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Jazz Vibrations with an Israeli Touch
5/29/2013 3:46:45 PM

Charleston Chronicle reporter Hakim Abdul-Ali interviews Israel’s superstar Saxophonist Eli Degibri at the Embassy Hotel on May 26, 2013 prior to his Spoleto Festival USA concert. Photo: Corey Galbreath

By Hakim Abdul-Ali 

There are some very genuine people in the field of entertainment, who when you first meet them, they leave a beautiful taste in your mind. Those occasions are memorable and lasting. 

Such was an occasion when “The Charleston Chronicle” interviewed young Israeli saxophonist Eli Degibri, who performed at the Spoleto Festival USA’s Wells Fargo Jazz Program on last Sunday evening. 

Eli Degibri is not like your ordinary everyday jazz man. He’s humble, almost shy in his orthodox way of being who he is. I’ve been doing this type of cultural interviewing journalism for a long time, and Mr. DeGebri’s indisputable relaxing vibrations were full of kindness and enthusiasm when we met. 

I had the opportunity to engage this erudite, vibrant musician in a one-on-one discussion about his music and his melodic thoughts of peace through his music. He doesn’t bum rush you with idle words or loose chatter, but when he does speak, it’s very serious, considerate, and insightful with complete openness in the discourse. 

Eli DeGibri just turned 35-years-old, and he speaks with a nurtured reserved wisdom that belies his youthful age. He definitely is a committed jazz musician forever stretching the bounds of his own ever-expanding music creativity and artistry. 

He mentioned that he grew up studying the mandolin in Israel at a very early age at the Jaffa Conservatory of Music in an after-school program. He soon drifted towards the saxophone as his instrument of choice. 

An only child, his love for music was supported and nurtured in him by his parents. His parents were a very important part of his early life’s development. 

Mr. Digibri told me that by age 16, he already had become a well-known musician and had developed a burgeoning reputation as a gifted young saxophonist. In 1994 this talent led to him being awarded a full scholarship to attend the Berklee College of Music’s Summer Performance Program, located in Boston, Massachusetts. 

His interest in music became more and more intense after that as he received another scholarship to attend the Berkelee School of Music full-time. Again, it was off to the United States in 1997 for what amounted to a fifteen year sojourn, and the rest is history.

His departure to America at that early age was somewhat unusual due to his country’s mandatory military commitment requirements placed upon all eligible youth. When he was 18-years-old, he (legitimately) opted out of doing mandatory military service, sort of with the government’s good wishes because of his recognized early on musical prodigious prowess on the saxophone. 

He describes that episode in his life thusly, “I ran away to make music. I came here (to America) to study at the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz Performance Program, and I was one of six students given a scholarship from all over the world to work with jazz legends, including masters such as Jimmy Heath, Ron Carter and Clark Terry for example. 

“Again, I was fortunate to work with those masters, who were geniuses, and they inspired me. Ever since that time, I’ve been doing my music and living my dream,” said Mr. DeGibri as he reflectively paid homage to some of his musical teachers.

An intensely dedicated and committed musician, Eli graduated with honors from the Theolonius Monk Institute in 1999. His engrossing jazz world learning experience continued as he toured the globe with the Herbie Hancock Sextet, playing music from the album “Gershwin’s World.” 

I asked him how and why he chose the saxophone as an instrument to pursue. He offered, “When I was 10 -years-old, I bumped into a rehearsal of a conservatory student band playing Dixie land music. I fell in love with the sound as I watched and listened to those guys making magic from musical notes and making melodies from the back of their heads.” 

He said, “I knew then that was I wanted to do that. So, I quit the playing mandolin, my original instrument, and started learning to play the alto saxophone, but I am known for my work on the tenor. Like most tenor players, when I heard John Coltrane, I knew that my alto playing days were short lived.” 

With five current albums released under own his name Eli DeGebri let me know that he has completed a sixth, “Twelve,” that will be out around September or October of this year. 

He poignantly mentioned that this new CD is very special to him because it focuses on his returning home to Israel after spending 15 years in America. “I finally came back home to my country and family,” he stated with a visible sigh of nostalgia in his remark.

“I’m now recording with a lot of Israeli musicians. There are some amazingly talented players in my country, because the jazz scene, especially in Tel Aviv, is alive and great.

“I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s something in the food or water. I don’t know what it is, but it seems that there are incredible jazz players born there every day,” is how this truly gifted musician describes the active jazz arena in his country. 

When listening to Eli Degibri speak of his country and its jazz scene, it’s obvious that he’s aware of who he is as a musician and as a member of the Jewish culture. He said in just so many words that he feels obligated to represent his people on stage while he’s performing. 

“To be honest, I have no choice, but to represent my country. I have to be aware of that, and I think I’m doing a good job,” proclaimed Mr. Degibri, with subjective humility and not arrogance in his utterance. 

Mr. Degibri made me aware of his appreciation of where the music that he loves comes from by saying, “Even though I was born in Israel, I stumbled into this truly amazing American (musical) art form, which is directly from the African-American community.

“So, I want to thank you, as being a part of the African-American culture and press for extending to me an opportunity to thank the African-American community-at-large for giving me the experience to love what I do in learning about and playing jazz music. Without it, I wouldn’t be who I am. I love who I am, and I love what I do. Gratitude is due to this amazing African-American art form called jazz. I am thankful for that and I respect it highly.” 

Mr. Degibri’s solo Sunday night concert for Spoleto at the College of Charleston’s Cistern was a seven tune set masterpiece featuring his enthralling, melodically intense tenor tones and the superb rhythmic accompaniment provided by Aaron Goldberg (piano), Gregory Hutcherson (drums) and Reuben Rogers (double bass). The group plays “serious” sophisticated and coordinated jazz music. They are uniquely good. 

The audience welcomed and appreciated Mr. Degibri and his musical cohorts to Charleston and their performance with a well deserve cacophony of festive applause after the concert. Hopefully, another Eli Digibri’s “Jazz Vibrations with an Israeli Touch” will visit Charleston again. 

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