July 24, 2024


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Avishai Cohen: A musical universe of unity: Photo, Video

At home, music was always in the air. Avishai musical journey started when he was nine years old, when he began playing the piano. Avishai Cohen is an Israeli world-class double bassist, composer and vocalist. His music embraces everything from jazz and pop to classical and Arab-Israeli folk songs. Cohen’s artistic message is: Unity!

In April 2020, Cohen will begin celebrating his 50th birthday year touring extensively as the leader of his varied musical projects with a trio and ensembles, performing 50 concerts in 50 countries around the world. His Tel Aviv concert will be in March.

During this special tour, Cohen believes he will convey in the most direct and adventurous way the most personal theme of his work to date: music as a means of uniting all people across what might be seen as cultural differences.

Born on April 20, 1970 on Kibbutz Kabri in northern Israel, Cohen grew up in a multicultural musical and artistic family whose roots were in Spain, Greece and Poland. He grew up in Motza and Beit Zayit near Jerusalem until the age of six, when his family moved to Sho’eva, a moshav to the west of the capital.

At home, music was always in the air. Avishai’s musical journey started when he was nine years old, when he began playing the piano.

Several years later, while living with his parents in St. Louis, Missouri, he continued to study the piano and took up the electric bass at the age of 14 due to a newly discovered interest in English rock music. He was also inspired by luminary electric bass player Jaco Pastorius, a band member of Weather Report, a groundbreaking American jazz fusion band, founded by former members of the Miles Davis Band.

Back in Israel, Cohen joined the Music and Arts Academy in Jerusalem to further explore the bass universe. After having served for two years in an army band, he left his native Israel in 1991, packing his bass and driven by an ambitious aim: To learn jazz in one of the most stimulating and testing cities in the world – New York.

“I wanted to play Bebop,” Cohen tells the international students who came to Weimar last September to attend his first master class, one of the highlights during the renowned ACHAVA Festival in Thuringia, Germany.

Martin Kranz, who graduated in classical singing at the Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy College and is founder and director of the annual festival, says about Cohen, “For me Avishai is the epitome of the intercultural festival spirit and philosophy: openness, crossing borders and encounter, an enrichment as an artist and as a human being.”

Bebop, Cohen’s favorite genre back then, is the “bread and butter of being a true virtuoso of the jazz language,” he says.

Early modern jazz, or Bebop as it soon came to be called, rebelled against the populist trappings of swing music. The Boppers were not formalists. Content, not form, was their preoccupation and instrumental solos were at the heart of each performance, sandwiched between an opening and closing statement of the melody.

Bebop was defined by its social context as much as by the flats and sharps of its altered chords. Bebop was a musical revolution made, first and foremost by sidemen, not stars, such as pianist Thelonious Monk, Cohen’s favorite jazz artist.

American pianist and composer Monk stood out as one of most adventurous and clearly the least easy to classify. “Bebop wasn’t developed in any deliberate way,” Monk once remarked. For Cohen, Monk is more like himself than any other jazz or non-jazz artist.

In New York, Cohen thoroughly dedicated himself to the art of improvisation, by way of busking on the streets and subways of the Big Apple as well as studying theory at The New School, with such artists as jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, Latin jazz bassist Andy Gonzalez and classical teacher Michael Klinghoffer.

Cohen was soon to perform with Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez’s Trio, reflecting the essential role that Latin music played in his early years in New York. His album Lyla, his debut release on what was later to become his own label, Razdaz Recordz, impressively reflects his multi-talented artistic personality, ranging from Latin rhythm to electronics and jazz.

In the Big Apple, he had to compete with the elite of bassists, a challenge that he says triggered an enormous creative boost within his music. Together with drummer Jeff Ballard, he developed his “tightened sound,” a door-opener into the crowded New York jazz scene.

American jazz pianist Herbie Hancock engaged Cohen as a sideman, and he played with drummer Adam Cruz before performing with several jazz luminaries, including virtuoso trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and Joshua Redman, one of the most acclaimed jazz saxophonists.

After a long period of performing in small clubs with various jazz musicians, laboring as a construction worker and a furniture mover to get by, an unexpected phone call in 1997 from iconic jazz pianist Chick Corea changed Cohen’s life.

Asked about his very first encounter with Cohen’s music, Corea remembers, in an exclusive interview, “A friend of mine gave me a cassette and said, ‘You ought to listen to this bass player and his band – I think you’ll really dig it.’

“That was the first time I heard Avishai and his music and it blew me away! It sounded fresh and swinging and original and so well played. At the time, I was producing records from my Stretch label and so wanted to record this great music.”

As for his first meeting with Cohen, Corea says, “I met Avishai for the first time shortly after that on an engagement I had at the New York Blue Note. I invited him to put his music on a new Stretch recording. I went into a New York studio with Avishai and the band to make his first recording for the Stretch label – all his original compositions played by that great band.

“I enjoyed it so much that I decided to put a band like that together myself and so I ‘borrowed’ Avishai’s musicians and created my new band I called “Origin” – with Steve Davis on trombone, Steve Wilson on saxophone, Bob Shepard and then Tim Garland on sax and flute, Adam Cruz and then Jeff Ballard on drums and flute and Cohen on bass. We toured and recorded for more than a year. It was a creative blast. We then formed our New Trio with Avishai and Jeff Ballard on drums. That was equally a blast!”

