Review: Red Sea Winter Jazz Festival

Bob Weir visits the city of Eilat, Israel for a packed weekend of jazz, with pianist Leszek Mozdzer and his trio the festival highlight

Eilat, at Israel's southern tip and surrounded by desert, sea and mountains, was developed fairly recently as the country's holiday machine. With its guaranteed sunshine and pleasant sea bathing it is a very congenial place to enjoy a weekend of top quality jazz and related music. Mature fans, musicians and scribes are attracted from all over Israel (I think I and my two companions were the only ones from outside the country) to furnish knowledgeable and attentive audiences for 16 expertly programmed concerts.

Two venues were used in a couple of the city's close-proximity larger hotels with capacities of c.200 and c.600. Each offered two or three concerts simultaneously from 8pm to 2am on Thursday and Friday and from 5pm to 11.30pm on Saturday. The headliners among the 10 bands played twice so with a little judicious venue hopping it was possible to see most of the attractions. There were also four daytime master classes and early-hours jam sessions in a nearly club.

The festival opened with the Uriel Herman Quintet, a talented young group featuring the thrilling female cellist Leah Sabbah. The pianist-leader brought a classical touch and mastery of complex rhythms to an exhilarating programme of "Bach-to-Brazil" with Jewish folk underpinning. Next came the festival's biggest name attraction with the combination of Larry Coryell (pictured above right) and the Juan Carmona flamenco group. Both guitar aces had solo features (Coryell technically astounding on his Ravel's Bolero party piece), duets (finding creative common ground on Jobim's Corcovado and the lovely ballad Boulevard Of Broken Dreams) and full ensemble jams. The session was a vibrant reminder of Coryell's late 1970s collaboration with the recently departed and much-missed Paco De Lucia. Irit Dekel (vocal) and Eldad Zitrin (piano) backed by a large ensemble concluded a satisfying first day. The singer's dramatic delivery and distinctive deconstruction of familiar material (the Everlys' Bye Bye Love, several Billie Holiday classics and quality standards) were captivating and well received.

Friday started with the Israeli, NYC-based Uri Gurvich Quintet. The leader's melodic and shapely alto sax solos, rather like a super-animated Paul Desmond, were busily supported by a four-piece rhythm section in which pianist Katia Toobool was particularly effective. Escalandrum, an Argentinian three reeds and rhythm combo, was led by drummer Daniel Piazzolla - the grandson of modern tango maestro Astor. They played tuneful originals and some Astor Piazzolla favourites (including a thrilling interpretation of Soledad) in an interesting development of Astor's pioneering fusion of tango and contemporary jazz.

Sandwiched between these concerts was the festival's outstanding band. I was mightily impressed with Polish piano virtuoso Leszek Mozdzer (pictured left) in Belgrade last year. Here he again played brilliantly, in a trio with bassist Lars Danielsson and Israeli percussionist Zohar Fresco. These highly individual talents combined wonderfully with a remarkable degree of musical empathy to produce memorable, mesmerising music. If the mood was just a little tense (apparently there were balancing problems due to a rushed soundcheck), this was wholly remedied at their second appearance on Saturday where a similar programme was performed flawlessly. If pushed to choose highlights, I would nominate Mozdzer's introspective Incognitor, Fresco's Israeli-Latin Shabat and Danielsson's superb cello soloing on Suffering.

Two delightfully contrasting groups completed the Saturday programme. The young Samuel Yirga Quartet from Ethiopia played infectious modern jazz with a nicely integrated national flavour. Bright, tuneful Ethiopian pop songs and the pianist-leader's originals were impressive both for Yirga's free-flowing improvising and his percussive "African-drumming" style. The duo of Anat Fort (pictured below) (piano) and Amos Hoffman (guitar, oud) blended engagingly on mostly easy-paced superior ballads. Stella By Starlight was notable for delicate interplay and the closing Straight No Chaser was suitably quirky and inventive.

The after-hours jam sessions featured several Israeli visiting stars and were always good value. The Saturday-into-Sunday session was enlivened by Mozdzer and Danielsson sitting in and showing off their hard-swinging bop chops on Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter classics.

Smaller, intimate jazz festivals such as this one can often be just as enjoyable and musically satisfying as many major events. It all depends on the programming and curatorial skills of the organiser. Veteran Israeli jazz broadcaster-journalist Dubi Lenz did everything necessary to ensure success for this affair, as he does for the city's much larger jazz and world music festival every August. Future information on both can be found at

Photography by Rita Pinkse

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