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Conversation With Acoustic Extraordinaire Avishai Cohen

by Editor, Jake Kot

Avishai Cohen is one of the most recognized and respected bassists on the scene today. His strengths as a bassist, composer, and leader have brought him deeply into the public’s eye, and it’s well deserved. Praise from his contemporaries and beyond is also well documented…

“He’s a genius musician” Chick Corea…
“A jazz visionary of global proportions” Down Beat Magazine…
“One of the 100 Most Influential Bass Players of the 20th Century” Bass Player Magazine…

I spoke with Avishai after his very successful tour here in the US.

Jake: Lets talk about your latest release “As Is”. I seriously enjoyed your playing on that CD, but I was equally impressed with your compositional skills. Can you tell me a little about your approach as far as your writing goes?

Avishai: I’ve never had or have any specific approach; I guess it’s what I am, and comes out in some way. I never have a specific agenda. My vocabulary, my influences, all the years of loving music and checking out all the music that’s around me, the great musicians, the people I hear, just encompassing that, and having the tools to express myself is what brings the composition out. More than that I can’t tell you, I don’t really know.

Jake: The interaction between you, Sam, Mark, and Jimmy on this CD is quite moving. How did you come about choosing these particular players?

Avishai: They used to come to my shows with my first band in New York in the 90’s that played at some small jazz clubs. They came to those shows when they were young college students. I remember Mark had a friend named Brian Killeen who was attending William Patterson College. Brian came up to me and asked to study with me on bass. I started teaching him, and we became friends, and I got to know Mark through Brian. One thing lead to another, and they called me to play with them once at school, and I went and really enjoyed Marks playing.

It was time for me to get a new band together, and I was thinking of a trio, and I thought Mark would be perfect because he had this multi-interest in music. He’s not only just a jazz player, he actually comes more from rock, and I liked that. Sam was the same. He was this very open-minded, able, and willing type of player that could go anywhere, and together we formed this unit that played for a few years. It had great energy and we had a great time playing together.

Jake: Your improvisational skills are quite exceptional. Can you give me your thoughts on how you more or less developed your style and approach?

Avishai: Again, anything is an influence. I grew up on a lot of classical music, as well as anything that was playing on the radio, like the Beatles or any other pop or rock. I love Stevie Wonder — I love many things that have nothing to do with jazz or improvisation. These are great foundations of music that leads then to a platter of choices for expressing yourself as an improviser.

I found as a little kid that I had the notion or the need to express myself freely. That led me to appreciate what jazz had to offer. It provided me musically with a place for the “needing”, that wanting to play free.

Other than that I was just listening to a bunch of different musicians from many different genres, or any great jazz legends as well as new legends I encountered in New York. Just soaking up everything. Jaco was a great source for me, as well as a lot of other people, and before you know it, you have this language that’s your own, and you express yourself, and watch these different things come out.

Jake: You definitely display some unorthodox techniques within your playing. Were they triggered by specific players, or did they kind of evolve on their own?

Avishai: Well, first I wanted to articulate my abilities on the electric, because I played the electric before I played the upright. I had great facility on the electric and I wanted to have that same freedom on the upright, so I worked really hard on getting my right hand situation together so my two fingers could move around very freely on this new “beast” of an instrument.

Other than that I worked on a lot of classical bowing so I could really get myself together on the instrument, which is the only way to really master this instrument.

Beyond that I was exposed to a lot of Latin music in New York, as well as players like Paul Chambers, and bebop music. I was really into the Latin rhythms and bass players like Andy Gonzoles. Andy once showed me this concept of tapping on the side of the bass while playing open strings that he learned from the legendary Cuban bassist Cachao that encompassed a whole tradition of bass playing from Cuba where you use the bass as a percussion instrument as well. So I took that and kind of ran with it, and developed it into other influences that I have from Middle Eastern music, and what came out of that is this whole other new technique that I today incorporate into my playing.

Jake: What in your opinion has changed for you being a leader with the responsibilities that ensue, as opposed to being a sideman?

Avishai: It’s a natural change for me. It’s a natural process in my growth, and it just kind of evolved. After putting a lot of years and time into other people’s great music, especially in New York, I realized I had my writing, and that side of me that was interested in developing my own desires in music and exploring that with my favorite musicians. New York led me slowly but surely to the point that where a few years ago I had to make the decision of investing in being a leader all the way, and having a little sideman work every once in a while.
Jake: How long have you been leading a band?

Avishai: I’ve been leading a band now for ten years, but really extensively leading a band for about five.

Jake: Did you start composing more at that point?

Avishai: I’ve always been composing. I have a lot of compositions and writing going on all the time; it’s always there for me. I always seem to have material to give a band to play at any time.

Jake: One of the things I notice and enjoy about your playing is how I’m able to hear “your voice” come through, whether your playing acoustic or electric. With these instruments being very different animals, does that pose a challenge in any way; do you think differently going from one to the other?

Avishai: Not specifically thinking differently — I know both instruments well enough to get around in a way where I can express my thoughts and feelings freely. That’s the main thing to focus on. Other than that, the beauty of being able to play each instrument to the need of the composition is very cool, because some things just sound better on a certain instrument, although I have to say that most music sounds really nice on the upright. The sounds on the electric are tighter, and more punchy, and then it makes sense to play that for a tune.

Thanks for the compliment — I do take that as a compliment because it’s a challenge to find your voice through different instruments, and I hear that about my piano playing as well, so I guess I can’t run away from myself. But the bottom line is, for me, the composition is stronger than the instrument.

Jake: You’ve toured with one of the masters of picking, formidable sidemen for his band, Chick Corea. Tell me what you experienced and took with you after playing and touring with him.

Avishai: First of all, knowing Chick as a person is great. He’s an amazing person to be around. Other than that of course, he’s one of the greatest musicians of our time. A very interesting musician – a very smart musician – therefore presenting a great platter for the young and excited musician that I was. For me, to be with him, was what I needed most to bloom, and to express myself, and to expose myself to a bunch of people in the most honorable and celebrated way. Every minute of playing with him was magic, and will always stay with me that way. I was able to take great things that he gave me like his skills of leadership… how he handles a band, and how he treats musicians. All of that was a perfect platter for me to grow from, and go my own way.

Jake: I couldn’t agree with you more, as far as your feelings about Chick. So what lays ahead for you?

Avishai: There’s so much. Other than just going on the road constantly, I’m planning on going into the studio soon. I’m working on two projects. One is a trio record, purely a trio record at the end of September with a bunch of new music. A piano trio with Mark on drums. Another project is where I’m singing in Hebrew mainly, kind of a pop, world, jazz kind of thing. It’s a very touching and interesting project. I don’t know when I’ll have it out, but I’m working on it. I’m going into the studio for that very soon as well. These are two projects that I’m very excited about.

Jake: Thanks Avishai.

Avishai: My pleasure.

Visit Avishai Cohen online at www.avishaimusic.com

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