An Interview with Avishai Cohen
We talk basics with
by Fred Jung
There comes a time in every man’s life and I’ve had many of them, but I’m sure Avishai Cohen has not. Another fine product of the Smalls breeding ground, Cohen has slowly been getting his share of the love, as he should because his modest character is almost retro. On a recent tour through Los Angeles, I sat down with the bassist to talk about his time in the Israeli army, his new release on Concord, “Devotion,” and his influences. Maturely grounded by all standards, Cohen speaks with us candidly.
JazzUSA: How did you get started in music?
AC: Basically, of course, I grew up in Israel and as a kid, I was, like, nine when I started being interested in piano. I was always into music, just listening to what my parents would put on, which would be from Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach, to Middle Eastern sounds of Israeli music, or to Euro-pop music, anything. Then when I was nine or ten, I started checking out the piano that we had at home for my sister that was taking lessons. I started up messing around with it in my own way and finding little melodies and actually having my own little approach to it before anything. I started taking lessons when I was ten, studying some classical. We moved to St. Louis when I was fourteen, for two years. My mother had a job there. There, I started getting interested in rock and roll and jazz. I started playing bass when I was fifteen and still played piano. I started taking lessons with jazz teachers. From then on, I just became an electric bass player for a few years. That’s what I did when I came back to Israel in ’86, I started working as a bassist for jazz gigs. At a certain point when I was twenty, about twenty, I was into jazz to the point where I understood that the upright bass would be the right sound. I bought a bass, a very cheap one and started taking classical lessons. I actually was very serious about it and got pretty good, faster than I thought. The next step was to move to New York in ’92. I took my bass and moved to New York and kept practicing a lot. The first year that I was there, I wasn’t feeling ready yet. I practiced and started getting together with some people to play. I started doing sessions and doing little gigs and meeting more and more people. Then I started playing with Danilo Perez in ’95. From then on, it just happened. I hooked up with Chick and did my first record and recorded with him.
AC: I was lucky, my teacher in St. Louis hipped me to Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius and Ray Brown too. I loved Ray and that made a lot of sense to me. But mainly Jaco turned my whole, Jaco was the main force. I got into it as I started playing electric and his musicality and his sound and his approach totally took me by storm. It was a force for me. It was a very big source of inspiration.
JazzUSA: What was your first jazz record?
AC: You know, Fred, I would say it was probably, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. I don’t remember the name of the record, but it was one of their many records and an Oscar Peterson Trio with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen and then right after that, “Light as a Feather,” Chick.
JazzUSA: And your time with Danilo?
AC: That was actually a very good turn in my career. When I started playing with Danilo, it was actually the beginning of the exposure, rather outside of the New York scene, which could be Smalls or any place that I was playing, which is great, but it’s still a certain scene. Being with Danilo, we started going around the world and playing. It broadened an awareness of me to the people, which helped a lot. A lot of musicians got to know me and through being on the record, “Panamonk,” that did really well and was one of the records that stuck out as a very innovative record, I was lucky just to be a part of it. I got a lot of attention by it. Playing with Danilo was great because he’s a very, very good player, musician. I learned a lot and got a lot of stuff from him.
JazzUSA: What about your association with Chick Corea?
AC: It started when I played, I remember doing a week long at Sweet Basil with Danilo, maybe four, three, four years ago, with him and Lenny White. Chick was in town with the Bud Powell thing, that band. He came to Sweet Basil when we were playing and that’s the first time I got to meet him. It was more, like, just meeting him. We didn’t get to play or anything. He heard us play a very few notes. But then, the next thing was, I played with Danilo at one of the jazz conventions that was in Chicago three years ago. It was very successful. We played a great show. Some of Chick Corea’s crew or assistant manager was there. He heard me play and really loved it, so he came up to me after the show and introduced himself. I had a tape of my band that we just got going into the studio in New York. I spent my own money on a little demo tape of, actually, “Adama” (Cohen’s debut on Stretch/Concord), that record. We recorded it at a little studio in New York, where we recorded all the tunes and it came out really great. I had that with me so when he said Chick Corea, I said, “Man, I’ve loved Chick Corea for years. I really love his compositions and everything. If you can give him that just as a gesture, I would love for him to hear it. Maybe, he will like it.” I didn’t even know that he had a record company (Stretch). And then, two weeks later I got a call from Ron Moss, who manages Chick for years and is a co-partner with Stretch Records and he was asking a lot of questions about my music. He said that he had heard it and he loved it. Chick hadn’t heard it yet, but Ron heard it and really loved it. He said that he would like to sign me, and I said, “Wow, that’s beautiful!” He said, “Man, I have to play it for Chick first, I don’t know if he will like it. But if he likes it, we definitely want to sign you. I don’t know what his response will be.” So then a few days later, I got a call from Chick, which was really exciting, to get a call from Chick, certainly. And he was totally enthusiastic and really excited about the music. We talked about the tunes and from then on we made it work. We set the time in studio. I went in and Chick was there, co-producing it, actually producing it, and we did the record “Adama,” which was very successful.
JazzUSA: What made you switch from piano to bass?
