Avishai Cohen, born in Kabri, Israel on April 20th, 1970, grew up in a multicultural family whose roots were found in Spain, Greece and Poland. At home, music was always in the air, with his mother Ora, an artistic influence, listening to both classical and traditional music. Avishai’s musical journey began when he was nine years old, when he began playing the piano. After moving to St. Louis, Missouri with his family aged fourteen, he continued to study the piano and began to play the bass guitar. The electric bass put a spell on him when his teacher introduced him to the music of luminary bassist Jaco Pastorius. Back in Israel, Avishai joined the Music and Arts Academy in Jerusalem to further explore the bass universe. At the age of 22, having served for two years in an army band, he decided to take a big step and moved to New York city.
Avishai arrived in a wintry New York, January 1992. Moving to the ‘Big Apple’ was a challenging decision, emotionally as well as professionally. The young Israeli had a tough beginning; performing on the streets and working in construction to get by. These small steps gave his music a unique sense of authenticity. He studied at the New School in New York City with such artists as Brad Mehldau and was soon to be performing and recording with Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez’ Trio, reflecting the essential role that Latin music played in Avishai’s early years whilst in New York.
In 1997 a call from Chick Corea changed everything. Avishai had passed one of Corea’s friends a demo tape without particular hope of being noticed. Chick listened to it in his car and called Avishai back a few weeks later, blown away by its freshness. As a member of “Chick Corea’s New Trio” and a co-founder of Corea’s ensemble, “Origin”, for over six years Avishai became an integral part of Chick’s music and received the opportunity to fine-tune his skills as a bassist and composer. Performing with Chick Corea played an important part in shaping his musicianship, which led Avishai to consider Chick as a teacher, colleague and friend.
Avishai’s first four albums, (Adama, 1998 Devotion, 1999 Colours, 2000 Unity, 2001) were released under Corea’s label ‘Stretch / Concord Records’ and already featured the essence of his music and original compositions; Mediterranean and Latin influences, and the use of horns and vocals created a sound that was truly unique. Unity, Avishai’s fourth album as a leader and the first to showcase his skills on piano, deserves a special mention. The album was recorded with the International Vamp Band, a group of fellow musicians formed by Avishai, from different parts of the world (Mexico, Argentina, Cuba and Israel). The idea behind the cutting-edge project was to allow different cultures interact and converse using the medium of music, delivering a message of peace and harmony.
The growing range of projects he was involved in led Avishai to create his own record label with his manager in 2002, ‘Razdaz Recordz’, enabling him to follow his own path as well as record talented young musicians he believed in.
Lyla (2003), Avishai’s debut release on Razdaz, reflected his multitalented artistic personality, ranging from Latin rhythms to electronics, and jazz. At Home (2004) can be regarded as a metaphor defining Avishai’s music, if indeed it can be put into words: “music makes one feel at home everywhere”. Most followers will also recognize At Home featuring the composition ‘Remembering’, an evocative ballad performed with trio and probably the most demanded encore at his live performances, as well as being highly favoured for TV and film use.
The cosmopolitan Continuo (2006) followed with great success and displayed the magic of a working band. In 2007, the live recording As Is, Live at the Blue Note marked his return to New York for a series of concerts at the legendary Blue Note jazz club. With Gently Disturbed (2008), Avishai achieved a masterstroke, hitting the right balance between a powerful trio recording, and delicate compositions. This release was an amalgamation of melody and groove, complexity and simplicity that redefined the concept of jazz, and ‘raised the bar’ for fellow Jazz musicians. After spending much time in New York, Avishai returned to his roots and moved back to Israel, releasing a fresh musical statement linked to his heritage and history, Sensitive Hours / Shaot Regishot (2008), attained gold sales status in Israel. It was the first album to introduce vocals in all its compositions as well as songs in Hebrew.
Avishai has always been open to various musical influences in his career and he has dedicated his creativity to music that is meaningful to him. A process that led him to incorporate the Ladino language (the language spoken by Sephardic Jews) and culture through his international release Aurora (2009). “I find so much honesty, truth and innocence in those songs that I wanted to keep the language and tradition and make people aware of it” says Cohen. The same year saw Avishai’s career begin a fruitful partnership with the prestigious jazz label EMI / Blue Note. This coincided with a special relationship and connection with the French audience. In Aurora, Avishai surrounded himself with a new musical family; a unique project that blended jazz, classical music and Sephardic traditions, finding the perfect environment to fully express himself as a singer. He shared all the languages he felt close to (Hebrew, English, Spanish and Ladino), and opening up to singing enabled him to reach a higher level of communication personally as well as attract listeners way beyond the borders of jazz.
Having already recorded Continuo and Gently Disturbed at the Swedish studio Nilento, sound engineer Lars Nilsson had also become a part of Avishai’s artistic family. He felt it was the perfect place to record Seven Seas (2011), his second opus with EMI / Blue Note; which entailed songs he had been performing on tour for some time. This led Avishai to also record Duende (2012) there; a duo album that featured the young and talented Israeli pianist Nitai Hershkovits, a musician he discovered in Tel Aviv and rapidly felt in tune with.
