Festival Review: The Red Sea Jazz Festival 2022

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Earlier this month the Red Sea Jazz Festival took place again at full strength in the harbor of the Israeli city of Eilat. Having previously not visited Israel, when the invitation to attend came arrived, I naturally accepted without hesitation.

The Red Sea Jazz Festival is one of the longest running festivals in Israel with the first edition taking place in 1987. Founded by Dan Gottfried who also served as artistic director for 22 years,  the festival has throughout it’s history hosted a highly impressive list of some of the worlds greatest artists establishing it as one of the leading Jazz events on the world stage. For the 2022 edition the festivals current artistic director Yossi Fine put together a impressive line-up of International and Israeli artists further cementing the festivals reputation.

As mentioned earlier, the festival is held at the port of Eilat with the entire festival terrain built with sea containers creating a unique atmosphere. As a side note, you can only imagine the organization required to have the Port Authority clear a section of the docks required to host the event of this side. In the center of the festival terrain is a large hospitality area with bars and a wide selection of local street food on offer, it’s simply quite amazing to sit there sipping a gin and tonic while overlooking the Red Sea with the coast of Jordan in the back ground. The weather in Eilat is spectacular in November and this was the case during the festival, Sun Sea and Jazz, what more do you need.

The concerts took place on three stages, the main stage or “The Port Arena” hosted most of the headline acts while the rest of the concerts took place on either the “Red Note Club” or the small stage titled “The Future” that showcased a program of up and coming artists. It was here that I saw some of the most exciting performances during the festival.

The festival was opened by the reunion of the Israëli all star band “Third World Love”. The band featuring Avishai Cohen (trumpet), Daniel Freedman (drums), Yonatan Avishai (piano), and Omer Avital (bass) drew a full house in the Port Arena. Unfortunately due to the travel schedule I missed most of the performance however judging by the overwhelming applause the band certainly impressed the sold out crowd. The first full concert that I caught was on the “Red Note” stage where Israëli ex-pat Anat Cohen performed her latest project titled “Quartetinho”. Cohen released her latest album featuring this line-up in October of this year and as one would expect presented much of the repertoire from the album live. The band, consisting of Cohen on Clarinet together with Vitor Gonçalves, Piano, Tal Mashiach, Double bass and James Shipp on Vibraphone and percussion, captivated the audience with a great set of Latin influenced pieces. This concert was one of my “must see” performances on the program and it definitely didn’t disappoint. Cohen once again showed that her reputation as one of Israel’s most influential jazz exports is well earned.

Anat Cohen | Photo by Peter Vit

Directly after Cohen’s set I was treated to the first surprise of the festival, a set by young Israeli chromatic harmonica player Ariel Bart. Hailed as a raising start on the Israëli scene Bart delivered an amazing set on the The Future” stage. The band consisting of a traditional Piano Bass Drums rhythm section and the addition of Cellist, Mayo Shebiru, presented an amazing set of original music that held the attention of the packed audience from start to finish. The music presented ranged from minimalist ballads to Middle Eastern infused grooves but all with a unique taste. The addition of the cello in the line-up, something that seemed quite a common theme at the festival, added an extra mediative touch to the set. I was deeply moved by this performance and I expect that we will be hearing a great deal more from Arial Bart in the coming years. For those wishing to find out more about Arial, I urge you to check out her latest album “Documentaries” that was released in October.

Closing out the performances on the main stage for the opening day was Jacob Collier and his current touring band. While personally not a huge fan, there is no denying that Collier is extremally popular and this was evidenced by the huge crowd that packed the arena. Being of the opinion that the performance was a little more show over substance I have to say that judging by the audience reaction, I’m sure my opinion is in the minority. Later that evening were two performances that grabbed my attention in the program, the first by pianist Ruslan Sirota and his trio featuring drummer Dennis Chambers and the second, a set from Orit Tashoma, a Ethiopian Israëli spoken word artist that delivered a passionate set of high energy music that highlighted the cultural plight of Ethiopian migrants who came to settle in Israel. While all the text was in Hebrew, the gist was obvious. This was a great concert to finish off day one of the festival.

