Avishai Cohen – Intensity – Bass Musician Magazine, July 2015 Issue…
When writing music, a phrase might need the one “perfect” note to satisfy our ear. There are times when this tone is elusive and there is no other choice but to try numerous options until the veiled pitch reveals itself. In much the same way, there are times in writing when an adjective refuses to present itself until the subject is truly thought about and observed.
This writer’s experience was just that, when searching for the one word that fit Avishai Cohen.
Immediately, it is easily noticed that the Israeli-born bassist, composer, vocalist, and bandleader is saturated by a sense of focus when he plays. Take, for example, the following video clip of the Avishai Cohen Trio performing “Amethyst” from Cohen’s most recent album From Darkness:
In the clip, there doesn’t appear to be any separation between Cohen and his upright; rather, the music appears to flow through them both as if an electrical current. Avishai looks to be the music, not someone who is simply playing music.
Another clip for examination – “Seven Seas”, performed live with Avishai’s trio, live:
What is very clear is that Avishai doesn’t break from his complete union with the music during the opening (and excellent) drum solo section. Cohen is present throughout, which seems to propel him to another level during his own solo section.
Looking further into the tracks of From Darkness, this is Avishai’s composition, “C# Minor”: youtube.com/watch?v=DKgjIDqiWj4
Avishai’s stern facial expressions while he plays the long, loping line over the angular drum patterns (beginning at 1:03) are those of someone engulfed in the moment and not putting on a display for the audience. Very real energy seems to move through the give and take at 3:25, finally spilling over during Nitai Hershkovits’ solo section.
Coming into the actual interview, all of these impressions – Avishai being focused, unified, passionate, energetic, and more – were swirling in my head. Avishai had an almost tangible, perhaps even a bit intimidating, force surrounding him.
Speaking to Avishai while he was on a brief tour stop in his home country, his even, thoughtful tone and determined responses were expected; however, in addition, Avishai radiates warmth, depth, thoughtfulness, humor, and a sense of calm. It was when speaking to Avishai that I found the word I felt described him best: intense.
Avishai Cohen is absolutely intense. The word “intensity” is sometimes skewed to apply a negative connotation; however, it is important to remember the actual definition (as defined by Merriam-Webster, here):
- very great in degree : very strong
- done with or showing great energy, enthusiasm, or effort
- of a person: very serious
Strength. Very great in degree. Great energy, enthusiasm, or effort. Serious. Indeed, “intense” very well describes every note Avishai plays and every composition he writes. It is this intensity that gives Avishai’s music the ability to bleed emotion, from the darkest, lowest growls to the highest, most joyful shouts. It is the intensity that has made Avishai a true master of his instruments and the multiple styles that he has fully assimilated.
Let’s start by talking about your latest release, From Darkness. What was your concept for this album, especially considering the time span since your last trio album?
First, usually there’s no real concept other than just documenting the music that’s been accumulated, meaning the music that I’ve written lately. I always write music. That’s the key part of my actual music presentation. That’s how I keep doing what I do. It’s stated by the music that I write, more than anything else. What I usually do is just stop at a point where I feel and think that I can make a record and that’s what I did.
Another thing is that I haven’t done a trio record since Gently Disturbed, which is like 8 years ago, which is the only trio that I’ve made. The reason for that is because I felt that Gently Disturbed was a very strong record and that I would wait until I had something to offer that is as strong, if not stronger – but not less, not anything less. I wouldn’t want to do anything that is not as good as what I’ve done. That was difficult, because Gently is a very, very strong record. It all happened when Daniel Dor, the drummer, joined about a year and a half ago. When he joined my trio, something happened to the music with his playing and his sound on the drums that made a new statement almost…kind of put a really strong stamp on it. It just put the music in a place where I had to take it and record it.
You mentioned not making a pure trio album since Gently Disturbed, but it seems as though you tend to place a trio concept at the center of your projects. Do you have a special affinity for the trio, as a core unit?
Sure. I’m a rhythm section player, as I’m a bassist. Even from the days when I used to play with Chick [Corea], I’ve always been a part of a machine and a big part of this machine of a trio. The piano trio is a strong machine; it’s like a force. It’s almost got a classic configuration; it became something almost like a power trio in rock where you have the Police or Rush or trios that are really strong. Piano trios are usually presented in jazz; there’s some kind of power to it potentially, with the drums and the piano as percussive instruments and the bass making it all profound and round…it’s a massive sound, man!
