Jazz Lag

Writing about music is difficult for me, first of all because this is about as subjective a matter of opinions can get. Don’t ever be fooled by music critics who go on and on with “professional” reviews of others’ artwork. It is very simply a matter of taste, and however much we would like to tell ourselves so, there is no fixed set of criteria for quality. All music reviews boil down to “I thought it was good” or “I thought it sucked”.
Furthermore, at least for me, music is a very intimate experience, and however much I try, I can’t truly share the moment.
Having said that, here are some of the thoughts that I am capable of sharing about the shows we saw last night, the first night of the 24th Red Sea Jazz Festival.

Dave Douglas & Brass Ecstasy
Tal expressed concern at how much a group consisting of a trumpet (Dave Douglas), a trombone (Luis Bonilla), a French horn (Vincent Chancey), a tuba (Marcus Rojas), and drums (Nasheet Waits) would be able to deliver. I, on the other hand, am a sucker for brass.
The show (as did the other first show) started a good 15 minutes late. Shows at the RSJF never start late. You just don’t do that. So as grumbling was heard from the crowd about how poorly this bodes for the rest of the night, the group took the stage. A bunch of hoopy-looking froods, each one with his towel (and this stands perfectly to reason when temps are still around 38C after 8pm), and then they start playing.

So you’re lulled into thinking that maybe what you have here is a case of softcore Dixieland. Nice, I tell myself. A good way to ease myself into the atmosphere for 4 days of nonstop jazz.
And then. Then they hit you with the understanding that this is not your grandmother’s brass band. A complex, gritty, layered sound, that made the visuals image in my brain explode. Here, Douglas is scratching with the trumpet. There, Rojas is making his tuba sound like a didje, no a human, no maybe something wildly inhuman. And so on.
By the time they got around to “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, in which they just took us all over the place and threw us out into the water a couple of times, I was completely sold. To name the most appropriate cliche, blown away.
And thus, the first album we will be buying as a direct result of this festival was chosen.
A very promising start.

Nikki Yanofsky
This one was tricky. I’m not usually big on female singers. Most of the show I was in a heated debate with myself over whether I don’t like most female singers due to some kind of internalized misogyny or whatever. But the fact is that most female jazz singers I’ve seen (with some stunning exceptions, the likes of Robin McKelle, the stunning Didi Bridgewater, and a scant handful of others) fail to comply with my demand that all performers on stage are vessels of the music and integral parts of the ensemble. When any one performer, like the singer, for example, breaks into another player’s solo to say “let’s give it to the amazing so-and-so on guitar” or whatever, it makes me facepalm. You’re already on stage, you’re already front and center, you do not need to be attention whoring any further thank you very much.
I digress. Nikki Yanofsky is a 16 year old girl. I get the impression that she still carries herself with the slightly awkward gangliness of your average teenager. And then she opens her mouth to sing, and she really has a lovely voice. She carries her songs well, she understands what she’s singing about, she knows jazz. And then she opens her mouth to speak, and she sounds like an overenthusiatic 9 year old girl at a Justin Bieber concert, except she’s rooting for herself. So, when she sings the jazz numbers, for a while there she sounds like some sort of karaoke hero (thanks for sticking the terminology in my head, guys), vying for the title of best Ella cover. And when she sings the classic rock numbers, you feel slightly ashamed for the Eagles, Jimi Hendrix, and the Beatles (all of whom, even the ones still alive, were spinning in their graves by the end of her rendition of “Hello, Goodbye”). Her original numbers are cute. And you can’t really get why you’re not into her, but she does have quite a few of those facepalm diva moments, and every time she talks you’re reminded of the time your niece got her first Bratz doll for her 5th birthday.
So she does a number that’s all scat, and she does it brilliantly, really, and you understand that she has a lot of potential, and you really appreciate that she’s a refreshing change from all those other mass-manufactured teen pop ingenues, though she does still seem somewhat contrived and gimmicky. And you really can’t put your finger on it, but when the show is over, you’re a little relieved.

And then what happened next was really unfair, particularly to Ms. Yanofsky, but also pretty much to any other act to follow.

Musica Nuda
Tal and I were both concerned about this next one. It’s 23:30, third out of four shows for the night, not counting the jam session till dawn yet to come. We’ve been up since earlier than 7am, and had a lot of running around before his parents came to take over the kids, then drove three hours, and failed to take a nap.
Was a show with nothing but a double bass and a female singer (to the concept of which, I’ve already established, I’m impartial at best) really going to manage not to put us to sleep and ruin the night for us?
They take the stage. He looks like any run of the mill double bass player. She’s dressed in a black tank top and black ruffled skirt. She’s tiny. They stand very close to each other onstage. Just enough room between them for the bass. And after we thought we’d never ever want to hear another so-called jazzy cover of the Beatles again, they dive off the deep in straight into “All the Lonely People”. And you’re haunted and amazed. And without a word spoken, they carry on into The Police’s “Roxanne”. The show’s barely started, and already you cannot believe how much sound can come out of two instruments. Finally, Petra Magoni and Ferruccio Spinetti introduce themselves, and then go into some original songs. On stage, they are the very definition of intimacy. They are both massive virtuosos (I can’t even start to describe how much without falling into tired cliches), and they carry each other, and they are the center of the universe and they are alone and making sweet love to every single person in the audience at once. You’re not entirely sure it’s jazz they’re making, because whoa, that was just all disco, and then they went death metal, and now they’re doing opera, and it’s all tinted with just a bit of gothic black.