Duende – a Spanish word referring to the spirit, the groove – was the result of the intimate yet challenging format of the piano and double bass duo. It was indeed an enchanted and natural dialogue through music that shed new light on jazz standards, (Such as; “Criss Cross” by Thelonious Monk, Cole Porter’s “All Of You” as well as John Coltrane’s “Central Park West”) and brought these arrangements by Avishai to the fore. In this musical jewel, the first duo interlude in a prolific discography, Avishai proved once again he can never cease to surprise us.
The energy Avishai put into bringing the bass under the spotlight has pushed the boundaries of jazz and earned him international awards and recognition globally. He has continuously performed at the most renowned venues and festivals worldwide and it has enabled him to develop a strong network of followers and listeners, striking a chord with the audience wherever he has performed. The stage is undoubtedly a place where Avishai feels at home, so much so that attending one of his live performances is probably the best way to get acquainted with his musical universe. DownBeat magazine noted Avishai as a “jazz visionary of global proportions” while Bass Player magazine declared him as one of the 100 most influential bass players of the twentieth century.
Throughout 2013, Avishai presented a new, unique project, ‘Avishai Cohen with Strings’ to a worldwide audience. At the center of this project was a string quartet with a difference; Avishai replaced one of the violins with a viola in order to benefit from its darker timbre and create more depth. An oboist was further added to the ensemble and joined Avishai’s core trio. Avishai’s warm vocals in Hebrew, Ladino and Spanish subtly created a mood that complimented the luscious instrumentation on his own one of a kind composition. He found in this original configuration – “a classical setting with an escape into jazz” as he described it himself – the best way to fully express his love for both, through written music and improvisation and to let influences that have existed for years to blossom.
Almah (2013,) (meaning “young woman” in old Hebrew and “soul” in Spanish), was released on Parlophone/Warners and beautifully captured the interaction between the richness of composed music and the freedom of jazz in Avishai’s ultimate musical statement. It blends old Israeli, Middle Eastern songs such as “Arab Medley”, rearranged originals from previous Avishai recordings like “Song For My Brother” and also breathed new life into a jazz standard like “A Child Is Born” by Thad Jones. Avishai gave a very personal touch to the album, naming it after his first born daughter and adding his voice solely to the last piece, “Kumi Venetze Hasadeh” as if to sign off the record.
In 2014, Avishai extensively toured with his trio, and his Almah project ‘trio with strings’, worldwide. Furthermore, Avishai produced and presented All Original, released on his own label Razdaz Recordz, a beautiful compilation of music celebrating the growing young Israeli Jazz talents and scene. Avishai hand-picked the musicians featured on the album who he considers some of the leading young composers of this movement.
2015 saw the release of the new, highly anticipated trio album named From Darkness (Razdaz Recordz) featuring Nitai Hershkovits (piano) and introducing the talented Daniel Dor on drums and marked the next step in Avishai’s career. The Trio, a format that has always been present in his music and guides him on his artistic journey, has never been praised so much than in this album; outstanding for the unity and mutual listening between the three partners: “With this Trio, there is an immediate form of equality between musicians.”
“Here, three becomes one” says Cohen.
From Darkness combines the strength, the groove and the rhythmic challenges of original pieces such as “Lost Tribe” or “C#-“, with the sensitivity and fragility noticeable in “Almah Sleeping” or “Ballad for an Unborn”. Far from being a plunge into darkness, this release proves to uplift the listeners and the musicians: “If there is an effect I like feeling within myself whilst playing, it’s this one. It is the very essence of the music, a goal to achieve … in those difficult lives of ours, music can be a form of salvation. At least this is what it has always represented for me” says Cohen.
In Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem”, he wrote these penetrating lines; “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” It is through these majestic flaws, carved by humans and musicianship, that From Darkness lets the light radiate from an art that, more than ever, can legitimately claim to reach the truth of the human soul.
Halfway between respect for tradition and urge for new ventures: Avishai Cohen’s very own sound has never been clearer. Throughout his previous projects and musical partners such as; Trio, with Strings, Quintet and Duet, it has become evident that the musician and composer is breaking new ground in the classical world. Not surprisingly, Johann Sebastian Bach, admired for his mathematical approach with music, is a frequently cited source of inspiration by Avishai, for the soul and spirit his work conveys. ‘An Evening with Avishai Cohen’ features his dynamic core trio of double bass, drums and piano, while the sophisticated, legitimate integration of orchestra lends an added dimension to Cohen’s distinctive sound. Recent highlights on this new path into this world include collaborations with Malmo, Brno and Monaco Philharmonic orchestras and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra. Further classical performances will follow in 2016 with Orchestre National d’Île-de-France, Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra, Istanbul Opera Orchestra Strings Soloists and the Tonkünstler-Orchestra among many others.
Written by: Julie Diebolt