I started my career, or my records, with horns. I’ve had bigger bands, but with the time, with the years, I’ve subtracted it to a trio, because the trio can almost say anything. It’s like you can convey all music with the right trio, because piano in itself is such an influential and able instrument. Another thing about my trio that I guess has a different power than other piano trios is because I’m a bassist leading a piano trio. With all respect to me as a bassist, it’s still a piano trio, because it’s such a strong instrument. I write my music on piano. It’s like this thing that became a natural habitat for me.
Do you feel like working in the style of trio that you’ve developed has allowed you to push your bass role past that of a traditional jazz bassist?
Yes, that’s a good point, because when I came to New York in the beginning of the 90’s, I had a dream to become the best bassist I could become. Mainly in the jazz world, but at the same time, in a different way than most jazz cats at the time. I was deeply into Latin music and also funk and reggae and other elements of music that weren’t pure jazz. I will put an emphasis on the Latin side of things where I really dove in and checked it out in the deepest and most thorough ways. That role as a bassist in a Latin group has to do with knowing so much about the percussion role and the tumbao. It’s not walking bass or half time or that kind of thing only. It’s knowing how to play a groove or a few notes, sitting on two bar phrases and really dealing with rhythm from a drummer’s perspective more. That whole world has paved such a way in my compositions and in my rhythmic aspect of things. I think that has affected my trio sound very, very much.
You mentioned several of your stylistic influences – what I find interesting about you is the way in which you’ve completely integrated these different influences into your playing, rather than just being a “jazz player who can play some Latin”, for example.
I tend to be an obsessive person in that sense. Maybe in a good way, I guess, because when I like something or when I’m digging something, I’m literally digging it. I’m digging in it and immersing in it. I want to know it from all angles and I want to be able to hang with the deepest and heaviest cats doing it. It’s never just a bit to know, so that I can hang. It’s so I can really deal, you know? That’s what I did with everything. I checked bebop in that sense and I checked hard bop and a lot of styles in that sense. But in the same way I did that for Latin music, which required a lot of practice and learning, and I had to beat myself up. I have a natural liking to it and a natural ability with it, but – that’s not enough!
I hung with some heavy cats in New York for that and with any style that I check out. Reggae, which I checked out for a few years in New York as well, I played with some heavy cats and I got into it, not halfway, but dove in it. Anything I really, really want to get, I don’t let go before it’s a part of my DNA. The payoff is you play or you write a piece of music and it’s in there. It’s in there and you never thought about it too much, it just came out as part of your being, you know? That is, for me, the greatest part of learning anything, but especially music. Just really inhaling something and it becoming a part of you where you don’t have to think about it, as it is you!
That style of complete immersion into something, for however long it takes to assimilate into your playing, isn’t a very common thing anymore.
Your point is a very interesting and true one. I think about what’s going on today. I feel lucky to say that I’m still young enough to have all of the energy and exploration as I’ve always had, if not more, but I’m old enough to say I’ve been around. My early years when I was eating everything and accumulating everything I could were at a better time where things weren’t available so instantly. You had to dig in, you had to get the record, and you had to listen to one record for a long time. You had to listen and transcribe stuff. I’m not saying they don’t do that today, but it’s different.
You had to really dig in to one world. That type of thing is a stamp that really becomes a part of your soul, your being. Today, I think so many things are available that it’s more about the fashion. It’s almost like when people come to shows and want to get a picture with you just so they can put it on Facebook. It’s more important for them to get that than to actually be there and inhale music, you know? It’s a different time. So, in a good way, I can say that good music and good listeners, it always stays. But it’s more difficult today, maybe, to really go deep into something until you own it. It’s a different world!
You express your music through a number of sounds and timbres – upright bass, electric bass, piano, voice. When you write and play do approach them differently or are they just colors with which to paint?
