Avishai Cohen: Mystical Changes

Adriana Carcu By

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When I was younger I wanted to be an influential musician. Now that I have become somewhat influential, I just want to live up to it.
Israeli bassist and vocalist Avishai Cohen, together with pianist Omri Mor and drummer Amir Bresler, recently participated at Romania's Garana Jazz Festival with a two-hour act of electrifying musical virtuosity. Most of the songs the trio performed are featured on Cohen's recent release, Seven Seas (EMI, 2011). This interview took place before a show that would become memorable in the history of the festival, for the artists and audience alike.

All About Jazz: You've been touring throughout Europe for quite some time now, playing almost every night. What makes each show different for you?

AC: It is just how you can tell the difference between every day of your life. It is the same thing, not only the fact that it happens somewhere else in the world, potentially, but under that aspect it is as different as possible from the other day. Of course the shows have their own "personality"; sometimes it is a higher show, sometimes it is a lower show, but it is always fun because it connects. We don't hide, we bring music to others; we always connect. The difference is the beauty happening, wherever it happens.

AAJ: I think the main component in this communication is the audience, their degree of reception and feedback. Are you able to outline the audience's profile from up there? Is the communication functioning that way too?

Avishai Cohen: I can't put my finger on it, but everything has an effect, you know. The audience changes us every night in a mystical way. Look at this; mountain, rain, Romania. You feel it even during the sound check. We are very receptive to the environment because the music helps us to reflect it back.

AAJ: You are in the widest sense a citizen of the world, biographically and musically. You are very well-loved in France. Do you have an explanation for that?

AC: We get love in many places, but something happened in France that just blew up. France is one of the great cultural centers of Europe. They accept and consume culture in a natural way. The country is very supportive of culture. We have good success in Sweden as well. It is nice to see how sometimes it is not exactly happening overnight, but it is a success you can actually catch in a small frame of time. You don't have to go through a five or ten-year period anymore, but you can watch it happening like a resurrection. Seeing the people come along and receiving that amount of love from them is one of the greatest rewards of my life; to be recognized and wanted and loved, and to watch it grow.

AAJ: When did you really have the feeling that it exploded?

AC: It actually happened with "Lyla" in France. "Lyla" has a particular melodic line and that caught in France. They started playing it on the radio, and the audience knew it already when they came to the concert. It is there we had our first big fan infrastructure. Then it started growing, and we grew too. Now I know that I can give something back to them. I have to keep them interested. I can't keep doing the same thing, in a way. I mean we are musicians and we improvise, that makes possible for you to do the same thing for a long time but we also develop as improvisers. I saw Paul McCartney on TV the other day. I was amazed about the way he was singing "Let It Be." It sounded great and you could tell that he loved it. When it is good, and you believe in it, you can do something forever, but you always have to put a bit of yourself in it.

AAJ: You can go out there and give them what they expect but to some extent I think that you can also educate them.

AC: In a way, you are. If they want to follow, that is. Education is one of the great things in life, which is only really happening when the people are willing.

AAJ: Your sound is a peculiar, unusual combination of oriental and Latin tones. Even Seven Seas has a Latin undercurrent. Is it, do you think, mainly due to your mother's Sephardic line of heritage or rather due to the exposure you had to Latin music in New York?

AC: I think that Latinity is a natural place to be for me. Even as a child, whatever Latin connotation I had—which was very little—I embraced it right away. There are many things of Latin origin that attract me immediately. I have always been attracted by rhythm. I love the Spanish language. It is a beautiful language for music and some of my favorite music comes from there: the flamenco, Eddie Palmieri, the New York salsa, the Afro-Cuban, the Ladino.

AAJ: Aurora (EMI, 2009) was the album where you became a singer. Where did this need arise?

AC: I started messing around with singing in New York around 2000, where at some point I had a rock band together with a guy, and I did some background vocals. On Lyla (Sunnyside, 2003), I actually sang two pieces, and hated it. My mother sings a bit, so when I got home from vacation to Israel I used to sit with her and sing some Ladino songs. I even recorded some of them. So I got closer to the voice in that way and started singing for myself and writing some songs. When I went back to live in Israel six years ago, at a certain point I started writing in Hebrew as well. So I had this intimacy and closeness to the music that is unchangeable and I thought, if I do it just for myself I am kind of hiding something, which is OK, you don't have to show everything. But then I thought, "Why don't I try to do something very scary?"

AAJ: Is singing scary for you?

AC: Yes, I am still very scared when I have to sing, even if afterwards it is so soothing and connective. But in the beginning it took me a while to accept my voice. It's a process you have to go through.

AAJ: What is the relation to your instrument? Are you using your voice to underline the bass line or to complete it?

AC: Sometimes I do both. I use it as a second voice especially with the bow, or in company with pizzicato. I use it in unison with the bow, there's a lot of effect that you can get like that. It sounds like bass clarinet or something similar.

AAJ: When you are composing your music, is the approach conceptual or rather accidental, inspirational?

AC: It is usually just a sequence in my life. I stop somewhere and say; OK I have all these compositions, let's start working on them. And then you look at what goes on a record. Whenever I do a record, that's also a recording of my own life and of where I have been in it at that time. When I write, it may be accidental but I trust myself enough to care and provide a life for it. You have to trust yourself and be very alert at the same time. It is a combination of letting yourself go, and not knowing where you are going.

AAJ: Do you remember how you came to your first composition?

AC: I was sitting at the piano at home. I was probably nine or ten, and my sister had a piano in her room. She used to study and I sat there and things came up—that was before I had even studied—and I sort of identified some patterns. All my knowledge of music I had at that time came from the radio. I remember I was very interested in it. So I started studying.
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