Colors: Hearing is Believing
A Talk with Avishai Cohen
by Paula Edelstein
The aesthetic association between sound and color was first rationalized by the philosopher John Locke in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding sometime in the 1600s and the color hearing of Avishai Cohen on his latest Stretch Records release asserts its authenticity. He unites our individualized and special senses in a myriad of listening opportunities on COLORS, his third release for Chick Corea’s label. Avishai Cohen knows how his bass playing fits into today’s musical world and COLORS offers you all the musical styles inherited from his heritage and through his participation in the study and realization of music that fills his soul and yours. In my humble opinion, the young genius possesses perfect pitch and as a result is able to realize the dual sense of sound and color.
Avishai Cohen wrote thirteen songs that put the 30-year old genius at the forefront of his extremely expressive acoustic and electric bass, piano, Fender Rhodes and vocal instruments. He occupies a very important place because of his experimentation with and arrangements of Latin, Middle Eastern, Russian, and Eastern European rhythms that construct his repertoire on COLORS. From romantic songs inspired by Russian composer Rachmaninoff to technical resources utilized from his transcription of Bach’s cello suites, each bass line is a different color. Cohen also presents Latin bass lines, bass lines in a funk/fusion style, electric bass chops and a rhythmic improvisational language that his listeners have come to know and love. The musical opportunities presented on COLORS for his listeners, as well as for his ensemble are priceless.
COLORS is celebrated by Avishai’s sextet that consists of Jason Lindner on piano, Jimmy Greene on tenor and soprano saxophones and flute, Amos Hoffman on guitar and oud, Avi Lebovich and Steve Davis on trombones, and Jeff Ballard on drums and percussion. Guest vocalist, Claudia Acuña, Yagil Baras on acoustic bass, Antonio Sanchez on drums and a string quartet of Fred Sherry on cello, Tom Chin and Jesse Mills on violin, and Kenji Bunch on viola provide excellent accompaniment for Cohen’s compositions. COLORS has a significant place on the concert stage as well as an enduring work for sextet and will become one of the most celebrated works by Avishai Cohen in this century. With that in mind, I talked to Avishai during a recent break while appearing with the great Chick Corea.
JazzUSA: Hello Avishai. Congratulations on your new release COLORS. It ranks very high among your many virtuoso works and is beautifully combined with the emotional expression of the music from your world travels. I found it very visual and it has made an indelible impression on our musical senses.
AC: Thank you very much.
JazzUSA: You’re welcome. It’s great to hear you leading the ensemble featuring Jeff, Jason, Amos, Jimmy, Steve, and Avi. It’s my understanding that you composed most of the tunes for COLORS after an inspiring week at Sweet Basil in Manhattan and while on the road with Chick Corea’s Origin, but actually formed a piano trio to develop most of the music while you were in Israel. That’s an interesting story in itself. Is there something that you can share with our readers about how this piano trio came about?
AC: Yes, except that story is not totally correct, as you understand it! The order of things is… music is always written and developed as the days go by. So it might be with Chick on the road or my band on the road or me being anywhere that I write. But there was a period of time in Israel that I had like a month and a half that I had to be there. I made the choice to, well I played piano and wrote as always, but I called two friends that were there that are actually in New York now…Israeli players that are great players. We tried my tunes in a piano trio format because there was a little place in Jerusalem that accepted us every night. They didn’t pay us, but we ate some soup. A bunch of people came every night and it developed into a …the music lived and transferred and got the people’s energy and that developed this record. I then took, to New York, the written parts to the band, the band that I’ve been working with. We rehearsed. Then we had a week at Sweet Basil. Then we had the recording. Everything was planned so that we would do all this playing before the recording. So one thing led to the other and by the time we recorded it, I had the whole vision of it pretty much and everybody was comfortable to the point where we could make a record like COLORS — which is an exceptional record.
JazzUSA: It certainly is. Thank you Avishai for correcting me. I appreciate it. In your 30th year, you’ve written 13 selections for COLORS, arranged them, provided vocals, played electric and acoustic bass, and piano. You have really ‘stretched’ out on your third release for the Stretch label. It gives new meaning to the quote – “the third time is a charm.” Did you relate the mystical qualities of the number 3 in this release in much the same way that you relate notes to colors?
