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High Spirits at the 2022 Red Sea Jazz Festival

Music returns to Eilat harbor in Israel for the festival’s 36th edition

Avishai Cohen and Omer Avital at the 2022 Red Sea Jazz Festival
Avishai Cohen (left) and Omer Avital perform at the 2022 Red Sea Jazz Festival (photo: Sharonne Cohen)

Three jam-packed, sold-out, and high-spirited days of great music marked the 36th Red Sea Jazz Festival, which returned to its home in the Israeli port city of Eilat on Nov. 10-12 after a two-year COVID-related absence. Expertly curated, the program was eclectic, with 18 artists hailing from Israel, Colombia, Ethiopia, the Ukraine, the U.K., and the Bahamas exploring a diverse range of genres and offering master classes and late-night jam sessions.

The narrow seawater inlet that is the Red Sea, extending south from the Suez Canal and connecting to the Arabian Sea, is shared by several countries, including Egypt, Israel, and Jordan. If you’re coming from North America or Europe, where autumn is giving way to winter, it might take a moment to get used to the relative perma-summer conditions of the region, with daytime temperatures in November around 86°F and the Sinai desert winds cooling things down at night (as per the locals, it only gets “really cold” in January and February, dropping to 70°).

The logistics required to make the Red Sea Jazz Festival possible were significant. A section of the port was transformed into the festival grounds, and massive shipping containers were arranged to create three venues, surrounding a large open area where people could enjoy wine, beer, and street food and cop some vinyl between shows, and young artists got an opportunity to perform.

The opening concert, one of the festival’s highlights, was by Third World Love—a veritable Israeli supergroup featuring pianist Yonatan Avishai, trumpeter Avishai Cohen, bassist Omer Avital (on both acoustic and electric), and drummer Daniel Freedman. “How good it is to be back at the port!” Cohen exclaimed, noting the band’s return to the stage after a 10-year absence. “La Suite Africaine” opened, a signature piece underscoring the North African influences that pervade the band’s unique bluesy-funky-swinging sound, which also integrates Yemeni, Middle Eastern and Latin American spices. The memorable ballad “Third World Love Story” followed, then “Sketch of Tel Aviv,” with a palpable synergy developed over decades. The lyrics to Avishai’s “Avanim,” sung by the pianist, echoed throughout the packed open-air venue. The audience clapped and danced, still humming on its way out.

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Opening night also featured award-winning clarinetist/saxophonist/flutist Anat Cohen and the 28-year-old genre-bending Jacob Collier; the latter artist ran frenetically around the stage in mismatched socks, played every instrument in sight, and conducted the ultra-musical audience in the evening’s most moving moment. Cohen, launching her new album and compelling world-folk combo Quartetinho, was accompanied by Brazilian pianist/accordionist Vitor Gonçalves, Israeli guitarist/bassist Tal Mashiach, and American vibraphonist/percussionist James Shipp. The tender “Going Home,” taken from Dvorák’s New World Symphony, closed the set, dedicated “to all those trying to find their place, their home.”

Rising young Bahamian trumpeter Giveton Gelin (a protégé of Roy Hargrove) led a powerful, fiery quintet, performing material from his well-received debut True Design. “I want to sound like all the branches of the ancestry of this music,” he shared with the audience. Dexterous and emotive, swinging and propulsive, his sound is undeniably rooted in tradition, while pushing the music forward.

Emma Rawicz at the 2022 Red Sea Jazz Festival
Emma Rawicz at the 2022 Red Sea Jazz Festival (photo: Sharonne Cohen)

Other horn players at Eilat included London-based Emma Rawicz, playing a venue too small for the audience waiting to see her, and Israeli Eli Degibri. Rawicz featured her quintet, with renowned Israeli drummer Asaf Sirkis, playing material from her second album, Incantation. Clearly in touch with the spirit of her generation, the 20-year-old Rawicz incorporates electronics into the brass tradition; her playing gained in engagement the rawer and more exploratory it got. 

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Degibri (Herbie Hancock, Al Foster), former artistic director of the festival, presented a unique concept: three duets with three pianists—Tom Oren, winner of the 2018 Monk Jazz Piano Competition; Omri Mor, who artfully fuses classical, Andalusian, Algerian, and Latin music; and the fluid, inspired New York-based Aaron Goldberg. Playing their own compositions as well as Degibri’s, each brought his own colors to the palette to create a truly singular, often exhilarating experience. To close, all three pianists came onstage and played simultaneously, facing Degibri. “I feel like quitting the piano,” a young musician mused humorously leaving the venue.

Omri Mor, Aaron Goldberg, and Tom Oren at the 2022 Red Sea Jazz Festival
Left to right: Omri Mor, Tom Oren, and Aaron Goldberg at the 2022 Red Sea Jazz Festival (photo: Sharonne Cohen)

And there was lots more in the 88-key department.

