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Jazz is fine and dandy in Israel’s Mitzpe Ramon

CM 11/05/2021

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 Yossi Fine has been there and done that, and often with some of the biggest names in the global music industry. His bio to date includes synergies with the likes of iconic rockers David Bowie and Lou Reed; jazz royalty guitarist John Scofield; and pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader Gil Evans, who is best known for his collaborations with legendary trumpeter Miles Davis. There have also been prime-time TV appearances, such as on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

That accrued experience, and Fine’s work with a broad slew of artists from across the world and all kinds of genres, will come to the fore this Thursday May 13 when he joins up with long-time sparring partner, drummer-percussionist Ben Aylon in the final slot of the celebratory Mitzpe Ramon Jazz Club Headstart show. The concert, which kicks off at the Alpaca Farm in the far-flung Negev town at 6 p.m., is a four-parter and also features local indie-ethnic duo Eyelash; southern-based ethnic trio Faran Ensemble; and a band of teachers from the local jazz school, the Internal Compass Institute (ICI), before Fine and Aylon take the stage to play their captivating mix of rock, hip-hop, Afro Arab trance and plenty betwixt. Fine and Aylon have been performing all over Israel for a few years as duo, often in the company of another instrumentalist or two, and released the Blue Desert album a couple of years ago. They will be joined by keyboardist-bassist Sharon Mansour for the Mitzpe concert. 
Fine, who has played the club on more than a few occasions since Sheinkin St. émigré Gady Lybrock opened the joint back in 2007, is more than up for the gig and is delighted to contribute to the event, which marks the successful conclusion to the Headstart campaign. The fundraiser aimed to bring in the NIS 150,000 the venue needs to overhaul its facilities, in line with new local authority requirements, and, happily, has actually exceeded the original target. That alone is testimony to the club’s profile and its popularity with locals and music lovers up and down the country. 
“Let’s face it, without the jazz club what reason would there be to go to Mitzpe Ramon?” Fine asks, only half-jokingly. “I’m talking about musicians,” he quickly adds before I get the idea that he doesn’t have any regard for the town itself. Indeed, Mitzpe – as most call it – is quite a tourist draw for people looking to get away from it all and who are not into the dense cheek-by-jowl hotel spread scene down in Eilat. Mountain cyclists and hikers also revel in the glorious expansive Ramon Crater and its alluring and intermittently polychromic terrain.
Fine is no newcomer to the Negev jazz spot and says he is always happy to go there. 
“It is such a special place. You get audiences there that I would never be able to access in other places. There is a unique atmosphere there.” 
That, he notes, galvanizes the artists who make the trek south, and spurs them on to push their creative envelope even further. 

“It is far away from the center of the country, and that means you can try out different material there. I have tried out stuff with Ben [Aylon] that we have subsequently performed elsewhere.”
While the club is not exactly in the arena scale league – a crowd of 50 would be considered a sell-out audience there – it is very much about quality rather than quantity, and the ambience the patrons generate. 
“You get great audiences here. That’s one of the reasons why musicians love playing here. People really listen to them,” notes Ehud Ettun, an internationally acclaimed double bassist, and ICI founder.
FINE CERTAINLY belongs in the A-lister bracket of the artists who have graced the jazz club’s stage over the years. The 56-year-old multi-instrumentalist – although he is best known for his output on bass guitar, as well as producing records for the likes of stellar hip-hop outfit Hadag Nahash and singer songwriter Yael Deckelbaum – started out on his musical path over five decades ago. 
“I first picked up the guitar when I was four,” he recalls. “My [Israeli] dad played guitar at home and my [West Indian] mother sang, especially soul and gospel. There were always musicians visiting us at home.”
He had rich and multifarious domestic musical pickings to feed off, although he says he went his own way. “My dad played flamenco guitar and records, and my mother played stuff like [soul godfather] James Brown. I liked flamenco but I didn’t really get into it. It didn’t grab me. I was into heavy metal, you know, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple.” 
He also got a push in a particular stylistic direction from some of his dad’s pals in Dimona. 
“My father was a close friend of the leaders of the Black Hebrews (aka The African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem). I’d go to see their shows and stay with them from a very young age.”
The music the members of the Dimona community embraced, and the aforesaid American and British rock acts and their ilk helped to spark the youngster’s imagination and ambition. He made rapid strides up the skill ladder and quickly came to the notice of audiences and established artists alike. 
“I transferred to the bass guitar when I was 16, and I felt I’d really found my instrument,” says Fine. The natural feeling fit helped to spur the teenager on to greater heights. 
“My playing really stood out and I got great feedback on my playing. I was like a wonder kid.”
By the time Fine was 20 he was a regular at all the leading music venues and festivals here. And then he took an incremental leap to far bigger things. 
“[US rock band] Bushrock came to Israel to play and I was a big fan of theirs so I went to see them.” 
Fine did not just make do with catching the group’s act he actually asked the band’s bass player if he could take a lesson with him. 
“He showed me a few things and he included me in the sound check,” Fine explains, “so the other members of the band saw what I could do.”
Six months later the bass player quit the group and the others had a hard time finding a replacement. Fine’s life was about to change, almost literally overnight. 
“They suddenly remembered this kid they saw and heard in Tel Aviv. I got the call one night and within a week I was a member of the band in New York.”
THIS BEGAN Fine’s decade-long sojourn in the States, during which he found himself mixing it with Bowie, Reed, Evans et al. 
“I played my first gig with Bushrock after a couple of weeks in New York and the Who’s Who of the music scene came to see this kid from Israel. It was amazing.”
Evans was among them. 
“I used to go to Gil’s house to eat lunch, and to talk about jazz, and I remember Miles Davis dropping by for things. I was always in awe,” Fine laughs. After playing with some of the greats, including a five-year berth with the feted Gil Evans Orchestra, Fine returned to Israel and quickly slipped into top gear here, as a multi-genre instrumentalist and producer.
He came back here with a bio to die for and was determined to keep the musical embers glowing bright, and as far and wide as possible. 
“I don’t go with the jazz police, you know, who only listen to a band if it has a pianist, bassist, drummer and saxophonist. You can use electronics, fuse with hip-hop. That’s the way to go. It is about the mentality. Jazz has to develop all the time, to reflect the times. Music is a huge journey.”
Just where Fine is right now will ring out loud, clear and no doubt funkily at the Alpaca Farm on Thursday, as musicians and fans come together to celebrate the survival of a jewel in the crown of our national music scene.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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