Photo Credit: Yossi Zwecker
Israeli saxophonist Eli Degibri makes his Ronnie Scott’s debut on Friday 17 May with a quartet of young fellow Israelis who are following Degibri’s example of going out into the world and playing with the best musicians possible. He talked to Rob Adams:
Degibri, who played mandolin before becoming infatuated with the saxophone, studied on a full scholarship at Berklee and played with Herbie Hancock for three years at the turn of the century and with drummer Al Foster’s band from 2002 to 2011.
He released his first album, In the Beginning, in 2003, with an impressive band comprising guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Ben Street and drummer Jeff Ballard, and has gone on to release a steady stream of well received recordings, the latest of which is his take on Hank Mobley’s 1960 Blue Note classic, Soul Station.
Playing saxophone wasn’t Degibri’s original intention. “I actually wanted to play the trumpet when I switched from the mandolin, which I’d played from the age of seven,” he says. “But the teacher at the conservatory I attended said that the trumpet didn’t ‘fit’ me. Saxophone was my second choice, so I tried that and I very quickly fell in love with it. Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt were my main influences in the beginning, and then of course Hank Mobley became important to me.”
We’ll get to Mobley and Degibri’s fascination with Soul Station in a minute. However, before becoming a frontman who has been described as “an exceptionally melodic improviser with a big bold tenor tone” by Bill Milkowski in Jazz Times and as “a bewitching fellow who shows impressive chops as both a player and composer” by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Degibri earned the praises of the aforementioned Hancock and Foster.
Hancock spotted a musician who had the potential to be a formidable force in the evolution of jazz and one of the qualities that persuaded Foster to hire Degibri was his ability to tell a story when soloing.
“Both of these musicians have their own unique philosophy for playing and passing forward this great music,” says Degibri of the experience he gained playing with two of jazz’s special torch bearers. “One thing they have in common is, they have an aura about them. Herbie and Al are far beyond great musicians. They have a special light in them that when you are around it you are filled with it and that makes you play better and strive for greatness yourself.”
Degibri is now passing on this inspiration to younger Israelis but praises the education system young players in Israel have at their disposal as well as the hard work he sees his young colleagues putting into their craft.
“The young players watch us older guys for inspiration,” says Degibri, who has set an example by being given an honorary award for jazz composition from Israel’s prime minister. “They also realise, though, that they need to put in the hours and that if they do work hard, then becoming a great jazz musician isn’t just a dream, it can be a reality and we’re seeing that with a number of Israeli jazz musicians coming onto the world stage.”
One of Degibri’s own dreams became a reality (another will follow when he leads his quartet at Ronnie Scott’s) when he recorded what Hank Mobley’s biographer, Derek Ansell, described as Soul Station Volume 2, such is Degibri’s grasp of the swing and soul that the great Blue Note tenor espoused. “Hank is one of my favourite musicians and saxophonists,” says Degibri. “And Soul Station is probably in my top five favourite recordings. Recording the whole album from A to Z was my way of saying thank you to Hank – thank you for your beautiful soul and the gift that you gave the world.”
Degibri’s enthusiasm for Hank Mobley would have found favour with Ronnie Scott himself, who numbered Mobley alongside Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson and Stan Getz as his favourite saxophonists, and the Israeli is well aware of the footsteps he’ll be following in as he walks from the dressing room to the stage at 47 Frith Street.
“Playing at Ronnie Scott’s really means a lot to me,” says Degibri. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to play there and very much looking forward to experiencing the history of the room and the warmth of the crowd. And if they come out afterwards with a smile and a melody in their hearts and minds, I will be proud.” (pp)