Eli Degibri: A legend in the making
Jarasum Jazz Festival will host a slew of acclaimed Korean and International jazz musicians. There is one artist in particular that concertgoers should be sure to catch - Israeli-born and New York-raised saxophonist and composer Eli Degibri hits the stage on Oct. 3.
At age 18, Degibri packed his bags and moved from Israel to New York. Soon after, he was chosen to attend the the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, where six people are chosen as an ensemble to take part in a two-year program with noteworthy teachers. “Every musician that was still alive came to teach us ... for a jazz musician, it was a dream come true.”
He literally learned from legends. “The two years opened my mind and prepared my soul.” That’s how he met Herbie Hancock.
“I grew up listening to Miles Davis, so I wanted to play with Herbie Hancock,” he said. Hancock had been part of Davis’ legendary Second Great Quintet. After graduation, Hancock — pianist and bandleader — took Degibri on tour.
He was with Hancock for two-and-a-half years. It was hard for the saxophone player to express what it was like being on stage with the legend. Although he described it as “thrilling,” Degibri said it was also an overwhelming, intense experience. Degibri was in his early 20s, living a “bubbly dream,” as he put it, yet he felt unworthy.
Degibri’s most recent album, Israeli Song, features a dream team of internationally-respected artists, including mentors Ron Carter and Al Foster and the piano genius Brad Mehldau. He was playing with his teachers as equals. “(I was) preparing myself physiologically for this experience. They are all in their own ways big stars — and even divas — so I was prepared for this session.” Of course, the album came out beautifully. “I was very polite, but I did ask for things ... with great respect to them as masters.”
When asked which of his songs on his last album meant to most to him, he said, “All of my songs are special to me. The title song, ‘Israeli Song’ is a little more special. It inspired me to make the whole record.” The duet with Brad Mehldau is a highlight of this stunning CD. It certainly hints at his native background, but there is a bit more to it. As Degibri was composing, he found that it had something in common with Western-influenced Israeli music. “It reminds me (of) a Saturday afternoon in Israel.” Degibri usually names songs after he writes them, but this one came to him before he was finished. “It reminded me of a song, but I didn’t know which one, so I decided to call it Israeli Song.”
Degibri accomplished much at an early age. He moved to New York, had a coveted place in the most exclusive music school in the world, and worked with the biggest names in jazz. But his big break was yet to come. “After Herbie, I came back to New York and was sure it would be a big jump in my career.” But that didn’t exactly happen. Depression followed, and that lead him to compose. “This is how I overcame it.” When Degibri felt emptiness, “I sat on the piano and beautiful music came to me … The depression is how I found that talent in me.”
Now 33, he calls two countries home. He’s been rotating between New York and Tel Aviv since 1997. “I can’t see myself in just one place ... New York has so much to offer. It is a place to meet amazing, genius musicians. Musically, it is home to me.” He doesn’t prefer one over the other, but surprisingly he talked about the privacy he gets in one of the biggest cities in North America. “In Tel Aviv everyone knows you. It’s like a big family ... New York has a privacy that is unique.”
Degibri has traveled the world with his music. He’s played all over North America, Africa and Europe. He’s been to Japan, but this will be his first time in Korea. He said this visit will be “the first of hopefully many.”
Degibri said that Korean cuisine is one of his favorites and that he was looking forward to trying some authentic kimchi.
He gave Groove Korea readers a hint of what’s to come when he hits the stage at the Jarasum Jazz Festival. “We are going to play mostly original compositions ... we are going to introduce some new stuff, but most will be from the CDs.” He will likely call a few standards, too. He’s a big fan of Body and Seoul and Cherokee, so there’s a chance you will hear one of those.
The Eli Degibri Quartet is scheduled to perform at the Jarasum Jazz Festival on Oct. 3 at 5:30 p.m. on the main stage. Israeli Song is available on iTunes or at www.elidegibri.com.