The Music Falters, Then Rallies, at the Red Sea Jazz Festival

Israel's Omri Mor suffered without Maurice El Mediouni, while Fred Hersch had to lean on Thelonious Monk. Only Omer Avital provided jazz at its best.

Abraham Kabilio

“The last piece we played,” pianist Omri Mor said shortly after the show began — and then he stopped in his tracks. “The last piece I played,” he corrected himself, to the sound of laughter from the audience. He was the only one on stage.

Mor was supposed to perform with Maurice El Mediouni, the 85-year-old Jewish-Algerian pianist, but El Mediouni is still recovering from surgery. So Mor did a solo. That doesn’t happen often at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat. It’s a very big challenge, and Mor came through Sunday night.

During the first 20 minutes, which weren’t the best part of the show, I was hoping some drummer or bassist backstage or from the audience would offer his services. But during the last 45 minutes I realized I liked Mor performing alone just fine.

Mor brought a wide palette to the show. His first bass riff was reminiscent of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” (though I’m sure that wasn’t on purpose). The penultimate piece was a classical offering by the 18th-century Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti. But the show’s two main layers were Mor’s own arrangements to Andalusian music and his versions of jazz standards.

It was hard to form an unequivocal opinion about the Andalusian pieces; they really need to be heard more than once. In the show’s second piece, the rationale for combining jazz with Andalusian music wasn’t clear, though it was better understood in the fifth piece.

In these pieces it was too bad El Mediouni wasn’t on stage; we’ll have to wait for Mor’s debut album to come out. It was Mor’s versions of jazz standards that did the trick; his performance of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” was splendid.

Mor didn’t offer far-reaching interpretations, which was a good thing. He simply played that gorgeous piece while fully expressing its layers; the music left the piano soft and tense, complex and flowing, traditional and new. Even the elbow he slammed onto the keys sounded lyrical; well, almost.

Gourmet falafel

The open auditorium where Omer Avital’s jazz quintet performed was sparsely filled. This was partly because of the Gaza war, and also because pianist-singer Yoni Rechter was performing nearby at the same time, with Shlomi Shaban his guest artist.

The festival-goers who chose Rechter certainly heard some of Israeli music’s most beautiful songs. The minority who went for the jazzier option (because with all due respect to Rechter and Shaban, the ear thirsts for trumpets and saxophones on the festival’s first night) had no reason to feel deprived. We heard Israeli jazz at its best.

Before the encore, Avital’s band finished with a small quote on the contrabass from the Zohar Argov hit “The Years Have Gone By.” To borrow from one of Argov’s signature tunes, that show was the blossom in the garden of the festival’s first evening.

Yes, it’s a bit passé to write that Avital found the rare middle ground between the universal and the local. His music — jazz at its best — is Israeli at the same time. Some call it “falafel jazz.”

Actually, it’s gourmet falafel. Sunday’s show was based on Avital’s new album (“The title of the CD is ‘New Song,’” the New York veteran said in anglicized Hebrew.) The music was played by the same band that appears on the album.

It’s a bombshell of a band with Avital’s three eternal partners (Avishai Cohen on trumpet, Yonatan Avishai on piano and Daniel Freedman on drums) and the great (and tall) American saxophonist Joel Frahm. Frahm hopped from side to side while playing the melody of the album’s title track; that was one of the best moments at the festival in years.

A cool one by Hersch

At the entrance to pianist Fred Hersch’s show, jazz enthusiasts were talking about the last albums of the great American pianist Bill Evans.

“It’s Hamlet, it’s a Bach’s cello suite, it’s the Book of Lamentations,” one said excitedly. “You can really hear him speaking with the Angel of Death.”

Hersch, who was deeply influenced by Evans — and had his own conversations with the Angel of Death — didn’t pretend for a moment to reach even half the master’s depths. The performance was nice, but maybe because of that conversation at the beginning of the night, something was missing.

The later portion of the show wasn’t too moving either, but after a too-long and scattered rendition of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” Hersch and his two partners (John Hébert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums) fine-tuned their emotional frequency.

You could hear the wisdom and sensitivity accumulated over Hersch’s 40-year career. The concluding piece, which began with the standard “The Song Is You” and segued into “Let’s Cool One” by Thelonious Monk, was wonderful.

Abraham Cabilio