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Sabra Sass

October 21, 2010 By:
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Oran Etkin and band take a walk on the jazz side.
And all that -- Israeli jazz?

Forget that bowler hat, Bob Fosse -- make it a kipah!

The land of milk and honey and, as it turns out, trumpets and horns is about to blow any blowhards out of the sand dunes who think that the trill of it all has nothing to do with the Holy Land: Indeed, any doubting tantes are dismissed by a major local event happening in the next week or so as the "Israeli JazzPhest" feasts on the Philly club scene, with top-notch musicians using Israel as muse to charm and snake their way around Center City.

Hey, there, you with the star-struck -- and shocked -- look in your eyes. And why is that, asks Deborah Baer Mozes, cultural affairs director of the co-sponsoring consulate general of Israel in Philly, and curator of this curious combine of Mideast and East Coast collaboration.

Is it really any surprise that Israelis can trumpet their own brand of jazz-jive? After all, she notes, "music is an essential part of Jewish life, so it's no surprise that music is at the core of Israeli life."

And New Orleans, birthplace of the sound, and New York, contemporary royal court of jazz, are not new to Israelis, who know that Jewish geography has stop signs in places all over the world. Stop and go? Some yield and don't go back.

Why is New York such a be-bop stop? Their kind of tam?

"Ah, great question," says Mozes.

"Israel is a small country" with limited clubs to generate "enough consistent work. This is a bigger country with more work possibilities.

"With that said, in the last three years, there have been a number of jazz artists, including two in our festival," she notes of Alon Yavnai (Nov. 1) and Mattan Klein (Nov. 5), "who decided to go back home to Israel," where they "are leading binational/international careers."

Scat that. And why not, adds Mozes, "Israeli jazz is truly at a cross road/intersection between world music and jazz," helping "the artists to intertwine many styles, sounds and rhythms."

Here's some of that rhyme and reason -- and sabra sass -- as, below, a quiet riot of a quartet of artists of the six set to perform add their notable spark to this eureka equation of Israeli Jews and jazz.

Of Reeds and Reading

It's only appropriate that Oran Etkin offers the festival's wake-up call, with an Israeli jazz brunch at World Cafe Live opening it all on Oct. 31. Who better to trick and treat than the man whose "Wake Up, Clarinet!" recording has eased a songful of youngsters out of their slumber party into the rhythms, and blue and whites, of Israeli music.

The Rehovot-raised, New York-nuanced instrumentalist -- at home with playing reeds and reading music to kids in highly acclaimed school projects -- brings the concept of brunch to his own tasty career. Brunch being a bridge from breakfast to dinner, Etkin is kin to both children's and adult music.

"I balance my gigs between adults and kids," with his crossover appeal apparent, as "parents bring their kids to my adult concerts and also join their children at my kids' events."

Sunday's set is for the grown-ups, as Etkin tears into a sound that mixes Mideast, Malian and Manhattan -- he earned his master's in jazz performance at the Manhattan School of Music.

Go West, young man, is an admonition he took early on -- that west being to West Africa, where he's traveled musically to add the horns of Africa to his mellow and motley musical mix.

Western Wall of sound? "Jazz is in the Jewish tradition," avows Etkin as Tevye -- if Tevye had been a reed man.

"Jazz has never been just one culture's" provenance, and "Israelis have a strong commitment to Israeli jazz musicians."

This graduate of the Rubin Academy of Tel Aviv has had many a teaching moment himself; his classes for youngsters and tots as young as 2 are popular throughout the New York school system and elsewhere.

Don't quit your day job, Oran, or for that matter, your night job -- both being one and the same, since his band's 2009 release of "Kelenia" captured "Best World's Beat Album" at the Independent Music Awards, a wake-up call to jazz wonks everywhere.

Can't beat that for high-fives and high honors from such a sophisticated legion of fans.

So, the Pied Piper of reed players knows which ways the winds of fortune blow -- his way, as he yokes the young and the restless in a career for the ages.

A Player of Good 'Fortuna'

Roni Ben Hur rolls in on chariots of fired-up guitar as he and his quartet take the stage at Chris' Jazz Cafe for two sets on Nov. 3.

Celebrating his silver anniversary in New York, after arriving from Jerusalem, there is no tarnish on the mettle he has achieved or on his sterling status as "father of Israeli jazz in America."

His sound is as fresh and alive as ever, making this so-called father figure more of a bro in the neighborhood. And as he gets set to deliver his two sets for the jazz-fest, Ben Hur enjoys being a spoke -- and spokesman -- in and for the Israeli jazz movement in this country, honed as it was at the barometer-of-music Barry Harris club and others.

It is, after all, he concedes his good "Fortuna" -- an album released last year, getting raves and replay globally -- to have fallen in with such outstanding artists over the years.

But then, the world has always been at his fete -- and in his music. "I'm more and more drawn to the music my parents listened to," he says of Arabic riffs from Egypt and Algeria.

