This interview originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of Jazzwise and took place before the COVID-19 pandemic had disrupted live concerts worldwide. For the latest information on Avishai Cohen's live performances, please visit: https://avishaicohen.com/events/
What passes for middle or even old age in jazz has never been entirely clear. So numerous are the ‘vitality veterans’ who turn back the hands of time well into their eighties, it could be argued that improvising musicians are playing a different numbers game to most of their pop counterparts, and not just in the meter of compositions.
Nonetheless celebrations are in order if the succession of years is accompanied by real achievement. This is true for Avishai Cohen, the Israeli bassist, pianist, vocalist and composer, who is about to reach a half century and declare ‘not out’ on the back of two decades of sterling work on stage and in the studio.
To mark the occasion he will embark on a grand scale project, 50:50:50, a tour in which he will turn super trans-continental and play 50 gigs in 50 countries to mark his 50th birthday. Actively thinking about this, or what will follow, is not really uppermost in his mind, though.
“I never know and still don’t know exactly what’s gonna happen next,” says Cohen on the line from his home in Motza Illit, just outside Jerusalem. “I‘m too busy thinking and doing what I have to. I said yes [to the 50:50:50 project] because I’ve worked and built things at this stage of my life where I have a degree of self-belief, and if anybody suggests something and it doesn’t seem too outrageous then I’m on.”
Chick Corea still is at his peak today at the age of 78. He is an inspiration because of the sheer volume of work he does. That’s a great way to live, and impact other peopleAvishai Cohen
Yet the fact remains that Cohen is at a point in his career where he can take stock, especially as his discography has some 17 albums as leader, the first of which was 1998’s auspicious Adama, while his credits as a sideman include gigs with different generations of players who have their seat in the contemporary jazz pantheon, notably Danilo Pérez and Chick Corea. It is the latter who was the most significant factor in Cohen’s development, making him a member of his sextet Origin, and then his trio. The emeritus pianist made a big impression on the undergraduate Cohen. There was a marked age difference but no discernible energy gap between elder and younger.
“Yeah, I met Chick when he was like in his late 40s! He was, and still is, at his peak today [at the age of 78],” gushes Cohen. “He is an inspiration to me because of the sheer volume of work he does. That’s a great way to live, and impact other people.
“I guess I feel good about myself as I know who I am, what I’m about, and I’ve been able to work on my craft, which people seem to be uplifted by. I think I’m celebrating all of that really. But being 50 now… well, I actually kind of feel the same as I did when I was 39. or even 25. It’s just really important that I’m able to keep creating.”
Avishai Cohen (photo: Andreas Terlaak)
Jazz history is marked by several tragic early deaths, but the longevity of some of the music’s other heroes is a notable counterweight against that. Ragtime legend Eubie Blake, whose fingers ceased to syncopate at the grand old age of 96, famously said: “If I’d known I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of myself.”
It is a pithy statement that intimates a fast life lived amid high-speed creativity. Cohen is well aware of the tales of musicians for whom substance abuse was an unfortunate part of their calling, but he rightly asserts that this should in no way be a jazz cliché.
“Even with the generation of New York in the 1940s and 50s there were sober ones too, they’ve always been there, it’s just that they didn’t make the headlines so much,” he says. “Jazz has probably changed a lot because there are so many of us who, certainly the musicians I know, have a healthy life. They’re still great musicians... you don’t have to die at 35! That kind of fake romance of, ‘you do great things then die at 35’ it doesn’t make sense. My thing is to live to enjoy all the things you do, all the way.”
Cohen’s own trajectory lends credence to the statement. Growing up in Motza in Jerusalem, he embraced music early, and gained a solid grounding in classical and pop, playing piano before switching to bass guitar after falling under the spell of Jaco Pastorius. He eventually moved on to double bass. Thereafter came the steep learning curve of the New York jazz scene, where Cohen studied at The New School, and perhaps more importantly, honed his craft by busking on the streets and jamming in clubs such as Smalls. The Greenwich Village cellar was a vibrant hub for Cohen and other bright young things, like fellow Israelis, Omer Avittal, Amos Hoffman and Avi Leibovich, and Americans, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jason Linder and Daniel Freedman.
Membership of Chick Corea’s band gave Cohen a major boost, and he would spread his wings to make his mark as a solo artist and composer, weaving Latin jazz, Middle Eastern, Jewish and Arab influences into a richly layered but accessible lexicon, as well as adapting several timeless, sublime Ladino folk songs on his many recordings.
Throughout the 2000s, the decade that saw his return to Israel, Cohen became a star of concert hall stature, and appeared with orchestras, led small groups such as the much-loved International Vamp Band, and formed a duo with pianist Nitai Hershkovits.
However, the format that has proved to be his most consistent is the trio. There have been several line-ups over the years but one of the most electrifying iterations featured pianist Shai Maestro and drummer Mark Guiliana, accompanists who performed superbly on what is arguably Cohen’s best record to date, 2008’s Gently Disturbed, giving the material the requisite blend of momentum and moderation. The question of what is Cohen’s artistic vehicle of choice is not cut and dried, though.
“I suppose I’ve invested the most amount of time in the trio and that has been my main thing…my main machine,” he reflects. “But I’ve always loved different worlds and feel lucky enough to be exposed to a range of contexts that have influenced me. Doing other things, and that can be a string quartet or a 70-piece orchestra or a quintet, is fine because when you have specific music, a language you’ve developed over the years, it doesn’t matter what ensemble executes the material because it always has that personality, or your personality that you’ve put into the music. That’s it really.”
Without a doubt Cohen feels his ‘first instrument’ still plays a major part in his life.