Ariel Bart Quintet | Photo by Shahar Glass

Day two of the trip started with a chaotic breakfast at the hotel before leaving for the festivals official reception for sponsors and other dignitaries at a local Eilat wine bar. It was great to see that this festival is very well supported by the local government and the business community of Eilat. At the reception I had the opportunity to spend some time with the festivals artistic director, Yossi Fine. It was great to hear his vision for the festival and in particular his support for providing a stage for up-coming local Israëli talent. Fine explained that his programing decisions are not based on a pre-conceived formular but more on a gut feeling, in fact he said that many of his programing choices were made after watching no more than 30 seconds of an artists video. He’s also not locked into the constraints of genre, “Jazz is a board concept and if you want to draw people to the festival you need to cover a wide range” he went on to say.

Later that afternoon we headed back to the Port for a long day of no less that 10 concerts. I have to hand it to the festival organization for structuring the program in such a way that you are able to catch all of these concerts without to much overlap. Usually reporting on a festival on this scale requires you to make choices however, this was not the case here and while there was some overlap (more on this later) it was the first festival I have visited where I managed to catch at least a portion of each of the concerts.

Opening the second day on the main stage was Israeli rapper Ravid Plotnik. Enjoying a high profile position in the Israëli scene Plotnik drew a large crowd for a set of adventurous, and very loud, jazz infused rap. Almost concurrent to this, the Ofer Mizrahi Trio, an ensemble that featured once again cellist Mayo Shebiru and bassist David Michael together with band leader Ofer Mizrahi on guitar, trumpet and vocals played their set. This was the second of the surprises at the festival. Mizrahi performed an amazing set of highly moving music that somewhat defies description. Mizrahi’s main instrument was a guitar the he developed himself that features no less than 24 strings that he calls the “leviathan guitar”. Many of these strings are sympathetic or resonance strings allowing Mizrahi to reach into the sound pallet of the guitar, the sitar and the Middle eastern Oed. The music was highly meditative and introverted but captivating throughout. Unfortunately, due to the wind and the volume of Plotnik’s set on the main stage, Mizrahi’s music was at times overshadowed by this ambient sonic intruder however, Mizrahi and his band took this in their stride and were able to ignore the distraction like true professionals. Hats off for that. I left this set with a feeling that I’ve truly just witnessed something new.

Ofer Mizrahi | Photo by Peter Vit

Next up, on the Red Note stage was the piano trio lead by Omar Klein. Klein has been Hailed as “one of the most intriguing and important artists to emerge from Israel in the past decade” and his presence on the European scene only underscores this. Joined by his long term band mates Haggai Cohen Milo, bass and Amir Bresler on Drums, Klein delivered a great set of music from his last two albums that highlighted the intense interplay between these three musicians. It’s been a number of years since I last saw this trio live and despite the intervening pandemic, the manner in which these three musicians continually converge artistly is more than impressive. Truly a great set.

British saxophonist Emma Rawicz has been on my rader for some time now however her concert at the festival was the first opportunity I have had to catch her live. Emma and her band, featuring some of the hottest names on the UK scene, delivered an amazing set demonstrating that all of the current buzz around her is well deserved. Throughout the set Emma grabbed the attention of the overflowing audience not only with her playing but also her compositional prowess. Next to Emma, I specifically enjoyed the playing of pianist Ivo Neame, mostly known for his work with Phronesis and the drumming of Asaf Sirkis. The audience erupted with applause when towards the end of the set she dedicated a track to her parents who had just happened to have flown to Israel for the gig. Based on this performance I’m convinced that Rawicz will develop into one of the stars of the UK scene and beyond.

