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Two Perspectives on Jewish Music at the Israel Festival

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The Floating Tower and the Daniel Zamir Quintet
Israel Festival
Rebecca Crown Auditorium and the Khan Theater
Jerusalem, Israel
May 28-29, 2007

The well-funded Israel Festival this year provided some inescapable dilemmas for the true jazz aficionado. Why bother to reward the producers' offending artistic decisions, such as granting a 12-year-old pianist a main stage as the only jazz headliner or stuffing three more-established outfits into a marathon, cheaply titled "Sax Into The Night" (in Hebrew Sax rhymes with sex)? And should one believe the Festival directors' miserable excuses, such as the classic: "Sonny Rollins was not available" or the practically indecent: "We did not want to overshadow the coming Jerusalem Jazz Festival" (whose artistic director is the father of the 12-year-old pianist)?

But still, the Festival offered two totally different perspectives about the current Jewish music scene in Israel and a memorable but short concert by local sax hero, Albert Beger, and his Quartet. The Danny Zamir Quintet opened the Festival's jazz marathon and featured the current incarnation of Zamir as an ultra-orthodox preacher who prefers to mumble embarrassing new-agey clichés rather than to play his sax. Gone are the days where he led the rhythmic charged Satalah Trio that featured him improvising intensely on odd-time signatures, and this time even the skillful young pianist Omer Klein and bassist Hagai Cohen-Milo could not save this concert despite some well-intended efforts. On this concert Zamir sounded unfocused and lost, and much worse, refused to clear the stage for the coming outfits.

Luckily the Albert Beger Quartet that concluded this marathon compensated the small audience with an exemplary showcase of committed and spiritual music. The Quartet featured the new addition, pianist Aviran Ben-Nai'm, who enriched Beger's music with captivating elegance. The Quartet performed a powerful set, charged with buzzing energy and great interplay between Ben-Nai'm and Beger, sounding like an updated version of the sophisticated interplay between young David Murray and John Hicks, due in part to the propulsive and often aggressive drumming of Yoav Zohar that kept pushing the Quartet. Beger introduced few new compositions from his forthcoming release: one inspired by climate warming and one dedicated to the G.I. Gurdjieff classic book, Beelzebub's Tales.

But the real treat was a concert that transgressed the strict genre boundaries of jazz. Ha'Oman Hai Ensemble and composer Andre Hajdu performed a fully realized version of the already staged show, The Floating Tower. Hajdu, a disciple of Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, composed music more than thirty years ago to the texts of the book of Mishna, which binds a many-generation-old web of questions and answers to some of the mundane and prosaic aspects of the daily life of an observant Jew. Hajdu composed the music as a newcomer to Israel without fully understanding the many nuances of these ancient texts, after listening to ultra-orthodox students reciting these texts in what he imagined was a musical beehive.

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Hajdu with Ha'Oman Hai Ensemble (his disciples, all of them opinionated musicians), augmented by performance artist Roni Mosenson Nelken and an inspired lighting design, played a free-wheeling musical interpretation of these texts, stressing the imminent fear of feminine independence and the obsessive engagement with Kosher rules that sound so peculiar to a secular Jew. But their arrangements were so inventive and provocative that time after time you found yourself trying to follow the complex interrelated web of the Mishna text, and trying to figure out why such issues are still so crucial in the eyes of observant Jews.

There were no clichés of Klezmer music in their deconstructions of Hajdu's original compositions but a playful, cabaret-like, at times even chanson-like and often very theatrical, presentation of two dozen short texts. Sometimes the arrangement tried to borrow elements from Baroque vocal music but, with their playful constructions, sounded at the same time as lifted from a more recent doo-wop vocal tradition. Hajdu commented on these texts and the musicians' interpretations and claimed that his disciples took his compositions to musical territories beyond his expectations. He was right. The comical playing of accordion player and vocalist Avishai Fish and the rich tonalities of the rest of Ha'Oman Hai Ensemble sounded fresh, surprising and vital, offering many new possibilities to present so-called Jewish music.

Photo Credit
Tomer Apfelbaum


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