“All the different things I do kind of come from the piano. Really, I’m a pianist as much as I am a bassist,” he points out. “I’m out there with the bass, it’s become a thing for me [as a performer], but the piano is really the headquarters, the office.
“It has so much range, and is really the best instrument for writing. So it’s just an essential part of my personality. I’d say that the piano has helped me to shape my personality. I have written music on bass, both upright and electric, but usually I adjust my basslines to what is written on the piano, so the piano is still the primary thing that states the tune, and the bass is like a voice within the voice of the piano.
“And that’s the beauty of a band, generally you have different things moving at the same time but not canceling each other out, so they’re creating a fuller, bigger life. I grew up with a lot of classical music, listening to the radio and records. Then when I started studying piano; it became a real love of mine. As a composer... Beethoven, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Brahms and, of course, Bach… I find that they all give the most incredible moments in music. Once I discovered that as a kid I was intent on finding my own way of becoming ‘legit’. That’s how I studied several instruments so that I could produce something of myself and just have the music come out different.”
Cohen has recorded on piano but the bass remains his primary vehicle for expression as a leader-soloist, and the fulsome, deep tone he has developed as well as his vigorous, aggressively percussive, if not explosive improvisations, have always been able to raise the temperature in the room anytime his bands, big or small, play live.
Interestingly, Cohen has become steadfast in the conviction that he needs to rein in his work in the studio, and albums such as the recent 1970 have mostly put the onus on 3-5 minutes tunes rather than extended pieces with lengthy solos. For all his dazzling technique the bassist seems intent on giving his work a kind of folkish richness, both by way of rousing melodies and deeply wistful motifs. He makes no bones about the place of emotionally charged subject matter in his writing, and is emphatic about what he feels is a very human need to look back on many key events in his life and document them. Hence a stand out moment on his latest CD Arvoles is ‘New York 90s’ It is the kind of halftime, slouchy vamp, with plenty of blowing room for trombonist Björn Samuelsson, that one might well have heard at a heated session at Smalls.
“Well, it was written in the city at that time’, he reveals. “I remembered the song in my head for years. The two-horn frontline is a signature sound of New York, the horns are like a declaration, and the trio is the engine. So yeah, it’s a throwback to the ‘90s, with a recognition of that history of hard bop too, of the importance of people like Art Blakey and other inspiring musicians who really made the city.”
The song that precedes it is ‘Nostalgia’, which underlines the need to recognise the enduring imprint of times passed. “Sure, it is a strong element of life and always relevant to what we do as musicians and human beings because it can give such a strong uplift. It’s reminiscing, creating a sensation that should widen your vision of life as you age, versus what you think your life is. Nostalgia is able to stimulate a deeply personal soothing, a sense of what life has been and what it can be. Again it’s the uplift of music. I think it’s a beautiful way to explain music.”
Fittingly, another of Cohen’s emblematic pieces is ‘Remembering.’ It took on real gravitas at a lauded concert at the Philharmonie de Paris in 2016 after he dedicated it to the victims of the terrorist attacks that had devastated the city the previous year.
If drawing on the past for inspiration is recurrent in Cohen’s work then his status as a bandleader who is now as influential as he is respected has seen him follow a similar path to his role models, and regularly employ dynamic young musicians in his bands.
In fact, recent Cohen alumni, from pianist Shai Maestro to drummer Daniel Dor, have proved themselves to be top-drawer players, with the former making a significant step forward with his 2018 ECM debut The Dream Thief. When we last spoke in 2015 Cohen was unequivocal on the ongoing necessity for him to be challenged and have his ‘ass kicked in a good way’ by musicians who now have access to such large amounts of information these days that they ‘can pretty much play anything.’
As his stature as a musician has grown Cohen has undergone significant changes in his personal life. He has three children and accepts that parenting is a major element of his identity. The responsibility is something he willingly shoulders.
“Fatherhood has impacted me in a very positive way… the platform and vision have expanded. It’s never ending, you’re a father for as long as you live. That’s it; I’m a family man. I’m so happy for the privilege I‘ve had to be doing what I do all these years but what happens is you get to the point where you have family and you know you have created work for yourself as a responsible parent and you just have to maintain. And fatherhood is a once in a lifetime opportunity; you see that everything has a bigger meaning. Being a father has made a real impact on me in many ways…. it has made me more relaxed and less obsessive about making music.”
Having said that, Cohen has to retain a sharp focus for the forthcoming 50:50:50 tour, which will be physically taxing as well as stimulating, given the amount of ground to be covered.
The elephant in the room, if not on the scorched earth of Australia and the Amazon, is how the flights racked up for such an epic tour square with the issue of climate change, given that increasing numbers of Cohen’s peers are thinking more about the sustainability of their work as international artists. The whole subject is something that has exercised his mind. He is well aware of the urgency of the debate, and what steps can be taken by bands that cross continents in order to reach audiences.
“Without my fans my music would not be alive, so it’s important to reach out and meet my fans all over,” Cohen reasons. “Of course, where possible we try to travel by road and train, in between cities and concerts, instead of taking a plane.”
The 50:50:50 tour is due to arrive in the UK in the autumn. A huge amount of work has gone into the planning and management of the project, and Cohen is more than ready to get going. But his attitude towards his own career management has always been one step at a time. The priority is to still want to be creative in the first place.
“I’d like to keep exciting myself in music and hopefully excite others,” he says, raising his voice for emphasis. “But the future, as in looking far ahead, is not something I think about so much, because it’s not as important as right now. Everything I’m doing is hopefully leading to the future… the future is now.”