Corea, known internationally as a superstar and innovator in jazz, says about Cohen, “Avishai has always inspired me with his original compositions and original bass playing. His music is recognizable immediately. He has become a true innovator of much-needed new music for the world.”

Performing six years with Corea played a significant part in shaping Cohen’s musicianship and his becoming a bandleader in his own right. In those years Cohen fine-tuned his skills as a bassist and composer.

Cohen considers Corea a teacher, colleague and friend to this day. Corea affirms the mutual esteem: ”I’m sure we will make more music together.” A reunion gig of Corea and Cohen, two contemporary giants of jazz, would be a joyful wish come true for all their fans.

Razdaz Recordz was founded by Cohen in New York during 2002 with a view to enjoying full creative control in the growing range of musical projects in which he was involved. The creation of his label was a necessary step for Cohen, “simply not to be restricted in any way.”

After residing for many years in New York, Cohen returned to Israel, releasing a fresh musical statement linked to his heritage and history, titled Sensitive Hours (in Hebrew, Sha’ot Regishot) in 2008. On this album, Cohen introduced vocals for the first time in all its compositions as well as songs in Hebrew.

Cohen’s definition of jazz is that it has no definition – “it is undefined,” he says. Consequently, Cohen pushed the boundaries of jazz, has always been open to various musical influences, and has dedicated his creativity to music that is meaningful to him.

It was a process that led him to incorporate Ladino (a language spoken by Sephardi Jews) and Sephardi culture through his international release, Aurora, in 2009. It was a unique project that blended jazz, classical music and Sephardi traditions, with Cohen finding a way to fully express himself as a singer as well as reaching a higher level of communication personally while attracting music lovers and aficionados way beyond the borders of jazz.

Throughout 2013, Cohen presented a new and unique project titled, “Avishai Cohen with Strings,” to a worldwide audience. Johann Sebastian Bach, admired for his mathematical approach to music, is a frequently cited source of inspiration “for the soul and spirit” his work conveys.

In 2016, “An Evening with Avishai Cohen” was presented, featuring his dynamic core trio of double bass, drums and piano. A sophisticated integration of a full orchestra and chamber orchestra lends an added dimension to Cohen’s distinctive sound.

Cohen composes on piano or bass, and when composing, he says, “ I don’t think too much, it’s never conscious.” He tells jazz students in his master class at the ACHAVA Festival in Germany, “The music is the result of a natural process, a flow that comes through me.”

Cohen’s approach is largely intuitive. He has developed Latin and Middle Eastern influences to create his own rhythmic identity with unique meters.

Bass Player magazine praises Cohen for his “skill at integrating exotic scales and time signatures into hard-driven jazz compositions.”

His latest album, Arvoles (meaning “trees” in old Ladino), is very different in tone and feel. The track compilation reflects Cohen’s world over the last couple of years, and provides insight into another part of Cohen’s personality.

This album is a collection of original instrumental compositions, and one traditional song recorded with Azerbaijani pianist Elchin Shirinov and Israeli drummer Noam David, both excellent musicians and composers in their own right, joining Cohen on his extensive worldwide touring in 2020. In six compositions on Arvoles, Cohen expanded his trio to a quintet, with Björn Samuelson on trombone, and Anders Hagberg on German flute.

Cohen included one of his mother’s paintings on the front cover of the album. Ora Cohen, an artist in her own right, sang traditional Ladino songs to her son since his childhood. Cohen refers to his mother as “an important inspiration in his artistic life.”

Asked what his favorite tree is, Cohen tellingly states, “Weeping willow.” Weeping willows have a well-established place in culture and spirituality throughout the world as a tree with a strong trunk and deep roots but very flexible branches – characteristics Cohen embodies. He has strong family support as his trunk and roots, from which he was able to prosper.

Over the last two decades, Cohen has earned his reputation as one of the greatest bass players of his generation, and has frequently performed at the most renowned venues and festivals worldwide.    US DownBeat magazine called him a “jazz visionary of global proportions,” while Bass Player named him as one of the 100 most influential bass players of the 20th century. As a live performer, Cohen is “hard to beat,” states London Jazz.

Cohen is music and rhythm to the core, and he fuses with his instrument of choice. A modest and charismatic character at the same time, he feels comfortable on stage and captivates his audience.

Cohen’s early and thorough exposure to a wide variety of musical influences help explain his successful fusion into his own personal sound. Cohen moves seamlessly and masterly from pop to classical to jazz and traditional songs. Arvoles certainly does not mark the end of Cohen’s artistic creativity. Where his musical journey is going next is an exciting prospect to ponder.

The 50:50:50 tour resonates with the spirit of inclusion and solidarity that has defined Cohen’s music from the outset. Over time, he has provided key opportunities for up and coming young artists, as Chick Corea once did for him.

To uphold that ethos of nurturing, that desire to foster the growths of others, 50:50:50 will offer a new, unique young band or artist the chance to record for Cohen’s label Razdaz Recordz for release in early 2020. 50:50:50… The numbers add up to a whole world of sound!

Avishai Cohen is celebrating his 50th birthday year by performing 50 concerts in 50 countries around the world, including Israel (photo credit: Courtesy)