AC: I remember having a hard time reading music with a piano. That was a little frustrating. I don’t think it’s actually the main reason why I switched. I switched because I was young and I wanted to try something else and it appealed to me. The electric bass appealed as something that could be interesting. For some kind of reason I picked it up. I don’t know, even today, fully why. It happened and it stayed.
JazzUSA: Do you still play the piano?
AC: Oh, man, I even play on the gigs. There’s a tune that is on the record, the record is a little messed up with the credits so it doesn’t say that I’m playing piano, but I’m playing, “Angels of Peace” is me playing piano. I do that on the gigs too sometimes. I spend a lot of time with the piano, especially in New York in my apartment. I play it a lot more than the bass because un the road I don’t get to do it.
JazzUSA: Let’s talk about your time in the Israeli army.
AC: A part of it was a lot of fun because I was lucky. I was in the army band that played rock and roll. I got to be on stage everyday for months and months, which was good for me, playing alright music with good musicians. At a point, it started not being so great because I was already playing professionally as a jazz bassist and getting calls for gigs and festivals and stuff and it didn’t work anymore to be in the army band. After two years, I quit and that’s when I got the upright. I picked up the upright and started that, but the army was good. I learned a lot by playing there.
JazzUSA: How is the jazz scene in Israel?
AC: I know there’s very talented young musicians, always. There’s always more than a few that are into the tradition and doing what needs to be done to really study the music and what happens is they either end up in New York or there’s not a lot to do. There’s not many gigs, but there are a few things. There is a movement of young people to play the music.
JazzUSA: Were you shell-shocked when you moved to New York?
AC: Well, Fred, when I moved to New York, I remember just getting to know, well, I went to the New School for a few months. It wasn’t a persisting type of thing. I mainly did it for my papers and my visa. I met incredible players like Brad Mehldau and Pete Bernstein and Adam Cruz and got to play with them. That was when I realized why I move there when I was playing with people my age that were so mature and so serious about what they were doing like I was. But more, just being in New York and being exposed to all the great players, and it just came to me that that’s the main reason why people go there. It’s just full of so many great players that are so dedicated and so serious about the music.
JazzUSA: How has the Smalls scene grown over the years?
AC: Smalls has been great because it gave a chance for young people to put together projects that they believed in and maybe get a gig here and there. The thing about Smalls is it attracts a young crowd and there’s always people in there. It’s a chance for you to play your music and get a sense of how it effects people. A lot of young musicians go there so there’s always a boiling type of feeling of the scene. It’s a lot of what’s going on. It’s a good place for growing and to meet a lot of great musicians. I was lucky to be a part of it. I still am a part of it. I’m on the road so much that I don’t get to go there that much, but when I am in New York, I go there and my friends are playing and I check out the music and if I have time I play. It’s a great place. That’s where I started my band and I will always have the respect for that.
JazzUSA: You just finished a gig at my alma mater, the University of Southern California, at their free jazz festival, what did you think of the crowd turnout?
AC: The crowd, surprisingly, the turnout was not good. It’s a free festival and it wasn’t us specifically, it was all the acts (Dave Douglas, Mark Turner, David Sanchez, and McCoy Tyner). There wasn’t a good turnout and they can’t really explain it, but I’m pretty sure that they didn’t do what they needed to do for it to be a good turnout. There’s a lot of people in Los Angeles.
JazzUSA: I have to apologize for Los Angeles. If the cast from Buffy or Ally McBeal isn’t there, there’s very little interest, although we were the first in line for the new Star Wars.
AC: That’s what I hear. I mean, it’s a shame because great people come to play here and it’s free, man. All you’ve got to do is go. They must have not done something, but the people that were there, and there were some people there, loved it. They stood up when we were done and we gave a great show and it was beautiful.
JazzUSA: You like to use instruments that are not the traditional horn, piano, bass, and drum, like an oud and bells.
AC: The oud definitely adds a texture that I, sometimes it’s hard to explain exactly. I can say it brings a Middle Eastern vibe, but it’s not exactly that. What it is, in the context of what I write for the bass, I double it with the oud a lot of times and it just gives this crisp touch to the whole mix of the band. The ground of what you hear from the rhythm section has a special little touch that you wouldn’t think makes such a difference, but really puts a whole thing in the mix. It’s just a beautiful addition to a regular rhythm section. For me, it makes a big difference. It’s heard I think. It’s heard in recordings too.
JazzUSA: And because you utilize those instruments, you are typecast as fusion, is that a fair assessment?
AC: No. I don’t use any terms for any music. I think it makes the music smaller. For any kind of art form, I try not to put names and definitions to it because it just makes it smaller for me. Fusion, if you want to call what happened in the seventies with the electric music and everything and that style, that’s totally not what I do. Yet, what’s fusion? For me, what I do is what I do.
JazzUSA: Let’s touch on your latest album, “Devotion.”
