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Avishai Cohen and Yonathan Avishai: Playing The Room

Michael McKinney By

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Playing the Room, a record pairing New York-based trumpet player Avishai Cohen and Burgundy-based pianist Yonathan Avishai, is a restrained and joyous affair. Their playing glows with a quiet delight, as though the musicians were glad for the simple act of playing together.

That rarely comes out in overt and loud celebration, however—this is not a record of fireworks. That much is clear from the start: "The Opening" starts the record off with a stately melody from Avishai; a minute later, Cohen's trumpet provides an aching higher-register response, tracing circles on top of the ellipses Avishai played earlier. Much of the piece works in this way: a sort of glacial call-and-response, a tandem flight imagined as a slow dance. Even when the duo speeds up, the focus remains squarely on their interplay. "Kofifi Blue," composed by New York-based pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, affords them space to stretch their legs with an assured strut of a melody. The hand-offs between horn and piano are elegant but spirited; when Avishai takes a solo, moving from spare sketches to lively blues lines and grace-noted flitters, his playing houses an unmistakable glint.

This approach—trusting the interplay between two musicians to be the flashiest, and most lasting, thing on a record—is not uncommon, nor is it unsuccessful here. But it turns out to be both the greatest strength and most glaring flaw of Playing the Room. Both musicians are excellent at their craft: the record is stuffed with clever turns of melody, sideways and unexpected rhythms, and compelling interplay. Their approach does tend towards a certain hegemony when all nine tracks are taken as a whole, however, making perfectly fine recordings seem slight when held up to their companions. The record seems to succeed on the merits it aims for, though at times it is hard not to wish for the pair to push each other into more uncomfortable corners.

But the peaks are lofty. John Coltrane's "Crescent," in their hands, is serene and lonely until Cohen breaks into a rapidly accelerating solo, with Avishai smartly taking the back seat; over the course of its eight minutes it turns to a thing of hushed grace. "Shir Eres (Lullaby)" closes the record on a more downtempo note than many of the preceding pieces; it turns out that the duo, when transposed to a slightly different setting, can sound like glittering stars.

Playing the Room, then, comes as little surprise: it is precisely what one might expect of a duet record from two musicians steeped in slow-burning and contemplative jazz. The record explores only a few sounds, for both better and worse, but the duo looks in every nook and cranny along the way with a contagious joy. The result is, often, impressive: the duet as a thing of understated elegance, subdued playfulness and quiet beauty.

Track Listing: The Opening; Two Lines; Crescent; Azalea; Kofifi Blue; Dee Dee; Ralph's New Blues; Sir Duke; Shir Eres (Lullaby).

Personnel: Avishai Cohen: trumpet; Yonathan Avishai: piano.

Title: Playing The Room | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: ECM Records

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