Mark Turner and Avishai Cohen: Harmony Without Chords

Marta Ramon By

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Saxophonist Mark Turner and trumpet player Avishai Cohen have been playing together since 2010. Both are accomplished jazzmen and representatives of the avant-garde scene. They shared a stage as part of the San Francisco Jazz Collective and also in Turner's quartet, including bassist Joe Martin and Marcus Gilmore on drums. After thirteen years, Turner finally launched an album as a leader, Lathe of Heaven (ECM, 2014).

The pair visited Valencia, Spain and took time to speak with All About Jazz before their sound check at Jimmy Glass Jazz Bar, which celebrated the International Jazz Festival IV last November. The understanding and connection they show in concert is also present when they talk to each other, either joking or emphasizing each other's virtues, with obvious sincerity.

All About Jazz: Mark and Avishai, thank you very much for taking time today to speak about your experiences playing together.

Mark Turner: Our pleasure!

AAJ: Mark, why did you call on Avishai for your new album?

MT: The first time I played with him, I was already thinking about playing with a trumpet, that was something new for me. I understood his high level of craft, intuition, creativity and focus. I thought Avishai had all these things. The other thing is that I like to play with musicians I feel are better than I am, so I can learn from them. I like people around me who do things that I can't. I also asked him because we had played together in the past. I prefer not to call on musicians that I don't know. I just need to feel, in some way, what's happening. That's it! [Smiles].

AAJ: Avishai, how did you feel when Mark called you about being part of the quartet?

Avishai Cohen: The first time, he asked me to do a show in the Jazz Gallery with his quartet. I was very happy playing with Mark. I love playing together as a sideman. We were talking about this yesterday, that we have been playing together for almost four years. But it still feels really fresh. We have a lot of fun together. Every concert is different, and there is still a lot of exploration to do. It has been great. Every time we play it's a whole new experience. We started this project and didn't even know that it was gonna last that long, and I am really happy to be part of it.

AAJ: Mark, you said you call on musicians that you think are better than you. What does Avishai have that you'd like to learn from?

MT: I don't know, I wouldn't put so much weight on that because I think music is more global than that, (more) than obvious, concrete things. But something I like in Avishai is that he has a natural, flowing relationship with music. For me, it's more like I have to think about it, I have to go back, work on it and it takes a while before the things start to flow, it doesn't just happen. I don't know Avishai that well, but I have the feeling that it happens in this way.

AAJ: Avishai, what have you learned from Mark?

AC: Mark has been a big inspiration in my music, as a human being and as a musician. I like to play with musicians when the connection goes beyond just the notes. Mark is not just a great saxophonist and musician, he's a really different human being. He is very humble, and a very spiritual guy. The way he talks to you is very inspiring, with his ego put aside. It's like he searches for something more, and I like that. Musically speaking, Mark talked about the natural treatment to the music that I have, but for me it is the opposite, I admire Mark's dedication and commitment to the horn and to practicing. We've been touring with this band, and with SF Collective, many times rooming with each other, listening to him practice. I'm not like that. I admire it, it is something I would like to aspire towards.

AAJ: So you admire Mark's capacity of making the complex feel simple.

AC: Yes, sure! We talked the other day about simplicity and how to simplify things, especially when he improvises. The music has changed over the years, and to keep things simple is really hard these days. We had a long conversation about that. Listening to Mark you can hear the simplicity even when he's doing very complicated things harmonically, with time and melody. I think the simplicity that is heard from the way he plays is something I am looking for in my music, how to duplicate that. His playing is very relaxing, pure and consistent. His simplicity comes from playing in such a complex way, and that is really hard to do.

MT: I believe anything that is valuable is not easy. I'm just saying that valuable things take time, they take thought, and energy. You have to pay attention to them. You can't take them for granted. So when you hear powerful and great music, it can touch people and they don't need to understand it at all. That part is not supposed to be necessary. It is my personal opinion that if something is too easy, it is not gonna last very long... of course there are a few exceptions.

AC: I just want to add that simplicity is how you reach the essence, and that takes a lot of hard work. It takes years and years to master. To get to that level of playing is not just a technical thing, it takes years of your life learning how to do it. Only experience and hard work will get you there. I often talk about Lee Konitz, and how he blew my mind last summer. He played so beautifully, and his sound was perfect, his ideas were perfect and simple but there was a lot of complexity behind his work. He is a genius, he plays so amazingly. I was playing after him and I just didn't want him to stop. It's a hard process to play like this, really hard. Once you are there, maybe you can start thinking about how to simplify in your own way.

AAJ: How would you define the moment when your sounds combine while playing?

AC:There was a writer at the studio during the recording, and she said "voodoo." [Laughs]

MT: Yes, I like that! [Laughs]

AC: I like that too! [Smiles] Voodoo...

Photo Credit: C. Andrew Hovan

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