Pall That Jazz: The Red Sea Jazz Festival Gets Off to a Rocky Start

All the elements were in place for the opening night of the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, but somehow the music failed to prove as hot as the weather.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

With three superb trios and two of the world’s best trumpeters on show, the first night of this year’s Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat offered great promise but, unfortunately, delivered a little less than might have been expected.

Good music and great playing were in abundance on Sunday, with three wonderful trios on stage for the opening night of the 27th annual extravaganza in southern Israel. However, what was lacking was one really great appearance that could have given added value to the whole affair.

Another thing missing was the surprise factor. There were few shocks on the first evening – and I am especially referring to the performances by the two trumpeters: everything seemed to be moving along in what could be termed a “comfort zone.” A comfort zone that exists because the musicians on stage know one another can be a fantastic place, one that is enjoyable and rewarding to listen to. However, the comfort zone that formed between trumpeter Avishai Cohen, double-bass player Omer Avital and American drummer Jeff Ballard had problematic elements. For good and bad, the music sounded as if the performers were letting it just slide out. There were some portions that were too long; some solo performances were not totally connected; and there were instances where the dynamics were abruptly interrupted.

On the other hand, there were also moments of distilled beauty. My feelings for the performance swung like a pendulum. Whenever the pendulum began to swing in a negative direction, along came a few minutes of perfect playing to set it off in the opposite direction. However, just when it seemed as if the performance was surfing a wave of pure beauty, things would suddenly come loose and the beautiful wave would vanish. The tumultuous applause at the end of the trio’s performance suggests I was in the minority. An amateur trumpeter, whom I met just as the audience was leaving, spoke enthusiastically about Cohen’s playing. Looking for the most appropriate word to describe how it had thrilled him, he said softly, “It just sailed.” He was right: It just sailed. The only problem is that, this time, it was unclear in what direction it had been sailing.

Nine on the funky scale

The comfort zone created in the performance by trumpeter Nicholas Payton and his XXX trio did not necessarily stem from any long-standing friendship between the musicians. The drummer (Corey Fonville) and bassist (Braylon Lacy) seemed too young for such an assumption. Instead, the comfort zone was due primarily to the obvious pleasure Payton was experiencing as he waded into the musical waters he was trying to conquer. He calls that world BAM (short for Black American Music); in practice, though, it sounds more like a blend that just melts in your mouth – a mix of jazz, groove and R&B. Lazy but muscular drums that are hit a little after the beat; a soft and funky electric bass guitar; a Fender Rhodes electric piano; elegant trumpet segments.

At the beginning of the performance, a friend said that if the volume was turned really low, the music could be the soundtrack for a porn movie (hence the trio’s name, XXX). However, that would have been an unfair assessment. From the groove standpoint, this was a highly successful performance - and the dense, electrifying sound of the Fender Rhodes electric piano was an absolute treat.

Unfortunately, Payton is not a particularly proficient soloist when he is playing an electric piano. While he simultaneously played the trumpet and the Fender Rhodes (with his right hand on the trumpet and his left on the keyboard), he was unable to create an outstanding form of expression. Quite the contrary, alas.

In general, the feeling lingered that what he was really concerned with was not the melodic aspect but rather the sound and the groove he wanted to generate. Indeed, that sound and groove were enjoyable; however, ultimately they did not register anything that could be labeled as really out of the ordinary for the kingdom of jazz R&B. The performance as a whole rates 9 out of 10 on the funky scale, but no more than 7 for musical interest and depth.

Musical reflections

The exclusion of saxophonist Albert Beger from previous Red Sea festivals reflected a traditionalist-minded shunning by the festival’s organizers of free, adventurous jazz. The decision to include him in this year’s festival was a worthy move, rewarding Beger for his courageous and profound creative approach. It also exposes the festival’s audience to a sound that is bit rougher than that usually encountered in jazz music. For his part, Beger has rewarded the festival’s organizers with a very good performance that reflects the uncompromising beauty of his music.

In his performance Beger played upcoming pieces from his next album, which will be recorded in the next few weeks. Appearing on stage with Beger were drummer Yoav Zohar and double bassist Assaf Hakimi.

The performance was divided into energetic sections and reflective ones. In the energetic sections - most of which were really turbulent - one sometimes noted Beger’s tendency to plow again and again in the same melodic, rhythmic furrow. However, any reservations concerning the energetic sections are definitely dwarfed by the excitement generated by the three refined sections, which were reflective musical segments on three people who are no longer with us.

The Morton Feldman section was dedicated to the memory of the late American composer; it was formal but also full of emotion. “Udi” was dedicated to the memory of Haifa bassist Udi Kazmirski, who passed away last year; it is a wonderfully composed ballad that scatters in all directions but nonetheless remains focused. “Way to go” was written shortly after the death of Beger’s mother; it is an incredible elegy that sounds as if it is being played from two different perspectives – the standpoint of the mother who is departing from this world, and that of the son who mourns her passing.

The Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat runs until August 21.

BLOWING HOT AND COLD: Trumpeter Nicholas Payton at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat on Sunday night. Abraham KabilioCredit: אברהם קביליו