By Desmond Bentley
Since its inception in 1987 as a four-day event, The Red Sea Jazz Festival held in the summer has earned a proud place on the international jazz calendar, attracting major names and thousands of visitors to the southern Israeli resort.
For the past two years, a winter version of the festival has added an extra dimension to the Israeli jazz scene.
"It's not like the summer festival, where there are always parallel shows and more of a carnival-like atmosphere," says Dubi Lenz, the festival's musical director.
"The atmosphere in the winter is different. Eilat is in the desert, and it can be cold at night. That brings the people together."
The Red Sea Jazz Festival -- both winter and summer versions -- has developed into a draw for major artists the world over. Over the past 25 years, jazz greats such as Chick Corea, Phil Woods, Spyro Gyra, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Billy Cobham, Manhattan Transfer and the Swingle Singers have graced its stages.
"It's one of dozens of festivals on the international circuit, but it has big names, plus surprises for the audience. I believe a festival should have anchors -- well-known artists who draw the audience in -- and six or seven other lineups who weren't so well known beforehand," says Lenz.
"The jazz scene in Israel is blossoming, sometimes in surprising directions," says Lenz. "Every city has jazz clubs -- almost every night there's a jazz show somewhere in Israel. But in reality, the Israeli jazz scene is happening mainly in New York. It's an amazing scene that starts at home.
This country has so many good musicians in so many musical forms, and some excellent music schools."
Lenz is uniquely positioned to assess the local scene. A leading radio journalist, publisher, presenter and expert in world music, he represents Israel in the European Jazz Network. He headed the music department of Army Radio for 15 years and co-authored the Rough Guide to World Music, in which he produced the chapter on Israeli music.
"I travel a lot around the world and hear many types of music," says Lenz. "I have built many personal friendships over the years and used my connections to reach out to the musicians."
In particular, he used his long friendship with the Brazilian guitarist pianist Egberto Gismonti to connect with overseas musicians.
The lineup for this year's winter event reflected his personal taste, Lenz admits, and featured a gamut of styles and crossovers from all over the world.
"I see my role as to educate the audience. I don't bring things I don't like myself. It's not like the old days -- now anyone can go into Youtube to see the performers beforehand."
The three-day event was held in a hangar in the Eilat seaport, alongside docks where imported cars and other freight enter the country. "It's an amazing hangar, with seating for 2,400 people and a large stage – yet somehow the space retains the intimacy that the music demands," says Lenz.
The audience, he notes, is a little older and more musically-savvy than in the summer festival.
"They are more open. This event is for those who are really interested in music. People come to listen -- to sit and enjoy. There's also room for those who want to dance."
"It was an eclectic lineup -- really interesting music," says Lenz. "Maybe 80 percent of the performers weren't known to the Israeli audience beforehand.” During the recesses between shows, young, up-and-coming local musicians kept the audience warm with some storming renditions of jazz classics.
It was difficult to pick out a headline act from this year's lineup. The Youn Sun Nah Quartet highlighted the exceptionally clear and precise voice of its Korean-born, Paris-based vocalist. Norwegian tenor saxophonist Karl Seglem's renditions of jazz-influenced reggae on the goat horn (the traditional Jewish shofar) charmed the audience. The Bad Plus, a trio known for shattering musical conventions, returned after their successful appearance at the first winter festival with a unique adaption of the Rite of Spring by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, accompanied by video art. The reunited veteran Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, featuring one of the world's best banjo players, presented a hybrid of classical, jazz, bluegrass, African, blues, electric and East European folk music.
Musician Bela Fleck playing at the
Red Sea Jazz Festival (Photo: Itamar Greenburg)
Israeli performers included a collaboration between virtuoso pianist Omer Klein and soft-rock singer Rona Keinan, who performed both original compositions and some Hebrew classics with an innovative approach.
The audiences comprise mainly Israelis, he says. "Tourists don't come from abroad especially for the festival, but I hope this will happen in the future. The performers from overseas tell me that they really enjoy themselves here," says Lenz. "For many it's their first time in Israel. They tell me they are surprised by how warm and accepting the Israeli audience is."
Meanwhile, save the dates: The summer Red Sea Jazz festival will take place in Eilat on July 30-August 2, and the third winter festival is slated for January 2013.