Ferrucio knows his stuff. He’s coaxing sounds I have never before heard out of his bass. And then he sits down, puts it in his lap and strums at it like a guitar. Because it’s not really a double bass about twice his size. If he says so, it’s a fucking ukulele.
Petra. Oh Em Gee. She has the voice of an angel. And she channels the devil. And she really is just a whole choir of demigods and fallen cherubs. She’s angry, and funny, and beautiful. There was one number she was singing alone, and thanks to her clever way of working basic sounds system effects, I was reminded of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld character of Agnes Nitt, who was capable of singing in harmony with herself. Petra does that, too.
The fact that I was not a heaving mess of tears by the middle of the show was simply because it was so arid that my tears must have evaporated upon contact with the air. I don’t recall ever having been so completely jolted by a musical performance, and I am really suggestible when it comes to music.
What made it all the more amazing is that there is not an ounce of diva-esque presumption between the two of them. So what if they are two of the most incredibly talented and amazing musicians ever to have taken the stage here at Eilat? They’re here to have fun, they want their audience to have fun, and they are utterly unaware of their possession of the upper hand in the mix.
By the end of the show, I think everyone there was willing to just have the rest of the universe shut off so we could all continue existing in the amazing place that is Musica Nuda. I know I was.
It didn’t take much for us to decide that we are going to see their second show tonight, even though it’s at the cost of seeing another show that could have potential to be fun. It might be fun, but I suspect nothing in this round of the festival is as fun as this.
As we emerged, dazed, from the venue, there were only three letters on everybody’s tongues. W, O, and W again. An army of enchanted zombies.
Tal somehow, with superhuman powers, remained conscious enough to navigate us to the on-site music store and nab the very last copy of their double album.
So this would be the point to interject that: a. If you, at all, have the chance to hop a plane to Eilat tonight and come see them (they’re on again at 20:00), you will not be sorry; and b. I have their album. You don’t. Nyah nyah nyah.

After that show, it became evident that what was wrong with the one before it, is that it was just leagues beneath it. Sorry Nikki, You can have North America. I belong to Musica Nuda.

I was seriously out of it after this show. Only natural to be completely spent after an hour and 15 minutes of nonstop climax. Still, we were on a schedule, one that we painstakingly put together with a lot of thought and consideration. So we went to see Hermeto Pascoal and his group, hailing from Brazil. I had been kind of curious about him. First of all, the man’s been around for quite some time, been playing music since he was four, with an impressive discography and performance logged in the 70 years he’s been making music. Besides that, we read up on the man that he is quite the innovative musician, playing around with playing on less conventional choices, such as produce, water, and his own beard. I really wanted to see it.

And I’ll never know, but after the intensity of just two instruments in the previous show, the vibrant sextet on stage, with their constant changing of places and instruments, was just too cacophonous for me, while Tal put it more as “too flashy”. Whatevs. We decided to walk after one or two numbers (I just wasn’t paying enough attention to really notice), and we crossed the site to the other show taking place at the same time, the Israeli March Dondurma. They’re a lot of fun, and hearing them sort of grounded me back, what with all the brass, and their interesting choice of putting their 5-person rhythm section in the center of the stage. If I had any pep left, I would have danced, because their music begs to move you with it, but I was just wasted. Will definitely be seeking out an opportunity to see them again some time soon.

So then we headed back to the hotel. This year we chose to stay at the hotel where they have the nightly jam sessions, which are a thing of coolness in their own right – pitting up budding young musicians from Israeli high schools with the international big leaguers. There were some really nice numbers, and I must admit that being able to open our room window and hear it all from bed was quite FTW. At some point before dawn, we shut the window, popped in our complementary ear plugs, and fell asleep. And because I am a shitty sleeper, I woke up less than 4 hours later. For no good reason other than jet lag. Or is it jazz lag?

I don’t know if I will have as much to say about the next nights or not. Tal was amused when I pulled out my notebook and pen last night and told him I was blogging. For now I am just enjoying the fact that I am alone, not at any risk of having to stop whatever it is I’m doing now just because somebody grabbed a toy from somebody or somebody needs juice NOW.

And, natch, playing jazz music from previous festivals on my earphones while writing these words.🙂

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Filed under Jazz, Red Sea or Not

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