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"There's a bass line that sounds like something between Beethoven and a death metal group:'
Bassist Avishai Cohen has in the last decade of his prolific, high-level 20-year career, moved from bass hero and bandleader, into the echelons of significant stylistic innovator and powerful musical mentor . Known for spotting the stars of tomorrow, his gifted current trio of pianist Nitai Hershkovits and drummer Daniel Dor has helped him produce one of his strongest albums to date: From Darkness. Kevin Le Gendre spoke to Cohen about how his young charges push him and the music beyond the limits.
Most contemporary jazz musicians
work in a range of groups but many feet that there is a particular kind of band
that acts as home, a place to which they feet bound to return time and again.
Personnel may change but the instrumentation, like a steady heartbeat, remains
the same. For the Israeli double bassist and composer Avishai Cohen that staple
ensemble is bigger than a duo but smaller than a quartet.
"Basically I never stopped playing with a trio," he tells me on a clear phone line to his home in Motsa IlIit, just outside of Jerusalem. "The trio is always the main engine in my music, sometimes it's with strings or sometimes it's with horns or different things but it always remains the main core of what I'm doing. It's enough because of the piano, and my writing for me to able to convey my thoughts and feelings. Whether I'm with other musicians or in the trio itself, I think in terms of the trio."
This maxim has just materialised on the band's From Darkness, which emerges as one of the early key releases of 2o15. Built on the musical raw materials -middle eastern and Latin rhythms, European classical harmony and western pop sensibilities -that have declined Cohen's career since he debuted on the Smalls scene in New York almost two decades ago, this new work enriches a discography that has now swelled to some 15 titles. This is a substantial figure for an artist who, although having had the not insignificant honour of recording for Blue Note France, largely issues work through his own Razdaz label.
Independent and industrious, Cohen, resident in Israel since 2007 following 15 years in New York, chooses his musicians discerningly and the ... Darkness trio features two stellar collaborators in 27 year-old pianist Nitai Hershkovits, the bassist's duet partner on 2o12's Duende, and drummer Daniel Dor, a 28 year-old graduate of the New School in Manhattan. Following several international gigs with the band in the past few years, the leader thought it was time for the tapes to roll.
"We do many concerts as a trio during the year, we became very solid and something happened in such a way that I really knew it was time to document another trio, which I hadn't done for eight years," the 44 year-old reflects. "I have one trio record really, Gently Disturbed, which has become liked by many fans. Since then I haven't done it so the fact the trio sounds so great made me just want to document it."
As is often the case the last player to join the group did so on recommendation from an existing member. Hershkovits had already built a strong chemistry with Dor in a number of other groups and duly put his name forward to Cohen who hired him pronto. The impact of the new arrival is not something the leader wants to understate at all.
"Something really came together when Daniel joined, it put a different kind of weight on things," Cohen gushes. "He has enough of a sound or character so that the music is to do with him as much as anybody else, il not more. Since he joined the trio moulded into this thing it had to get to, something that's really solid. I never had an agenda but it's as il there's an agreement on rhythm.
"What did Daniel change in my trio sound?" Cohen muses. "Weil, it's like a heavier sound, but in the lighter parts of it he brought this delicacy that I've never really had from any drummer, so the range of dynamics from his playing in a trio setting is so effective and so strong.
"You know I think a lot of the character of bands or records ... it comes from the drummers," Cohen argues. ''The greatest bands have the greatest drummers, whether it was Led Zeppelin with John Bonham or The Police with Stewart Copeland or John Coltrane with Elvin Jones .
"Daniel has the quality; he has a stamp in the way that he plays: everything is very clear. It's a very assertive and present kind of drumming with this beat, this bigger than usual sound than you would hear in jazz, and also compositionally we can kind of feed each other as a result. I basically wanted to make a record with more groove, and luckily my compositions went there and provided that for me.
"On the second tune on the album 'Abie' there's a bass line that sounds like something between Beethoven and a death metal group and it was something I realised after we recorded, where I just had to say to myself 'wow the energy here is not the usual energy of a jazz CD.'
Distant though they may be, Cohen's days as the junior player in bands are worth recalling. Although he worked with two very significant members of his peer group, Danilo Perez and Kurt Rosenwinkel, the leader who put him in a much brighter spotlight was Chick Corea, co producer of Cohen's 1998 debut Adama as well as his boss in the sextet Origin, then the pianist's own trio. Cohen has an important point to make about the ultimate value of that crucial stage in his career for all concerned. Such a high profile gig had to have carpe diem moments.
"I never wanted to be just another bassist for someone like Chick," he states. "I wanted to be special and strong and affect him as much as he did me. When I did get the chance to start playing with him I'd already known a lot of his music and I sensed that it would not be enough to be another even very good bassist who could execute his music. I left that he wanted me to bring something new, fresh and challenging to him. I was challenged and enjoyed growing and learning so much from him, but I think that he also got something from my enthusiasm. Chick doesn't just want people to make him look good; he really wants a push and a kick in the butt in a good way. I was happy to be able to do that and learn a lot and get inspired to just become my own bandleader from one of the best teachers.
"Things have come lull circle then. Cohen is now Corea to Dar and Hershkovits, an experienced player and leader developing music with accompanists who have grown up in a world that is vastly different to the one that he knew as a younger man. Needless to say there is an expectation on Cohen's part that their personalities will be sufficiently strong to ensure that he is not the one who can lounge in a comfort zone by dint of his achievements to date. He needs stimulus.
"Oh my god... so much! Every time we play they challenge me. I always seem to get my ass kicked in a good way," he says with a hearty chuckle before going on to expand on his original point.
"You know I think they control the language that we have and to me they're like the new generation in jazz because they can play pretty much anything, but not just play it, really make something out of it. They are so informed about so many things; they play very intricate music like it's their own. I get so much inspiration from these guys."