And more and more he's tuning into the Tunisian influence of his ancestral home, a sound he hopes to hone in on: "I'm realizing more and more how I should be focusing on Sephardic music."

But then, Ben Hur has the horses and never turned a deaf ear to world music: "The world is so wide open, has so many sounds."

How about the cacophony of ... clink! That's the sound made by his first job in this country, as a "dishwasher, making $3.71 an hour, working 12 hours a day."

That "clink" still clings to him, making him grateful for the great living he earns today as both player and prominent teacher.

But then, his quartet may not be the most important band in his life when it comes to playing big musical numbers.

When it comes to that, he rolls a magnificent seven as his lucky number.

"Being one of seven in the family," he says, "made for a lot of support and allowed me to be where I am today," in a world of music of his own.

Bridge Over Triumphant 'Water'

Ask Rafi Malkiel for a glass of water and he makes a big deal out of it.

The Jerusalem Jewish jazz great is aqua-awesome, notably with his second CD of "Water," with its musical bridges that burble and make waves throughout the industry.

He brings that Jewish kup -- as w ell as water drums and his Aquaphone -- to World Cafe Live on Nov. 4.

Slide trombone as water slide? "I've always been fascinated by it," he avers of his liquid love, "always liked swimming, diving."

Playing with -- and experimenting with water as well -- has served as a well of inspiration. "I've played around with the sounds of water and, ya know, it sounds pretty good," tapping the topic for its energy of sounds.

He crossed the Big Pond in 1996, arriving here from Jerusalem/Tel Aviv, attending the New School in New York and then earning an advanced degree at the Manhattan School of Music.

For the record, says the trombonist/composer: "I didn't plan to stay."

All the plans of mice and men -- and music men -- can change their scale once keying into the New York beat. But then, when you make an impression on such an instrumental player on the scale of a John Zorn, a one-man zeitgeist of Jewish music in New York -- well, that's quite an impression.

Zorn floated the idea for Malkiel to record "Water" for his Tzadik label, and the Israeli émigré jump-dived at the offer, "one of my biggest projects as a composer."

John, he says, of the musical guardian of the avant garde, "got it."

And what do CD listeners and the upcoming Philly jazz-fest audiences get?

"Lot of Israeli sounds, quotes of reggae and Latin music," and maybe a bit of the New York scene?

Ah, New York, New York, muses Malkiel. Of course, it's an influence. He came here for the vibe and the vivacity the city that never sleeps can offer, a rich ringtone of real jazz.

That's why he came here; "after all," jokes the native son of sunny Israel, "it wasn't for the weather."

Beauty and the Beat

Her master's voice? Actually, it was an inverse inspiration: It was Yaala Ballin's voice that attracted the masters, including jazz giants Max Roach and James Moody.

Now she offers those moody blues full-scale at clubs and countries around the world.

Singing in the sultry style of Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, Ballin is Washington, D.C.'s capital idea of a musical emissary, serving as leader of the "B-Communal Jazz Futures Workshop" held in Cyprus and sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

Altered states: She is about to changer locales for a sip of wine and jazz, when she entertains in a bistro-busy atmosphere Nov. 2 at World Cafe Live.

Having lived just outside Tel Aviv until leaving six years ago, Ballin has never left her heart behind -- or, for that matter, her sensuous sounds, which bespeak sand-swept remembrances and the bonding bonhomie of being raised in a city of sounds and sensuality.

Her voice just has that holiday feeling. Understandable, since Ballin balances the impact of Billie Holliday on her phrasing and the need to have her own voice in the field.

"My first CD of jazz was her 'Lady in Satin,' " says the silky sabra of the disk discovery she made 12 years ago at age 14 while still in high school, "where I sang and played flute."

And learned that New York, New York, was second to none as the modern-day world's jazz capital.

But is one ever prepared to live in New York after a telling time spent traveling Tel Aviv?

"No," she says, laughing after some hesitation.

But she had friends in her favor, a kind of sextet in the city. "I am very lucky; I have six friends from high school in Israel living near me in new York."

She needn't ever fear "Travelin' Alone" -- the title of her popular breakthrough CD -- with such company. Indeed, Ballin's Birdland wing-ding -- an applauded performance at the legendary song hall -- feathered a whole new nest of followers.

A little travelin' music is a natural serenade for the singer, just returned from Cyprus and a tour of Israel and Vienna before she packs her bags once more and unfurls her voice for another jaunty jazzy journey "On the Road," the name of her latest CD, just released.

This time the resplendent road warrior heads south from New York to Philadelphia for the jazz-fest. But then, as Willie Nelson would tell the Tel Aviv import, the heart knows no boundaries.

Indeed, balladeer Ballin adds her voice to the mix.

Beauty and the beat: "This music," she says of her song-bird of a bio, "can be sung anywhere."

 

 

 

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