Emma Rawicz | Photo by Peter Vit

With dusk falling over the port of Eilat, saxophonist Eli Degibri took to the main stage to perform a set of sax/piano duo’s with three different pianists, Aaron Goldberg, Omri Mor, Tom Oren. The set included a number of original compositions from the players as well as some standards including a surprising version of the Stevie Wonder classic “Isn’t She Lovely” and culminating with all three pianists (6 Hands) at the keyboard. Next up on the “Red Note” stage was a concert by Mulatu Astatke, commonly known as the Godfather of Ethio-Jazz. Featuring a large ensemble of multiple percussion, horns, keyboards and cello, Astatke presented a set of African and latin music with his own unique twist. Astatke, now well into his 70’s, shows no sign of slowing down as he and the band delivered a high energy set that grooved from beginning to end. The only negative was that it took at least three songs before the sound engineer was able to come to grips with the large and unconventional line-up. However that said, once the balance was locked in the show was highly impressive.

Later in the evening, I witnessed two shows on the “The Future” stage that left me with a lasting impression. The first of these was a trio performance by pianist Maya Dunietz and the second was a quintet led by UK based trumpeter Giveton Gelin. Maya Dunietz together with bassist Barak Mori and drummer Amir Bresler, who appeared earlier in the day with Omar Klein, presented a set that was both beguiling and intriguing. With the compositions ranging from from energetic to minimalist Dunietz managed to charm the audience with her playing that fully utilized the full potential of her instrument. One of the highlights of the set came just toward the end with the trio’s creative version of Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” that Dunietz stated will appear on her up-coming album. Based on this gig, I will definitely be keeping an eye out for Maya’s new release.

The second concert that caught my attention on the Future stage was Giveton Gelin’s quintet featuring Chris Louis, saxophone, Mathis Picard, Piano, bassist Mats Sandahl and drummer Alon Benjamini, who due to a late cancelation had to step in at the last moment. This concert was “on 11”, to borrow a term from the film spinal tap, from the get-go. Firmly rooted in the neo-bob style, Giveton and crew exuded virtuosity and energy throughout the set. I was particularly impressed with pianist Mathis Picard who dispatched a number of jaw dropping solo’s. Drummer Alon Benjamini deserves a special mention who, given the lack of rehearsal time, fitted into the ensemble seamlessly, providing a solid drive for the rest of the band to build on.

Giveton Gelin | Photo by Peter Vit

Closing out the concerts on the main stage was a concert featuring Gigi Gov, a veteran Israeli singer, TV host, entertainer, and actor, who presented a set of big band standards. The final concert of the day was on the Red Note stage and featured Columbian keyboard virtuoso Jesus Molina. Molina’s set dispensed a program of Latin infused fusion music ranging from hard hitting to ethereal. I particularly enjoyed the contribution of bassist Israeli bassist Guy Bernfeld who not only furnished a number of virtuoso solo’s but also provided the glue in the ensemble passages.

The festivals third and final day featured only two concerts, this due to the Shabbat. The first of these was a set on the main stage by keyboardist Cory Henry featuring a trio consisting of TaRon Lockett and Josh Easley. Henry, who rose to prominence as a member of Snarky Puppy, presented a set of soul groove infused music the had the early bird audience on there feet and dancing. The festival was closed with a special performance put together and curated by artistic director and bassist Yossi Fine. This concert was intended to close the festival in a festive manner and this was certainly case.

I truly enjoyed my time in Eilat and I have to say that the Red Sea Jazz Festival was one of the best festivals I’ve recently had the pleasure to attend. The programing was excellent, there was something here for everyone and as often happens, in my opinion some of the most exciting acts were those I were not previously aware of.

One of the things that caught my attention was that the festival drew a huge audience stretching across all age groups and this has a lot to do with the excellent programing but you also can’t underestimate the roll of the city of Eilat that not only provided the perfect backdrop for the festival but provides visitors with a wealth of other activities and an atmosphere the is truly unique. I can’t recommended a vist to the Red Sea Jazz Festival highly enough and, in my opinion, should be on the schedule of every jazz lover. After all, to be able to experience all this festival has to offer, great music, amazing weather and a location on the shores of the Red Sea while the rest of Europe becomes cold and grey is something special.

Personally I can’t wait to return.

Last modified: December 13, 2022