Tel Aviv Jazz Festival: Maybe This Is the Way to Play Jazz in the Post-genre Era

The J.D. Allen Trio jumped among styles and Duo Ras Dashen did not repeat its amazing debut.

The J.D. Allen Trio at the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival on Thursday.
Moti Milrod

Twelve years separate the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival debut of Duo Ras Dashen and its performance at this year’s festival. The show in 2003, which I attended with no prior knowledge of the duo, was one of the most moving jazz performances I had ever seen. It was the first time I heard the great Abate Berihun play and sing, and it was also my first exposure to the wonderful sounds of Ethiopian jazz. The combination of that sound, played amazingly by Berihun, and the touches of contemporary-classical-chamber pianist Yitzhak Yedid were hair-raising. This was musical grace, just like the debut album released by Ras Dashen shortly after that festival.

After a hiatus of almost 10 years, Berihun and Yedid recently resumed their creative partnership. They recorded their second album together, which is due to drop in a few months, and this weekend performed at the festival where they began. It was clear that they had no chance of approaching that thrilling experience; some things can only happen once. Yet the hope was that their reunion would produce an excellent, exciting performance.

There were pockets of beauty and moving moments, especially when Yedid elicited a cloud of delicate notes from his piano and when Berihun improvised on his saxophone or sang, but they were all too rare. In between, there was none of the beautiful blending of different worlds that is the foundation of Ras Dashen’s music. The Ethiopian and the classical-modern elements did not merge into a deep and poetic whole, Yedid’s playing was occasionally overly stiff and the title piece, “Ve’ahavta” (“you shall love”), was truly disappointing. In presenting it, Yedid joked that it resembled their “big schlager,” the lovely “Bahititu Kadus Kadus,” but in fact it was more like a superficial patchwork of gospel rhythms, Ethiopian sounds and a Bible verse sung in Amharic and English. Did my nostalgia for the unrepeatable past cause me to judge this piece too severely? Possibly. It would be interesting to hear what people hearing Ras Dashen for the first time thought.

Persistence pays off

After hearing the J.D. Allen Trio on Thursday, someone said, “They didn’t play free jazz.” There was a note of surprise in his voice, perhaps because the performance had been billed as a tribute to the titan of free jazz, Ornette Coleman, who died in June. The concert began with Coleman’s most famous piece, “Lonely Woman,” but overall it was far from being a salute to Coleman. There wasn’t even the slightest connection between Allen’s music and the Coleman legacy: not in sound, not in style and not in repertoire.

Tenor saxophonist Allen and his partners, the bassist Greg August and the drummer Rudy Royston, indeed did not play free jazz, at least not as it’s usually understood. So what did they play? That’s a good question. It’s easier to say what else, other than free jazz, they didn’t play. Their music wasn’t typical contemporary mainstream jazz, with clear harmonies and a flexible yet defined rhythm. It didn’t fall on any clear or recognized part of the spectrum between free jazz and mainstream contemporary.

More precisely, their music landed on several places along this spectrum, taking care not to get locked into any one of them and moving between styles in a frenzied manner. Heated and energetic half-free jazz, cutting to some kind of instrumental rhythm and blues, then breaking to a relaxed and elegant ballad, switching suddenly to clever and witty jazz served with iced water.

Every time you thought you understood what was going on, the music shifted, drawing another question mark. It was deceptive, and for the first half hour of the performance there was an impression that despite the high quality of Allen and his companions, their constant movement among different approaches testified to a lack of commitment and maybe even to the absence of a unique sound.

However, as the show went on, what at first seemed like a lack of commitment began to develop into a clear and committed artistic choice.

Perhaps this is the way to play jazz in the post-genre era: constantly switching between genres, hoping that the timing of the cuts and the switches and the way in which the puzzle is arranged will yield a human sound.

Duo Ras Dashen

Allen and his partners exhibited another fundamental principle of playing contemporary jazz, an empowered performance of a trio that works on an equal footing. A jazz trio as a more or less equitable unit, as opposed to a soloist and accompanying musicians, has been a recognized format for more than 50 years. When an ensemble realizes this option in a faithful and completely organic manner (especially in the case of an ensemble with a wind instrument, in which the hierarchy between the lead player and the accompanists is often maintained), it’s a delight to listen to. Royston’s octopus-like drumming and August’s meaty bass set the agenda no less than Allen.

When the festival’s artistic director Barak Weiss introduced the trio he said that he had been trying for years to bring Allen “and this ensemble” to Israel. His persistence paid off.