I see every instrument as an organic extension of the same soul, which is my soul. In a way, if I’m lucky, I always go back to simple. Simple, meaning: the hardest thing is to be simple and meaningful. It’s the strongest, usually. If I’m lucky all these instruments, including my voice, become and extension of my simple meaning. I’m lucky to say I’ve always had a tendency to write; to create a sound, a place, an environment and the piano is my first choice for writing. It’s like an orchestra; it gives you all aspects at once, which is harmony, melody, and rhythm. Of course, electric [bass] was my first instrument after piano and it’s very natural for me. Some things are super natural for me to write on electric or to execute.
Going to my first point: the important thing about all of these extensions is that they are just a way for me to, if I’m lucky, again, to express my most vulnerable and true feeling and moments and perspectives on life. That’s all it is there for.
I’ve heard and read several things from you that offer themes of purity, wholeness, and oneness. You’ve mentioned this theme when talking about intonation or the sound of a trio as a single unit, for example. Is the pursuit of wholeness something you strive for? If so, is it attainable?
All is a lifelong journey and all is one. I don’t want to sound too philosophical, but in many ways, it’s usually the most beautiful, natural, powerful things that move you or make a difference are things that are made of two or more things that come into one force. I feel that about the trio very much, where it is three people, but three is a number that almost feels like one. It sits so strong as a beat. Everything is one, everything is the same. At the end of the day, the effect of art and music comes to the same thing, when you’re lucky, again, you put it into simple words or notes.
I really see a strong connection between all styles of music when it’s pure and when it comes from trying to convey something simple. As Duke Ellington said once, “There’s two kinds of music – good music and bad music”. It’s funny, but it’s so true, because at the end of the day, it’s communication. Music was and is a form of communication. The way to communicate in a high-spirited way, where you can really explain it some times, but it’s stronger than your explanation. That’s why being a musician really all the way, really being occupied and making music, communicating through music is a very high place to be.
For bassists, and all musicians, to strive for this “high place”, what would you advise they do?
First of all, listen, listen, listen, listen. Listening in the deepest form – really taking the time to absorb what you like in music, what moves you. Follow what moves you.
I would listen to Bobby Rodriguez playing bass lines in the Machito Orchestra and stuff like that and I just couldn’t believe how genius that was. I would listen to the same tune all day, every day, because I couldn’t believe how certain notes were so, so groovy and had such an influence on the music and moved my soul.
People are not even aware of certain things in the drums or bass or guitar or what they hear, you have to really find out what makes it and really moves you and is so uplifting for you when you listen to music. I think that my best advice is to follow those things and be as obsessive or as thorough as you can be about learning them and incorporating those things into your being. Just being there on one thing. Obsessing on one record, one tune, on one bass line, just really checking out what makes it fly. If you’re lucky enough to do that. Because today, everybody wants to be everywhere and do everything and it’s not about that. It’s about really having, really getting totally obsessed with one thing for a while. Otherwise you’re not really going to have it. You’re going to have a view on it, you’re going to have a touch of it, a sense of it, but not really going to own it. If you don’t really own it, it’s not going to come out of you in the same way.
What is coming up for you in the near future? There’s an exciting project that involves the trio and an orchestra?
First of all, I always have the trio working, doing stuff. Other than that, I have this New York Division unit, which really a project for the summer festivals and that’s great. When that’s done, I’m immersing into this really huge other project, which is orchestra. It’s not even trio with orchestra, it’s more like me and orchestra. The trio is going to be there, but it’s going to be myself alone with orchestra. I’m going to sing with orchestra, I’m going to play. It’s going to be instrumental, classical movements of music that I’ve written as well as some classic tunes. I think I’m going to do “Nature Boy” with the orchestra, singing it. I’m going to do some Spanish tunes. It’s going to be a very, very deep project that kind of covers all of my world. The man behind the arrangements and the whole vision of what the evening is going to be is Robert Sadin. He’s a very well respected producer, arranger, and conductor that has done some work with Wayne Shorter and Herbie [Hancock] and different heavyweights that have had conjunctions with orchestras before.
It’s a big project. We’ll see what happens with that, I’m psyched about and a bit nervous, even!
Sound like an evolution of music, really.
I’ve been told of that, so many years and so many times, where I’ve kind of said, “I have to take it to the next level”. I will explore that in a deeper, more serious, all the way, with an orchestra. It’s pretty heavy, but I think it’s going to work out!
Avishai Cohen’s web site: www.avishaicohen.com