Tel Aviv Jazz Festival
Cinematheque Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv, Israel
February 20-22, 2008
The program of the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival shifted in the last years towards more mainstream and crowd-pleasing acts, so the balanced and varied program of this year's edition of the festival was a pleasant surprise. Applying the motto of Kahil El'Zabar, one of the festival heroes, "ancient to future," the program featured Israeli veteran sax player Jacques Sany side by side with young and rising guitarist Yotam Silberstein and ageing mainstream saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman in a tribute to Ray Charles, in turn juxtapositioned with the forward- thinking trio of bassist Mario Pavone in a completely different tribute, this time to innovative saxophonist Thomas Chapin.
Chicagoan percussionist Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemblefeaturing El'Zabar on amplified kalimbas, earth drums, drums and vocals; Ernest "Khabeer" Dawkins on alto and tenor saxophones; and percussion and the wonderful trumpet and flugelhorn player Corey Wilkes (who recently joined the Art Ensemble of Chicago), also playing percussionsounded as if they had developed their own musical niche. The Ensemble seemed to have rejected the hurried and nervous pace of modern-urban life in favor of a patient and communal musical gatheringone practicing the deeper ritual function of music as a means to inspire and heal the community. The energetic and resourceful El'Zabar fits beautifully into our image of the tribe's powerful magician. Not that the three musicians ignored the modern innovations of modern and free jazz. On the contrary, Wilkes' playing is well-versed in the great output of such innovative trumpeters as Clark Terry, Bill Dixon, Don Cherry and Lester Bowie and even adds hip-hop sensibilities to his sound, and Dwakins absorbs influences from such great sax players as Cannonball Adderley and Ornette Coleman filtered through his warm and bluesy sound while El'Zabar is well known for his ongoing, fertile work with free jazz heroes such as Archie Shepp and Pharaoh Sanders. But this ensemble is determined to look deeper, far deeper, to the cultural and historical African roots of this music.
All three were dressed in colorful African dresses and began the performance with "MT," from their last release, Hot 'N' Heavy (Delmark, 2007), El'Zabar's composition that is dedicated to the memory of late trumpeter Malachi Thompson. El'Zabar began with hypnotic and slow playing on the amplified thumb- piano. the kalimba, while Wilkes and Dawkins joined him with assorted percussion instruments, some were picked the same morning in a visit to the Old City of Jerusalem. Slowly the theme was featured with reserved trumpet lines by Wilkes and by Dawkins' sax, referencing 1950s be-bop but framing it in a wider, ancient and tribal sound. The performance rarely shifted gears. Only when El'Zabar headed for the drum-set did the trio play its fiery version of a tight, muscular free jazz, with El'Zabar hands moving all over the set while he alternated rhythms constantly and Wilkes and Dawkins demonstrated their abilities to play two horns at the same time. But most of the time the Ensemble managed to bewitch the audience with much looser compositions, with all three alternating on percussion instruments. The most heartfelt moments were when El'Zabar began chanting gently the lines from "There is a Place," also from the same release, an emotional cry for peace and happiness that hit a deep spiritual chord within the attentive audience. The musicians again connected on the second encore, when all three went down to the audience while they kept playing and dancing, especially El'Zabar, who showed his excellent African dancing moves, to the standing ovations of the happy audience.
The second night featured Philadelphian sax legend Odeon Pope and the Israeli adaptation of his latest release for his saxophone choir, Locked & Loaded: Live at the Blue Note (Half Note, 2006). Pope had two days of rehearsals to work with a team of eight young Israeli sax players and a rhythm section comprised of young Israeli pianist and experienced drummer Shay Zelman and bassist Gilad Abro. The ensemble succeeded in learning the beautiful compositions and arrangements of Pope and followed the charts quite faithfully, while they stressed the collective massive sound of the ensemble, as on "Cis," an emotional and lyrical piece dedicated to Pope's wife. Pope directed the ensemble when he needed more volume and power or when he asked for more reserved playing.
But when the saxophone choir was challenged with compositions that demanded personal articulation of Pope's motives, as on "Coltrane's Time," the music proved more demanding. Most of the sax players and the rhythm section simply did meet that call, and only tenor sax players Erez Barnoy, with an assured, tough sound and well-built solos and, to a lesser extent, Shauli Einav and alto saxophonist Hagai Amir, with a beautiful swinging-singing tone, matched Pope's brief solos. It was clear at such moments that Pope can immediately construct a nuanced solo with his own impressive and rich searching sound, while most of the Israeli cast of the sax players and the rhythm section were still lacking an original sound or incapable of realizing the well-articulated ideas that would have complemented Pope's motives.
There was no shortage of originality later that evening when the Mario Pavone Trio performed a program titled "Remembering Thomas," as it was scheduled ten years after the untimely death of Thomas Chapin, and after one of Pavone's recordings (Knitting Factory, 1999). The trio- drummer Michael Sarin, who like Pavone, was part of the Chapin Trio, and alto and soprano saxophonist Michael Blake, performed two favorite compositions of Chapin, "Bypass" and "Aeolus," but wisely did not try to recreate the unique sound of Chapin or even the telepathic infectious interplay of Chapin with Pavone and Chapin, opting for a more inquisitive attitude that attempted to offer new perspectives on these highly melodic compositions by searching for their inner logic within the bigger big-band sound that Chapin managed to bring to his compositions.