Sunday, December 9, 2012

Review: Israeli Song - Eli Degibri

I’ve had Eli Degibri on my list of sax players to check out to for a while, and I thought, well, Eli is Israeli, and it’s Hanukkah time, so I used this as an excuse to put Eli in the AJS spotlight this week.  Degibri has a few recordings out, but Israeli Song is fairly recent, and the rhythm section certainly caught my interest: Brad Mehldau (one of my favorite pianists), Ron Carter, and Al Foster.  That’s a multi-million dollar rhythm section if there ever was one.


Israeli Song starts out with a Mehldau composition, “Unrequited,” an upper mid-tempo, minor key, interesting tune.  Mehldau starts the soloing with his distinctive imaginative phrasing, beginning simply, then moving into quicksilver phrases and ringing chords.  Degibri then comes in on soprano sax, with a clear, singing tone.  Degibri starts with clean, skillful lines, and then he mixes in more emotional playing, with some faster lines, upper register screaming, and increased volume before bringing it back down to a closing reading of the melody, with only Mehldau for accompaniment. 

“Mr. R.C.,” a Degibri tune written for Ron Carter, is a mid-tempo swing tune, something that would have fit nicely on the previously reviewed ‘Round Midnight (by Harry Allen and Scott Hamilton), with Degibri on tenor sax.  Let me just say that I love Degibri’s tone on the tenor: big, full, slightly breathy, and a bit old-fashioned, like he’s playing a vintage saxophone.  His phrasing is a mix of traditional and modern, more of an updated Stan Getz or Dexter Gordon style rather than an edgy Coltrane or a driving Sonny Rollins.  He adds in some upper register screams here to finish off a very solid solo. Mehldau gets in an ear-catching solo. Then Carter plays a swinging, light-hearted bass solo with double-stops sprinkled in.  Next is Degibri’s “Judy the Dog,” an up-tempo, post-bop tune with Degibri again on tenor.  Degibri plays clean, slippery phrases and again adds in some effective upper register screaming, followed by a Mehldau solo.  Foster provides a subtle cushion of rhythm throughout, and the entire rhythm section plays like it’s a single person, completely seamless.  The cut fades out on Mehldau and Degibri trading fours.

“Jealous Eyes” is an engaging, clever ballad.  Degibri is again on soprano, and it’s evident here that his soprano sound is also a bit old-fashioned; it sounds like he may be playing a curved soprano sax.  Mehldau plays some off-center phrases to spice up the ballad in a solo that’s too brief.  In his solo, Degibri includes some surprisingly high volume for a while, then he brings the volume way back down.  This is something notable in Degibri’s style: he includes a lot of changes in volume in his solos.  “Manic Depressive” is a slightly twisted blues, and Mehldau gives an appropriately bluesy intro to the tune, though the melody, played by Degibri on tenor, is a bit hard to pin down.  Degibri plays a straightforward, swaggering solo, while Mehldau spices up his solo with some jangly chords.  Carter plays a fine, swinging solo, again with plenty of double-stops.  Degibri’s beautiful tenor sound is again on display here, but in the improvisation department, he is a bit outclassed by his bandmates on this one. 

Next up is a mid-tempo, relaxed reading of Dizzy’s “Bebop,” a duet between Degibri and Foster.  Again, Foster effortlessly and gracefully ferries us through the tune.  Degibri’s tenor solo well establishes his bebop creds, and he adds some accompaniment to Foster’s solo, which swings in a gentle and understated way.  Degibri’s “Liora” is a song with a capital “s,” like something Irving Berlin might have written.  Degibri and Mehldau are by themselves on this cut.  Degibri, on tenor, slides through the changes and again varies his dynamics throughout his improvising.  The cut reminds me of the Getz/Barron collaboration, People Time, with Degibri and Mehldau playing well off each other, and it is a fine change of pace at this point in the recording.

Foster’s “Look What You Do to Me” is an upper mid-tempo, pretty, slightly funky tune on which Degibri plays soprano.  Degibri’s solo is well-paced, and Foster gets in a tasteful solo, which is punctuated by quick phrases from the rest of the band.  Carter’s “Third Plane” is a brisk jazz waltz on which Degibri plays tenor, and he gets off a swinging, flowing solo.  Then Mehldau solos, briefly adding in a double-time section, though his solo, like Degibri’s, is too brief to make much of a statement.  The standard “Over the Rainbow” is a duet between Carter and Degibri on tenor.  Degibri’s sound shines on his heartfelt reading of the melody, and then he improvises through ¾ of the tune, Carter doing some fun things on the bass behind him, before playing the last section of the melody to close the cut.  The recording ends with “Israeli Song,” another duet between Degibri and Mehldau.  This stately, mid-tempo waltz begins with an improvised a cappella etude of straight eights from Degibri on tenor.  Mehldau’s solo is straightforward before he gets into a lovely triplet section that sounds like a classical recital.  Degibri’s solo is particularly passionate, including more well-executed variation of dynamics.  This cut is a brief but satisfying close to the recording.

Israeli Song is an excellent recording.  Degibri has a beautiful sound on both of his horns, and his improvising shows plenty of skill and maturity, though it is fairly traditional.  Of course, the rhythm section is peerless, with excellent improvising from Mehldau and Carter.  The main misgiving I have about this recording is that it’s a little unadventurous.  These players are so good that they should manage to set off some fireworks in the music, but the proceedings stay a bit too restrained.  The music comes off a little like ideal background music for a very hip cocktail party.  (Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this.)  Part of the problem is that the tunes are a bit too brief (around 5 minutes on average), and there’s not enough time for real development in the improvisations.  I wish the recording had fewer but lengthier tunes.  But I’m quibbling here; this is a fine recording of excellent jazz, and I look forward to hearing Degibri’s beautiful sound and engaging improvisations again soon. 

On edit: I happened upon a couple of good video clips of Eli Degibri on YouTube.  One is just the title cut from this recording, the other is a live performance where Degibri displays some of his passionate soloing.  These clips will give you an idea of what Degibri is all about.

Israeli song



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