Dancing the blues in a joyous musical celebration, Eli and The Chocolate Factory made The Zone scintillate with the thrill of live music in all its swinging splendor and spontaneity. It all took place on the most auspicious date: Saturday, August 8th, the 110th anniversary of Robert Johnson’s birth. A mythic figure who influenced musicians for decades to come, the well-known legend says Johnson met the devil at the crossroads, and sold his soul so he could play guitar. It makes a fine story (and some cool lyric lines – listen to Lucinda William’s 2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten https://youtu.be/nkUDKAjwV-M), but I prefer to do Johnson justice with the truth – he infused his performances with an intensity that burns into the listener’s soul.
The meeting of New Orleans Jazz and Blues may sound strange at first – but it was amazing! Historically, there is an intimate connection between Blues and Jazz, although both genres have travelled far from their origins. Eli and The Chocolate Factory – Eli Preminger (trumpet & vocals); Jess Koren (saxophone); Amnon Ben Artzi (trombone); Tal Kuhn (bass); Ilan Smilan (banjo); Rani Birenbaum (drums) – performed bright, dazzling arrangements to songs dating mostly from the 20s through the 40s, with several signature songs of Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith. Much like lyric poetry, the Blues call to mind a lone singer, revealing and exorcising the travails of life and torments of the heart through music. The joyous tones, playful improvisation and rollicking rhythms of Eli and The Chocolate Factory felt so right with these songs! Connecting to dance, as the audience swayed and bounced in their seats (too timid to get up and dance?), this was music that moved through the body, singing right into the soul. Joy, sorrow, loneliness, lust – it was all there, shaking and rattling your bones. These new arrangements didn’t change the character of the songs, rather, they brought out something that was already there, and the feeling was one of discovery.
Three wonderful musicians known for their close affinity to the Blues joined the band as vocalists – Yaron Ben Ami, Dov Hammer, and Noya Sol, each bringing a different hue to the colorful evening. Great vibes onstage gave a feeling of intimacy to the evening, with everyone having fun. As they say in New Orleans – Laissez les bons temps rouler!
Evoking the more traditional form of the Blues, Yaron Ben Ami opened the evening with Robert Johnson’s Little Queen of Spades, accompanied by Jess Koren on the saxophone and Ilan Smilan on the banjo. Then, the rest of the Chocolate Factory came out and Duke Ellington’s The Mooche glided sweet and warm, creating a sense of anticipation for the pleasures ahead. Eli Preminger led the evening with an easy manner, and lively sense of humor, generating the feeling of an evening among friends; friends who happen to be wonderful musicians. Striking a contemporary note, Eli introduced an original – The Demolition Blues, saying that he composed it after watching an older building torn down in Jaffa, knowing that it would be replaced by a money-maker for some real-estate mogul. Although in describing the circumstances of its composition, he spoke of jealousy, the song itself has such vivacious rhythms and sparkling tones that it made me think that the composer must be much happier to be a musician despite the disparity in wealth. I’m definitely happy that the composer of Demolition Blues is a musician! Inviting the audience to dance, the next song up was I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate, with the sinuous sound of the horns suggesting a sexy subtext, and those drums! Singer, songwriter and harmonica player Dov Hammer joined the party with Cakewalk into Town. Rooted in the blues, Hammer sings with a soulful resonance, and a contemporary edge to his energy. Grooving with the trombone on the Bessie Smith favorite Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out, he sang out the rough times with grit in his voice, and the harmonica joined in too. Blind Willie Johnson’s It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine, had me hopping in my chair and tapping my toes as the band played and sang. Somehow, despite the lyrics, the music makes it feel less like a reprimand, and more like an invitation to party. Yaron Ben Ami returned to shake the stage with Rollin’ and Tumblin’ – unleashing a visceral, primal energy. Moving right into the next song, Robert Johnson’s Last Fair Deal, his performance was raw and powerful, crazy and larger than life, nothing held back. In a dramatic shift, the next singer, Noya Sol, took the audience into a more elegant, slightly mischievous mood, as she sang Bessie Smith’s Devil’s Gonna Get You. I especially enjoyed her rendition of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Up Above My Head, lovely and full of light.
Nothing can compare with a live music concert, watching the musicians perform, feeling that almost mystical connection between them as they play. As Noya Sol sang Bessie Smith’s Empty Bed Blues (one of my favorite songs ever), each musician brought out a different aspect of the song – the trombone moaning, the trumpet playful, and the banjo picking out a tender melody then kicking it up to a dance rhythm. The saxophone singing, wandering free as Jess Koren improvised, the drums that make the heart race and skip a beat – that is the magic of live music, the disappearing moment. I’m so glad I was there! Very glad that Muperphoto was there too, and his photographs express all that cannot be put into words – Enjoy it all… black & white and in color!