Bad Case of the Blues at Red Sea Jazz Festival

If this year’s jazz festival in Eilat had exemplified the full potential of the encounter between jazz and non-American music, there would be no reason to complain. But it didn’t.

At the end of a three-day jazz festival the ears usually ask for a time-out. They are prepared to hear rock, classical, metal, electronic or Mizrahi music – anything but a trumpet solo. But at the end of the Red Sea Winter Jazz Festival in Eilat on Sunday, something odd happened: The ears still thirsted for jazz, and especially for a horn solo.

There were, of course, jazz performances during the event, and some of them were good. But this year, artistic director Dubi Lenz opted almost completely to ignore the bread-and-butter of such festivals: American jazz. Or, to be precise, music that emphasizes the essence of jazz as a black American art, even if the person playing it is Israeli or Yugoslav or Turkish or Korean.

This is a legitimate choice, even an interesting one. It reflects the taste of Lenz, who is identified more with world music than jazz per se, as well as the state of jazz today as universal music that holds a dialogue with all other kinds of music under the sun.

If this year’s festival was excellent and exemplified the full potential of the encounter between jazz and non-American music, the joy would be great and there would be no reason to complain. But because it didn’t do this – at least in the shows I saw – there was great longing for the bread and butter, for swing and a horn solo, which to the best of my knowledge were not evident there. And this could be a historic precedent for the festival.

This winter's event will thus be remembered for what was not there, among other things, but also for one performer: Luisa Sobral. The 27-year-old Portuguese who works in New York was the festival’s cover girl in ads and on billboards in Eilat. That is also how the festival director referred to her when he called her on stage Friday night.

Those who are not partial to cute singers might have been disappointed at the beginning of Sobral’s performance. In a small and affable voice she sang small and affable songs, mixing in small and affable routines in between. But as the show went on, the initial apathy melted and was replaced by boundless enjoyment.

The first thing that caused the change in impression was Sobral’s band: a rhythm section featuring piano, contrabass and drums. They played with exceptional elegance and delicacy. The songs themselves also helped transform the performance. Sobral, in contrast to other cute singers, didn’t sing the well-worn standards, rather original pieces written in the style of the standards – i.e., old style but new content. And she did so beautifully.

Sobral also offered an exciting rendition of “Call Me Maybe,” sang some fantastic songs in Portuguese, and even charmingly performed Yehonatan Geffen’s “The Prettiest Girl in Kindergarten.” It turns out that when she lived in Boston she had an Israeli boyfriend. He left her, and she learned the songs of Geffen and Yoni Rechter to get him back. It didn't work, but it looks like she got over him.

She may just yet be a jazz star one day, and before that happens it would be worth bringing Sobral back for more performances in Israel, in venues that don't take five hours to get to.

The festival performance of Polish pianist Leszek Mozdzer, Norwegian bass cello player Lars Danielsson and Israeli percussionist Zohar Fresco brought together three artists of the highest order. Together, they elicited great enjoyment from the ensuing musical dialogue. At two different points at least, Danielsson and Fresco played with each other, back and forth. Out of pure enjoyment and admiration for Fresco, Danielsson, began playing like a percussionist himself.

The players weren’t the only ones having a good time, but not everything the trio played was interesting. In the end, it was a good performance, but not a memorable one.

At the end of the performance by the Juan Carmona Quintet and guitarist Larry Coryell, somebody sitting behind me told his wife that as good as the Americans are, they've got nothing on the Spaniards. He got it half right. Carmona himself proved to be a flamenco guitarist who can do it all. But although he is an excellent musician, he was not at his best in Eilat. Actually, he sounded pretty rusty.

The performance by the Samuel Yirga Quartet, which opened the festival, brought much promise. The mixture of jazz and Ethiopian music can be wonderful, and rarely does a band from Addis Ababa come here and express this in an organic and deep way. However, the greater the expectations are, the greater the disappointment is. The young Yirga turned out to be a talented yet half-baked pianist. His playing arose more from excitement than from coherence and depth. His band was mediocre at best, and the guitarist sounded like a first-year student – not one of the top classmates at that.

According to the festival program, Peter Gabriel signed Yirga to his record company. Based on the performance, it’s not exactly clear why.

Yud photography / Yehuda Ben Itakh
Yud photography / Yehuda Ben Atikah