The road,” Ray Charles soulfully sings in the classic song “Georgia on My Mind,” “leads back to you.”
And so it is for an increasing number of Israeli-born jazz musicians who have headed back home of late after leaving an indelible mark on the scene here.
The big-toned tenor saxophonist Eli Degibri, who logged a number of formative years in the bands of famed pianist Herbie Hancock and the great drummer Al Foster, is foremost among the returnees. After 15 years abroad, he moved back to Israel in 2011 to help spread the jazz word in his homeland.
“Over the past decade, Avishai Cohen the bassist returned, I returned, Avishai Cohen the trumpeter, bassist Tal Ronen, bassist Barak Mori,” Degibri, 38, told The Jewish Week in a phone interview from his home in Holon. “I believe that over time most of us come back, because our roots are here.
“My generation, we established that it’s possible for someone who grew up in Jaffa to play with the likes of Herbie Hancock,” Degibri continued. “This inspired young Israeli jazz musicians to do what we did, which was move to New York. But now they see us coming back, and they see that one can make a fine living as jazz musicians right here at home … that you can have your cake and eat it too.”
Speaking of which, Degibri will be back here leading a quartet for a high-profile gig Nov. 8 at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola (jazz.org/dizzys). The group will play tunes from his new release, “Cliff Hangin’,” his second recorded-in-Israel CD, which just received five stars from DownBeat, an influential jazz magazine.
It’s the first recording, he said, where he felt truly at home, and he believes listeners can hear the difference. “Critics used to talk about something wistful and melancholy in my music, but with this album they talk about a sense of optimism, and I think they’re right,” said Degibri, a graduate of the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. “There’s no doubt coming home to Israel did the music good.”
Now back home, Degibri not only performs, but since 2011 he has also served as artistic co-director of the Red Sea Jazz Festival, Israel’s premier jazz event, held each August.
In a sign of the maturing of Israel’s jazz scene, last summer’s 30th anniversary festival featured a roster of nearly all Israeli players. That lineup, Degibri said, served “to bolster the awareness of how crazy the scene in Israel is right now… It’s a little unbalanced age-wise, since it’s composed mostly of brilliant but inexperienced youngsters of 21 and under, and, you know, the really old cats.” But as players his own age and caliber continue to return home, Degibri feels Israeli jazz is well on its way to becoming a self-contained ecosystem.
Beit Haamudim, Tel Aviv’s 6-year-old thriving jazz cafe, has been ranked by Business Insider as among the top jazz clubs in the world. Haaretz music writer Ben Shalev has recently written that Israel is seeing an “unheard of proliferation” of jazz training centers, which, alongside returning musicians, is ushering in a new Israeli-based jazz era.
And another development was the launch last year of Pannonica Jazz, a foundation dedicated to fostering the local jazz scene; Pannonica Records, the foundation’s self-funded label, has produced more than 10 recordings this year alone. Many of Pannonica’s artists are Israelis who studied, lived and cut their jazz teeth in New York.
So Israel’s jazz scene is humming along, but does coming back to New York awaken any longings for Degibri? “I miss New York all the time, and I’m always so happy when I come here. You can hear some of the best jazz in the world here. But I’m even happier because I know that when the visit is over, I’m going back home.”