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All That (Israeli) Jazz; and It's Lenny at 90!
Roni Ben Hur, a 45-year-old guitarist who will perform with bass, drum set and percussion players on opening night, was born and raised in Dimona, in southern Israel near Beersheva. He began playing guitar at 11.
"We listened to the music of the Beatles, plus Israeli music of the '50s and '60s," he said, explaining that popular Israeli music was always played on the radio, more so during holiday periods.
Ben Hur's family is from Tunisia, and he therefore listened to traditional Sephardic songs, Tunisian music, and especially Arabic music on Jordanian radio. After a few years in Tel Aviv, he came to New York City and began exploring the active jazz culture. He plays a Gibson hollow body guitar, because he prefers its natural sound.
"I utilize a 'floating' electronic pick-up attached to the finger board, so that the integrity of the wood is not compromised," he explained.
A resident of Teaneck, N.J., he and his wife enjoy the thriving jazz culture of this northern New Jersey community, which is also known for its very large Jewish population. His music is gentle and elegant, especially worthwhile is his variations on the '60s Israeli hit tune "Eshkolit."
Tenor saxophonist Eli Degibri will perform at the Tuesday-evening concert.
Pianist Alon Yavnai -- who will play on Wednesday evening, together with his ensemble comprised of bassist, drummer and flautist -- was born in Tel Aviv in 1969; he was trained as a classical pianist at a conservatory in Givatayim.
In 1993, he enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston in order to develop his jazz "chops," and soon "went his own way" in order to perform and record in a jazz idiom.
"As a child, I always took songs from the radio and began to play them by ear," he reminisced.
His favorite Israeli singers were Matti Caspi, Shlomo Gronich, Arik Einstein and, his personal favorite, Chava Alberstein.
"I developed an interest in Brazilian instrumental music, and I began to integrate bossa nova and samba rhythms into my arrangements," he said.
He has also combined Cuban influences into his jazz, along with polyrhythmic styles derived from the Israeli/Bulgarian bass player Stu Hacohen. With all of these varied styles, Yavnai continues to work on his classical repertoire, and has just performed the Schuman "A Minor Piano Concerto" with the Zurich Philharmonic.
"My three-hour practice sessions include a Bach fugue, Chopin piano music and Bulgarian jazz songs," he added.
Yavnai's new album, "Travel Notes," will be released in April by ObliqSound. It includes his original compositions, influenced by music of West Africa, Peru, Brazil and "flavors of Israel."
The most well-known of the group is Anat Cohen, jazz virtuoso on clarinet and saxophone, who will conclude the festival on Thursday night. Born in Tel Aviv in the 1970s, she came to Berklee College in Boston in 1996, and graduated in 1998.
"I began to perform both as a soloist and sideman playing 'straight ahead' jazz, and Brazilian and Colombian music," she said.
During her Berklee days, she played with a group of Israelis called the Aviv Band.
"We had a monopoly on Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties in New England," she noted with a smile.
Cohen is bringing a band to Philadelphia comprised of her well-known jazz trumpet virtuoso brother Avishai, along with a pianist, drummer and bass player. She will play clarinet, tenor and soprano sax; they will perform a varied program of traditional jazz selections derived from the "American Song Book" in a swing style, plus music influenced by African, Brazilian and Cuban rhythms and chord progressions.
For more information, call 215-222-1400 or check out: www.worldcafelive.com.· · ·
Meanwhile, across town, the Philadelphia Orchestra is at the very beginning of its "Bernstein Festival" -- a two-week series of concerts, screenings of "West Side Story," panel discussions and a Mambo Dance Party -- all celebrating the 90th anniversary of the birth of Bernstein, perhaps the greatest composer, conductor, educator and iconic musical personality of the 20th century.
His first and primary love of music education, his worldwide status as a charismatic and inspiring conductor, and his enormous musical creativity -- resulting in many diverse compositions reflecting eclectic tastes and experiences -- coupled with his passionate Jewish identity have secured his role in history. Elements of Bernstein's Jewish upbringing in Boston, his commitment to the emerging State of Israel, and his thorough knowledge of Hebrew, biblical texts and Jewish liturgy are very much evident in many of his most famous works.
Many baby-boomers were highly influenced by the nationally televised "Young People's Concerts" that he wrote, produced and conducted with the New York Philharmonic during the late 1950s.
During this two-week festival at the Kimmel Center, the Philadelphia Orchestra is playing several selections from "West Side Story," "On the Town" and "Symphony No. 1: Jeremiah," in which Bernstein utilized traditional Ashkenazic Haftorah cantillation motifs that he heard while growing up in the Conservative Synagogue Mishkan Tefilah of Newton, Mass.
Participating is Jamie Bernstein, the oldest of Bernstein's three children, who will narrate a program about "The Bernstein Beat." Commissioned by Bernstein's music publisher Boosey and Hawkes, and written in the style of the original "Young People's Concerts," this work focuses on the liveliest of his compositions.
"After our father died (Oct. 14, 1990), my two siblings and I worked to keep his legacy alive," she explained.
Indeed, son Alexander has established a program at Gettysburg College called "The Bernstein Artful Learning Method." Nina Bernstein Simmons is responsible for finding a home for her father's archives at the Library of Congress, where many documents are now available online.
And Jamie? "I was elected to speak to the press and to the greater community."
Although she received minimal formal music education, Jamie learned by osmosis: "My father was a compulsive 'rabbi.' He would test his material on us. While driving, he would listen to popular music by the Kinks and other groups, and would proclaim that this tune was in the Mixolydian Mode."
She said that she enjoys the role of narrator in "The Bernstein Beat," and has also performed the narration in her father's "Third Symphony, The Kaddish."
"Although not a 'regular Jew,' our father was intensely Jewish and totally immersed in our liturgy," Bernstein declared, noting that the family celebrated the holidays, lighting Chanukah candles and singing traditional songs.
The highlight of the Bernstein Jewish life was the Passover seder, a tradition that she and her siblings carry on.
As for Jewish elements in her father's music, his daughter explained that "he utilized shofar calls in the very opening of 'West Side Story' and in the Inquisition Scene of 'Candide.'
"All these works together form a dialogue with his Maker, questioning, challenging and haranguing the Creator."
To learn more about the festival, go to: www. philorch.org.