AC: No, not at all.
JazzUSA: I mean, it’s your 30th year, there are 13 selections, it’s your 3rd release for Stretch!
AC: That’s your vision. I must say that’s beautiful, but I did not think about it that way at all. And it’s even more beautiful because I discovered it like that because if I’d said… “OK 13 …3…and ….” If I’d planned it, it wouldn’t have the “realness” that it has when someone else picks it out of the fact. So that’s cool, but it wasn’t intentional. The “colors” thing too is something that I do feel and live and one of my spectrums and dimensions that I have in my life, but it’s not something that I think about too much. It’s just a creative thought that I wanted to put on paper to make the colors as realistic as they could be in relation to music.
JazzUSA: Chords, rhythms and entire compositions entail a major part of the aesthetic associations and metaphors used on COLORS. Has an aura surrounding any of your compositions ever caused you to leave it out because it may not exude the unity of senses or feelings that you are trying to convey? I mean, do you just tuck those away somewhere for another project?
AC: I’m not really, exactly sure about the question.
JazzUSA: Well I mean, you basically said that you feel certain colors when they emanate from certain chord progressions, and rhythms, such as a G major chord, for instance, appearing as light green or E minor could be dark red and F major would be light blue.
AC: Oh, of course. But that’s after the thought. These thoughts are fun thoughts after the matter…after the deed. After the music is done, which is the magic of whether it speaks to me or not, that’s the first thing. If it speaks to me then I leave it on tape and that’s what I want. Then I can say, “Yes this resembles this.” Or it’s there always but it’s not something that comes before anything concrete like the music itself.
JazzUSA: I am a true believer that color hearing is a purely subjective impression, similar to color perception by sensitive people…I must say that I’m there. “Shay Ke” is great.
AC: Shay Ke is a good friend in New York. He wrote this…I don’t know if you remember DEVOTION, but I had a poem written on the liner notes by a friend and that friend is Shay Ke. He writes a lot of beautiful songs. He wrote this song and I started writing a melody to it. That is the melody to Shay Ke. I just wanted to credit his spirit in the song. And what’s better than to just call the song by his name!
JazzUSA: You compose a lot of songs for the oud to play with the bass and have mentioned several times that Amos Hoffman’s playing has a one-of-a-kind, Funk-Middle Eastern flavor. On “Shay Ke” the section for his solo is framed by a warm, slow vamp, and background vocals from Claudia Acuña. Does the oud have certain COLORS after the fact for you Avishai?
AC: Yeah. Well, what the oud does to the bass is that it creates this “desert-colored yellow brown” line that I see.
JazzUSA: And then of course, your acoustic bass has all the COLORS of the rainbow. (Smiles)
JazzUSA: The song “Colors” is orchestrated for string quartet, two trombones and soprano saxophone and plays more from a Eastern European vibe or perspective than from the New York vibe of Smalls and Sweet Basil. The addition of the string quartet is new for this release as opposed to your previous two records, ADAMA and DEVOTION.
AC: Not exactly. Listen well to DEVOTION. There is a bigger and more involved string quartet on DEVOTION. But that’s ok. This is the second time I deal with string quartet, which I love. And what’s true about what you’ve said is that it does have an Eastern European vibe to it because for me it comes from the Russian type of melodic sense that I’ve gotten in me through Israeli songs that are taken from Russian melodies. So that’s definitely there. The music is inspired by people like Rachmaninoff and many other Russian composers.
JazzUSA: I must say that “Emotions” is really touching. Your duo with Avi Lebovich on trombone personifying his trombone voice is amazing. Along with your vocals, those of Claudia Acuña and Jimmy Greene’s flute, this song feels really complete. Was there a special time in your life that inspired this creative process? “Emotions” is a powerful statement in itself.
