the hunger. Now, though, it’s clear that it has to be a gig by an Israeli jazz musician. Which one? That’s clear, too: When’s the next Albert Beger concert?
Beger is something of a local jazz messenger. In the group portrait of Israeli jazz he stands in the front row on the left side, somewhat removed from the dominant Avishai Cohen types, Omer Avital and Eli Degibri, who are 15-20 years younger than Beger and far more popular. Beger, who is 55, didn’t start playing the saxophone until he was 27, but within a few years became the outstanding sound in the freer regions of local jazz. His previous 11 albums, most of them top-notch, constitute an astonishing body of work, and the twelfth, “The Way to Go,” which was released on the Jazzis Records label a few days after my night journey with the Jazz Messengers, shows him as a jazz emissary at the top of his form. After the mixed feelings generated by his 2010 album “Peacemaker,” it’s a pleasure to hear Beger at his peak again.
On the new album Beger is accompanied by the drummer Yoav Zohar and by Assaf Hakimi on contrabass. It’s his first trio recording in almost 10 years, but the long wait is understandable. Beger’s previous trio albums were recorded with two great American jazz musicians: the drummer Hamid Drake and the contrabassist William Parker. After such resonant collaboration, you need to chill out and back off the trio format for a few years – and Beger’s next albums were in fact done in quartet, quintet and duo form. The classic trio format waited patiently, and the patience paid off. The new CD features excellent combo instrumentalism, taut and attentive, with Beger in the role of first among equals.
This isn’t standard jazz, and there’s no harmonic instrument here to provide a safety net. But there is a framework: not only on the part of the bass and the drums, which lay an open but meaty rhythmic foundation, but also on the part of the melodies. Beger is nothing if not melodious. At their best, his melodies are like mantras: a few sounds that penetrate deeply. A splendid example is “Cost of No Return,” the album’s opening number. You can almost paint the tune while listening to it. A sequence of three notes that drops low and then soars into a very high space, followed by another triple sequence in the same pattern but with smaller spaces; and then a mirror image – a three-note sequence that soars and then drops very low, and after it another sequence in the same pattern; and finally, a balance is struck by means of a few notes that cruise tranquilly at medium height, without rises or falls. It might seem mathematical, but the sound is natural and full of life, and the improvised development of the melody, executed according to the John Coltrane book, is not surprising and is played superbly.
Then comes a surprise. As a student of the Coltrane school, Beger’s mood is usually serious and grave. He’s not here to amuse and be amused. But the album’s second cut, “Black Cabaret,” is packed with eccentric musical humor. Eccentricity and humor were always part of black music at its height – think of Thelonious Monk or Ornette Coleman – and Beger, who got his musical schooling in Amsterdam, injects them into his music and assembles them into 10 minutes of bent, wonderful music.
The next two numbers are not as good. “Morton Feldman,” a homage to the American composer, remains impenetrable even after a few listenings; and the mantra of “Eternity” doesn’t succeed in transforming a little into a lot. But then the album’s theme segment arrives and the reservations about the previous two cuts are forgotten. As always with Beger, this number overflows with energy and intensiveness, but also contains extraordinary gentleness – Beger’s saxophone sounds perforated and emptied. And then you remember that last year, when Beger performed at the Eilat jazz festival, he related that this number, called “The Way to Go,” was dedicated to his mother, who had died not long before.
The delicate musical lament is not the end of the affair. After the parting from the dead, the last cut on the album hurtles into life with savage power. “In the Zone” is an original piece, but with heavy primitive drumming and a crawling melody that’s threatening-but-not-really. It sounds like an appropriate jazz cover for a Black Sabbath song.
Way to go!