Ukrainian-born, Grammy-winning Ruslan Sirota, whose family immigrated to Israel when he was a child, played a memorable set with a new acoustic quartet featuring legendary drummer Dennis Chambers. Intriguing pianist and award-winning composer Maya Dunietz premiered her trio; free jazz, folk, rock, and other hues blended into the jazz piano tradition on new compositions as well as material from her 2021 recording Free the Dolphin. Colombian virtuoso Jesus Molina captivated the packed Red Note Club with his “Reborn” and Chick Corea’s “Spain,” accompanied by Israeli bassist Guy Bernfeld, guitarist Jose Irarragorri, and percussionist Jorge “Patax” Pérez.

Israeli pianist Omer Klein, currently based in Germany, spoke of the joy of playing live again after the long COVID hiatus, rather than at home in his pajamas. “We are a community,” he said. “Without you, we’d just be three guys playing by ourselves.” Supported by Haggai Cohen Milo on bass and Amir Bresler on drums, Klein showed his lyricism and innovative spirit. Opening with the older “Niggun” and moving into material from his new Personal Belongings (Warner), the set included “Sun Girl” and “Good Hands,” dedicated to his North African grandparents.

Orit Tashoma at the 2022 Red Sea Jazz Festival
Orit Tashoma at the 2022 Red Sea Jazz Festival (photo: Sharonne Cohen)

Ethiopian artists, prominent on the Israeli music scene, were represented in several ways. Vocalist Orit Tashoma played opening night, weaving poetry, spoken word, and hip-hop rooted in jazz, American soul and R&B, and the sounds of Ethiopia. Her ensemble, composed of young jazz players, performed material from her 2019 album Abundance in Scarcity (HaShefa baDalut), touching on her “identity crisis” as an Ethiopian Israeli and a female artist.

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Abate Berihun, an Israeli saxophonist born in Addis Ababa, accompanied hip-hop artist Ravid Plotnik, whose stage name is derived from the Amharic word Nech (ነጭ, meaning: white), given to him by his Ethiopian childhood friends. The two performed Plotnik’s reggae-infused “Police State,” tackling the harsh realities experienced by Ethiopian immigrants. “Change can only come from within us,” he sang, while Berihun opened with a poignant solo.

Mulatu Astatke, the 78-year-old godfather of Ethio-jazz who studied at the Berklee College of Music and collaborated with Duke Ellington, played a sold-out signature set combining modern jazz with traditional Ethiopian rhythms, including music from the soundtrack to the Jim Jarmusch film Broken Flowers.

A couple of non-traditional instruments were featured at Red Sea as well. Berlin-based Israeli harmonicist and composer Ariel Bart (William Parker, Andrew Cyrille) performed with her quintet on day one. Her compositions and playing offered a unique approach to the chromatic harmonica, inspired both by the Middle East and the European jazz tradition, her unconventional quintet featuring cello, piano, bass, and drums.

Ofer Mizrahi at the 2022 Red Sea Jazz Festival
Ofer Mizrahi at the 2022 Red Sea Jazz Festival (photo: Sharonne Cohen)

Gifted guitarist Ofer Mizrahi featured his trio (Leat Sabbah on cello and David Michaeli on upright bass) on a set of original compositions showcasing the 24-string Leviathan guitar that took five years to craft. This unusual instrument—which, as he explained to the inquisitive audience, is a cross between a guitar and a sitar—facilitates incorporation of the cross-cultural influences informing his work, including Turkish, Indian, Caucasus and Western music. Mizrahi’s mesmerizing acoustic set underscored one of the festival’s only challenges: the bleeding of sound from one stage to the other, as hip-hop beats traveled into the intimate performance space. The production team, fully aware, will surely sort this out by the next edition. 

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The festival’s musical director, bassist/producer Yossi Fine, performed at the intersection of jazz and hip-hop on closing day with Supergroove: renowned artists on the Israeli hip-hop scene, accompanied by a group of young musicians. Born in Paris to a West African mother and Israeli father, Fine has collaborated with artists as varied as Gil Evans, Kenny Kirkland, Vieux Farka Touré, Lou Reed, and Stanley Jordan. Synthesizing all of that, he launched into John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” bringing this venerated standard to a large crowd of music lovers. “Lots of young people came out this year, and that was a blessing,” Fine told JT.

Dominating the keyboards with his distinct soul/funk/jazz/blues, Cory Henry also played the final day, accompanied by drummer TaRon Lockett and bassist Joshua Easley. “It’s like church in here!” he exclaimed, a sea of waving hands testifying to the trio’s impact. Henry swept up over 2,000 enthusiastic listeners with Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” and Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day,” the entire audience singing and clapping, hardly anyone left in their seats. “I hope the music we played provides a source of inspiration,” he said, ending the set with his ultra-funky “Don’t Forget,” repeating the refrain: “Please don’t forget what you’re living for.” At this festival, it seemed all the audience was living for was the music.

Sharonne Cohen

Sharonne Cohen is a Montreal-based writer and editor. A music journalist since 2001, she has contributed to publications including JazzTimes, DownBeat, OkayPlayer, VICE/Noisey, Afropop Worldwide, The Revivalist, and La Scena Musicale; her articles are often accompanied by her photographs.