AC: I’ll tell you why. In the Fall of a year and half ago, we were in England doing some stuff with Chick and I was in a hotel. I was involved in the breakup with a woman I’d been with for a long time and I was in those days when the break up was in the head a lot… and in the feelings. And the head…more the head than the feelings. I was in my room and playing the bass and I came up with this bass line and started singing that top melody on it. I mean, I remember taping it with the tape and trying to sing over it…orchestrating a little studio in my room and coming up with a feeling that was very emotional. It was an emotional moment, so I called it “Emotions.”
JazzUSA: Avishai, your 30th year is stellar and the creative works that you’ve shared on Chick Corea’s Origin, Claudia Acuña’s WIND FROM THE SOUTH, Jason Lindner’s PREMONITION, Tim Garland’s MADE BY WALKING, Steve Davis’ PORTRAIT IN SOUND and now with COLORS is absolutely astonishing. Your aural colors are extremely vivid and especially brilliant! Is this your creative renaissance…I mean you’re playing, producing, arranging, composing in so many styles. Latin, Middle Eastern, Eastern European, Russian, American and it’s all masterful. There’s no cut corners, nothing half-done or unfulfilling. Any “down time” or time for master classes or clinics on this year’s schedule?
AC: There are down times in many ways in life. A lot more than people think about people. But when it comes to music for me, you know, any time with music is precious time, but when you’re talking about recorded music that is for the benefit of a lot of listening ears in the world forever, it is a very precious time. And being that music is so important for me…I don’t know. I always want to be in that place where it’s as high as it can be. Hopefully, from what I hear from you and other people that like the music, it’s what’s happening. It delivers a very strong statement. I don’t want for anything less. It’s a very sad reality for me when it’s anything less than a strong statement.
JazzUSA: Oh, that could NEVER be, Avishai. It’s just you and it’s strong as it can be. That’s from the heart.
AC: Thank you very much for that.
JazzUSA: You’re welcome. It’s true. As a master bass player, you’ve mastered many techniques on the acoustic and electric bass. What do you feel are the best exercises for mastering the finger-crossing techniques or two-hand techniques for acoustic bass?
AC: I can’t say that there is one thing that would work for everybody; it’s a personal thing. But I can say that a very important thing to do, for anybody, is to play the scales…from bottom to end, slow and in time and as perfect as possible. Work on the intonation. Work on anything slow and really hear what you’re playing.
JazzUSA: Thank you. What new projects are approaching fulfillment from your great musical mind?
AC: In the last 2 and one half years, I’ve been…little by little, going to little studios in Jerusalem…going with my mom and recording Sephardic Jewish songs that are very deep to me or it seems to a lot of people. The songs include, piano, guitar, bass and percussion that I’ve dealt with some friends and oud with Amos. It became eleven tunes, a half-hour of pretty, pretty songs that we put on a CD and it’s not…it’s just ours. That’s a very precious piece of work that I’ve been working on and I’m very happy with it. It’s very deep music and she sings great.
JazzUSA: I can imagine…something that we would cherish.
AC: Thank you. That’s one of the things. I’m also going to do some composing for a little classical group…for two pieces for some young classical music composers in Israel and that’s going to include my mom also. We’re also doing a trio record with Chick…and he’s kicking my butt with the bass lines!
JazzUSA: I can’t wait to hear those. Of all the songs you’ve written, do you have a favorite?
AC: I really believe in this record, not that I didn’t with all the others. But I really like “Voices,” the last track on COLORS.
JazzUSA: Will you be touring soon and if so, who is in the working group this time?
AC: With my sextet, yes. I’m going to Columbia for a clinic and a concert with my band. That’s not anywhere near anyone that wants to see the concert! But then I’m playing in New York for a week at Sweet Basil from November 7th to November 12th; later at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C and we might have something in Boston too. Hopefully some West Coast dates also.
JazzUSA: We certainly hope so Avishai. Who’s in the working group?
AC: Jimmy, Jason, Jeff, Amos, myself and either Avi Lebovich or Steve Davis.
JazzUSA: That’s great. Thank you so much for this interview Avishai, and again, congratulations on COLORS, your new release on Stretch Records. We wish you tremendous success. It’s great! Love and peace, Avishai.
AC: Thank you, Paula. So long, love and peace.