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Eli Degibri Quartet

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Review by Lloyd Bradford Syke

Long had I hankered to make it to VJs, the newish, lower north shore jazz venue, brainchild of distinguished saxophonist, Mark Ginsburg. Finally, on a wet 'n' wild Tuesday evening (last), my wish came true.

Welcomed with warming mulled wine, I took my rather upright seat in the otherwise comfortable, conducive venue. Then, the Eli Degibri Quartet proceeded to take my breath.

Led by, as the name suggests, Israeli saxman, composer and arranger, Eli Degibri. Yes, Israeli. It mightn't be the first nation you think, when you think jazz, but Eli spearheads something of a jazz explosion emanating from that very country.

Not even midway through his 30s, he's at the peak of his powers in all these respects, which is to say I can barely imagine him or, for that matter, any of the members of his quartet, playing any better than they already do. There's good. And there's astonishing. Individually and collectively, the EDQ fall easily into the latter category.

Eli comes across as shy, but is a demonstrative and demanding bandleader; very 'in the moment', ever-conscious of precisely what's going on, who needs to sit back, how to adapt the sound to the room and response. That was my strong impression. The shyness (or perhaps just cool), feigned or real, is manifest in the softly-spoken backstories he relates.

Speaking of backstories, ED's musical life began, apparently, not with sax, but mandolin; at 7, at the Jaffa Conservatory. But then, just a few years later, he heard a jazz band. As I remember, it was a Dixieland band and, as he pointed out, to a ten-year-old, it was magical as, for one thing, its embers looked like circus performers. That was the catalyst. He switched from strings to reeds. There was no going back.

At 16, he won a scholarship to a Berklee College Of Music summer school. Berklee, in case you don't know, is the largest independent contemporary music school in the world, located in Boston. A couple of years later, he converted that to a full scholarship, moving to the US. He followed those studies up at the Thelonious Monk Institute Of Jazz. He could hardly have had better tuition, since it came from the likes of living legends and luminaries such as Ron Carter (who, of course, was a Miles alumnus), Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath and Clark Terry. You could happily die, having already been to jazz heaven, but Degibri was then invited to play with Herbie Hancock, with whom he toured for two-and-a-half years. And it hasn't exactly been downhill from there, either.

Having resettled in Boston, he moved to New York and formed his first quintet, playing clubs like the Blue Note, as well as the Village Vanguard, as part of Al Foster's quartet. You remember Al, right? he played with Miles as well. The rest of his resume reads like a name-dropping who's who of jazz personnel, venues and festivals, too.

But if the names of the three other players in his quartet don't mean as much to you right now as, say, Brad Mehldau, Eric Reed or the Mingus Big Band, with whom and which Eli's also played, (pianist) Gadi Lehavi, (bassist) Simon Starr and (drummer) Aviv Cohen soon will, I expect. This, I practically guarantee: if you hear them play, you'll never forget them.

Perhaps the most striking thing of all about Degibri's compositions is the you don't have to be a jazz-lover or aficionado to appreciate them. The very first song of the first set, Israeli Song, featuring Eli on tenor, is a perfect example. It's a touching, exquisitely-crafted tribute to his heritage; for mine, unmistakably imbued with a deep reverence for its ancient past and hope for a bright future. It fits as much in the 'world' genre as jazz and is a showcase for the almost spiritual relationship between Degibri and his impossibly young pianist (he's 16, but already plays like a white-haired veteran), because this piece is all about the interplay between sax and piano. It's a give-and-take conversation; a mutually respectful dialogue. Compositionally and in the playing, it observes a beautiful equilibrium between the two. This is a patient, soulful, eloquent instrumental ballad, played with restraint and hearth-like warmth, propelled by a gentle, swaying tempo. Notable for a lack of affectation and ornament, it swells, deceptively, to a crescendo, only to fall away again. Inasmuch, it has the arc of a good novel, or film; a completeness. Degibri clearly understands that love and passion are far removed from sentimentality: his expression is always spirited and robust, no matter that the essential mood be contemplative. Israeli Song is seductive, welcoming the stranger and intimate alike.

Degibri's extensive formal education in jazz might, in others, prove a liability: there can result an over-reliance on what's gone before; a reticence to boldly go where no player has gone before. Yet Degibri seems unafraid to venture into uncharted territory which, of course, lies at the very heart of jazz.

ED, albeit shyly, ventures personal anecdotes, here and there, to introduce songs. After breaking-up with a girl, he declared himself Emotionally Available. But there's nothing shy about his soprano. Playing with worldclass jazz geniuses seems to have had the effect, not to intimidate, but to inspire him to take the bull by the horns, or his horns by the horns, and go for broke, playing his heart out, giving every ounce of his strength and personality. He is, indeed, Emotionally Available. The piece itself shares something with Israeli Song, insofar as being built around a memorable melodic phrase. It has candour, humility and the kind of urbane compositional sophistication of an Ellington (or Strayhorn).  

It's thrilling, throughout both sets, to see Cohen nudge, riding the edge of every rhythm dangerously; almost precariously. He's as busy as a bee; incredibly skilled and inventive; a Buddy Rich (yes, big call!) for the twenty-first century. I say Buddy Rich to point to the extent of his talent; he's his own man, with his own style. At times, Degibri, an assertive leader with immense presence, implores him to lay back; at others, he's egging him on. Drum solos aren't everyone's cup of tea, I s'pose, but the response to Cohen's exciting, unpredictable breaks was genuinely a case of the crowd went wild, rather than mild. And it was a mild crowd, so that was something.

(Australian-born) Starr's solos show him to be an exceptional bassist, too. It's a delight to see his sing along and at every moment he seems to be bursting with happiness to be doing what he's doing.

Lehavi, even for a sixteen-year-old, is diminutive in frame, but huge in musical stature. His superhuman versatility, spontaneity, self-assurance and outright mastery is phenomenal. It gets to the point, very early on, where one anticipates his solos with bated breath. It's not only that he can play so brilliantly, but that he can improvise so originally and surprisingly. He seems to surprise and delight his leader constantly and, for all I know, himself.

Other originals featured included Wild Wild East, on which Degibri really stretches out on tenor, in an expansive, more outgoing, yet still, somehow, introspective tune, borne aloft by Starr and Cohen.

Mika featured Degibri's spellbinding soprano once more. As with Israeli Song and, I s'pose, somewhat inevitably, there's a faint whiff of klezmer in the ether, tempered by the freer sensibility of jazz impro. It's a journey into history, the cobbled, labyrinthine lanes of old Jerusalem and hearts that have known darkness as well as dawns. Well, that's where it took me.

Unrequited sees Degibri again pick up his soprano. There's a characteristic gentleness about the composition (this is a quality that's emerged during the course of the evening), but not always about the phrasing, or playing, which Degibri is prone to take in jagged, provocative, if not downright subversive directions at any given moment. This tune allows Lehavi, in particular, immense space in which to exercise his nimble mind and fingers. The playing shimmers as ripely as a full moon on Sydney Harbour.

Pum-Pum affords raucous tenor and a 'free jazz' outlet for each and every member of the band. It chugs lie a steam-train shovelled full of coal, powering down, carving its very own course across the musical landscape. It's a crossroads at which technique and imagination meet and warmly embrace.

There's a humanity and honesty in Degibri's charts. But there's even more in the 'uncharted territory' (as Herbie Hancock described it) he traverses when he and his play live.

It's been a short, sharp Australian tour for the Eli Degibri Quartet. it;s first. Let's hope the next one's longer and much more extensive. I've no doubt it'll be just as sharp.

Performance on Tuesday 5th June, VJ's, Sydney

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