AC: I don’t go to do a record with a concept. I haven’t yet. What happened with “Adama,” first is that I had a bunch of tunes that were piling up. I write a lot. I’ve always been writing all the time. There was a bunch of tunes already and I was doing them with the band every once and a while when we had a gig in New York. When I was asked to do a record, I totally had a record already. There wasn’t a concept. The concept was to put the tunes on a record. What happened was, it made so much sense as it was that it seems, if it seems like a concept, it’s a good sign, but it wasn’t approached that way. That’s what I’m saying. It made sense as a record. It starts and ends and it connects. With “Devotion,” it was kind of the same. Another year went by. I wrote more music and I still had tunes from years back that I wanted to do. So between a few old tunes and mostly new tunes, I had another record. My only wish, what I wanted for this record, “Devotion,” was to put all these ideas that I had that were a little different than the first one that required other things and to just be successful with putting it on tape and doing it. I have a string quartet in there. I have a flute, and I have this and that and different concepts that required a lot of work and concentration and belief for this to come out. It just worked. I put on tape, again, exactly what I wanted. For me, that’s the concept, to be able to put all the ideas that I have come up with in the past year or two and put them on tape so I can move on because I keep writing. I already have about a half a record for the next record.
JazzUSA: Did you approach your career from the outset with that in mind?
AC: It was never a thing where I said that you have to do your own thing and your identity. It’s actually a natural thing where I have been lucky to be creating these things. These things come out of me and when they come out, when there’s a tune there, it’s very precious to me. I’m attached to it. I put a lot of emotion into it and it’s a part of me that I feel I have to put out there. It doesn’t belong to me, but it’s a part of my emotions. I’m so attached to it that I want to do it. I feel closer to that than any other tune that I would love, there’s so many. I know a lot of standards and I’ve been playing them since I came to New York and I grew up on that in a way. I love it but the music that comes out of me always has a special place where I’m so attached that that’s the first thing that I want to do. I do give a lot of respect for the beautiful songs that Gershwin or Cole Porter or some of my favorite composers have composed. They’re in me too. They are the inspiration for a lot of the music that I write.
JazzUSA: And your touring plans?
AC: We’re going to La Jolla (San Diego County, CA) today to do a show there. It should be fun. We’re coming back tomorrow and we’re doing the Baked Potato (Hollywood) for two nights. We have some kind of TV, cable TV thing (Direct TV), one of these days that we have to do a taping to. We go to Tucson (Arizona) and then we’re out of here, back home.
JazzUSA: Home is New York.
AC: Home is Israel, but I’m based in New York now.
JazzUSA: You have been on the road with Danilo, Chick, and your own band, how is New York compared to Paris, Tokyo, or San Francisco?
AC: Well, New York, you know, Fred, how in New York there’s that roaring, boiling feeling of constant movement and constant action. It’s not even the music. It’s that city lives. There’s so much energy in it, that the music is effected too. When you go to hear a concert, or when you do a concert, it’s just there’s that excitement, that natural excitement that the city has is transferred to whatever you do. In the most simple way, that is a lot of it. Aside from that, it’s a legend. For years it has been the home base of where a lot of stuff started and was created. All the greats were there and I think they put a vibe and an energy that is still there. Obviously, it is still happening and great musicians come out of there. I just like the fact that I can go any night and pick a few places when I know that I’m going to hear great music.
JazzUSA: Would you want to play another instrument?
AC: I love the trumpet. I even bought one and I started messing around with it. I never have the time to get, I still don’t have the time to get as serious about it as much as I want to, but I will. I love the trumpet. I love many other instruments too. I play guitar too. I love the drums.
JazzUSA: What is it about the trumpet?
AC: I like the force of it. I like the statement. It’s a very rhythmic instrument and I love rhythmic playing, like horn, like playing salsa stuff, but mainly, I love the trumpet because of Lee Morgan, which I love so much, and Freddie Hubbard too, and Miles, but Lee Morgan was always such an inspiration, a voice to me. It became a passion to play trumpet in that sense.
JazzUSA: Did you stay for Dave Douglas (Cohen opened for Douglas)?
AC: Yes, I saw a little. We just had breakfast together before I came here for this interview and he’s, man, he’s a motherfucker. He’s great. It was great doing a double bill with him and I hope it happens again. He’s a serious cat.
JazzUSA: Is there a city or venue that is near and dear for you?
AC: Wow, you got me, Fred. Well, there’s many places that would fit, but let me think now. There’s a place in Israel that’s very cool that is called the Sultan’s Pool in Jerusalem. It is a beautiful place to play and I would love to play one time with my band. I don’t know if it will ever happen, but it might. That would be nice. Other than that, Big Sur, we played, which is great! I would love to play there again, Big Sur Jazz Festival. It’s such a beautiful place.
JazzUSA: A good turnout?
AC: Pretty good. Pretty good. People loved it and it was very, very nice.
JazzUSA: I hear it was your birthday yesterday.
JazzUSA: Did you get a birthday wish?
AC: No, I didn’t actually.
JazzUSA: I don’t have any candles to blow out, but indulge me.
AC: Well, my birthday wish is to keep doing what I’m doing and getting such a joy from having such a great band with me that carries and delivers every night, such beautiful stuff. It’s such a feeling. It’s one of the best things that can happen to someone writing music. If that could keep going and grow, that’s my wish.
For more information on Avishai Cohen’s new album
See The Avishai Cohen Website at Concord Records.