A night of groovy jazz standards with a rebellious orchestra

The Revolution Orchestra will bebop its way through a host of classics with crooner Ester Rada and the electronic Geshem band

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Ester Rada (left) and members of electronic band Geshem will perform with the Revolution Orchestra on February 25, 2019, at The New Israeli Opera. (Courtesy Gaya Saadon and Ron Kedmi)
Ester Rada (left) and members of electronic band Geshem will perform with the Revolution Orchestra on February 25, 2019, at The New Israeli Opera. (Courtesy Gaya Saadon and Ron Kedmi)

You need to concentrate when listening to a piece performed by the Revolution Orchestra, the eclectic ensemble of musicians led by Roy Oppenheim and Zohar Sharon, who give well-known musical works entirely new sound.

They have tried pretty much everything, including collaborations with leading Israeli artists, composers, theater professionals, choreographers, dance troupes, and visual arts professionals.

This week, they’re kicking it up another notch.

In an upcoming one-night show at The New Israeli Opera on Monday, February 25, the orchestra, along with crooner Ester Rada and electronic band Geshem, will present their newest innovation, as part of their dynamic series at the opera, opening with a one-performance show of jazz standards by Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and others.

“We’re an orchestra that creates original music, and standards like these are the basis of the band’s raw material for creating fantasies,” said Sharon.

Roy Oppenheim (left) and Zohar Sharon of the Revolution Orchestra, will perform Monday, February 25, at The New Israeli Opera. (Courtesy, Yossi Tzveker)

Sharon, the orchestra’s artistic director, has two degrees from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, and played the grand piano during Thursday’s rehearsal.

Rada and Oppenheim, the orchestra’s conductor, sat on stools in front of the room full of musicians, with the Revolution band members in the middle and the four members of Geshem at the back.

They spent an hour rehearsing the show, including running through several versions of “I Put a Spell on You.” Rada’s soulful, jazz scat singing style offered a smooth contact point for the mix of instruments: the strings and saxophone, trumpet and piano, electric bass, drums and electronic sound board.

“It’s totally different, right?” said Oppenheim. “It’s like the dark side, or the other side of ‘I Put a Spell on You.'”

For the Revolution Orchestra, the starting point is always with the standards — familiar classical and rock pieces that become the foundation for the band’s creations and improvisations.

Roy Oppenheim (left) and Zohar Sharon founded the Revolution Orchestra 15 years ago. (Courtesy, Yossi Tzveker)

Jazz, for instance, is not necessarily their usual domain, but they see it as one of many kinds of musical raw material, said Oppenheim, who, besides his orchestral skills, has a PhD in philosophy and education.

The band, made up of musicians who also continue to play in other rock, jazz, electronic, classical and world music bands, was founded 15 years ago by Oppenheim and Sharon, who met at Hebrew University’s prestigious Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

The two formed the Revolution Orchestra to create music outside the framework of classical music, and they have always explored different genres, as well as the stage arts. They created Classirock performances with bands such as Hadag Nahash, singers Ivri Lider and Dudu Tassa, and other kinds of cooperative pieces with poet Yehonatan Geffen, singer Eviatar Banai, and the dance troupe Vertigo.

“It’s all musical activity to us,” said Oppenheim. “Jazz, for instance, is like cilantro, that herb that people either love or hate. But for us, it’s just another form of raw material and we’ll work with it. We don’t do covers of famous songs; we take songs to other places.”

“We use a lot of nuance to tease out the music,” said Sharon.

The February 25 concert is the band’s first time working with Rada, the Ethiopian-Israeli singer known for her soul and funk music.

Ester Rada, known for her funk and groove tunes, turns to jazz standards with the Revolution Orchestra on February 25, 2019, at The New Israeli Opera. (Courtesy, Sherban Lupu)

And this time, the material is new to both Rada and the band. The jazz pieces they play are usually instrumental, but Oppenheim and Sharon felt the audience would better embrace the works with the addition of a lead singer, such as Rada.

“She can bring that vibe of American jazz, and there’s a lot of freedom in the way she does it,” said Sharon. “She’s doing her own interpretation of this jazz singer, Ester Rada bringing Gershwin.”

Indeed, Rada improvised throughout the rehearsal, trading bebops with the Geshem bass player, drawing out notes, trying different grooves.

These kinds of musical mashups are at the very soul of the Revolution Orchestra, said Oppenheim.

The orchestra tends to work with musicians whose musical DNA speaks to them, said Sharon, and who also attract audiences curious about the final product.

There are performance that require months of composition, which creates a process that is no less interesting than the actual performance, said Oppenheim.

“We always want to create something complete and interesting,” he said.

They also think a lot about their audience, said Sharon, a crowd of musically curious people.

“We want to fortify their curiosity,” he said. “But it’s what we want first, before the audience. We expect our audience to come with us.”

The Israeli audience for these works is relatively small, and the musicians do feel the desire to head abroad and see if Revolution Orchestra can find a larger, global audience. It has been hard to find funding for this band that does not quite fit any genre, and they express their gratitude that the New Israeli Opera offers them a home for several weeks each year.

“The world is about boxes, and we’re not in any,” said Oppenheim. “We’re not this or that, we’re a very broad box, and no one knows how to identify us.”

Tickets are still available for “A Standard Revolution,” with Ester Rada and Geshem, February 25, 8:00 p.m. The next Revolution Orchestra events are with rocker Berry Sakharov on April 3 at The New Israeli Opera, and on April 6 in the Haifa Auditorium.

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