Everything about Israeli-born tenor and soprano saxophonist Eli Degibri is a celebration. You can hear that in his sideman gigs with Herbie Hancock and Al Foster; on his earliest leader albums, such as 2004’s In the Beginning; on the ruminative Israeli Song of 2010; and on his new self-released Henri and Rachel, a haunting elegy for his parents. It’s in his tone: smooth and inviting but never saccharine and unafraid of a rough edge. It’s in his incessant devotion to jazz, family, and home. And in every one of his phrases, either musical or in conversation from his home in Tel Aviv, you can find revelry.
“Jazz is joy,” Degibri says. “Music—it is everything to me.”
In 2012, he moved from his adopted New York City back to Tel Aviv for a less than fully joyful reason: to take care of his aging, ailing parents. But along with the sour, there’s been plenty of sweet, including the recording of 2013’s Twelve, 2015’s Cliff Hangin’, and 2018’s Soul Station, a tribute to the 1960 Hank Mobley album of the same name. On the latter, he teamed up for the first time with pianist Tom Oren and drummer Eviatar Slivnik; they reappear on Henri and Rachel (joined by bassist Alon Near) and have become a second family for the saxophonist. “They’re amazing, beautiful human beings and we share great chemistry,” he says.
Degibri’s first family is the focus of the new album. Taking its name from those of his mother and father, Henri and Rachel explores the meaning within the responsibilities he took up a decade ago. There’s an intellectualized melancholy at work in the smartly subtle “Noa” (dedicated to his fiancée, as is his soprano-rich “Longing” and “The Wedding”); the misty, atmospheric blues of “Gargamel”; and the immensely soulful title track that freshly represents his career’s through line while hitting mature compositional heights that Degibri has only hinted at in the past.
An only child close to his parents throughout his worldly travels, Degibri had to take on the true-to-life role of an old soul to capture accurately the emotion of his father’s decline and eventual passing, as well as his mother’s descent into dementia after having developed Parkinson’s disease. To speak to one’s parents’ disappearance after a lifetime of such intense proximity means pulling oneself out of one’s nonage and reaching someplace wiser, personally and musically.
Degibri isn’t so sure about that last part. “They say,” he notes, “that when you sleep on your stomach, you are still in the throes of childhood, and when you can sleep on your back, you’ve matured mentally. I think that I am often still sleeping on my stomach … I wanted my parents to hear what music I had made in their memory before they left me alone.”
“I wanted my parents to hear what music I had made in their memory before they left me alone.”
He tells a moving story about how his mother absorbed the music made in her name. “My dad passed away in the bed next to where my mother laid,” he says, slowly. “I couldn’t let go of him, and though she was crying too, my mother could not remember who exactly he was. That was surreal for me. Fast-forward to two months later, and I’m caring for her as she is in a wheelchair while I am writing the new album. I brought her into the living room, where I had a keyboard to practice and write. She asked me to play her something, and I played her ‘Henri and Rachel.’ This is my mother, forgetful and without memory. Suddenly, she hears my melody and begins singing the same melody in 5/4, as if she had it in her soul her whole life. Now, she’d heard the recording of this song for many months, but it still was amazing. When I remarked on how beautifully she was singing, and did she know what the name of the song was, my mother said, ‘Of course I do—it’s “Henri and Rachel.”’”
That is joy, Eli Degibri style.