Avishai Cohen – Changing Man
As influential as a composer as he is imperious as a bass player Avishai Cohen has been setting the international jazz scene alight since the 1990s when he first emerged as the latest protégé in Chick Corea’s new acoustic band. Since then he’s emerged as a powerful leader in his own right, released a string of solo albums and continues to tour the world with one of the most explosive trios on the planet. We met up to talk about his album Seven Seas, but the conversation soon turned to many other topics to do with making music today and the ever changing musical landscape for a new generation of jazz musicians.
MF – What were your formative musical interests? AC – “Well I started on piano when I was young, but I had no idea what the bass was, other than the fact that when I was in my teens I understood that there was a bass guitar and for whatever reason, I still don’t remember what it was, I started playing electric bass when I was St Louis, living there for two years with my parents, where I had moved from Israel with my parents, from 84 – 86. Then I had a friend who was listening to Led Zeppelin and I started listening to those kinds of things and then I picked up the electric bass and started studying it and I really don’t know why it happen but luckily my teacher there had played me some music from Jaco (Pastorius) and some other great bass players and I just got immersed into it in a pretty serious way and practiced a bunch, and found a lot of joy. And then I was an electric bassist until I was twenty, when I had started working professionally in Israel as a young teenager and learned about this and that but was into jazz as well as pop, and rock and stuff, and had picked up as much as I could until the jazz side of things had become a bit more apparent and more serious. And then I noticed there’s this thing about the upright bass, where in jazz it’s used a lot and it’s the instrument and it looked challenging to me, and so it was, so at age twenty I picked up first upright bass and started practicing and starting from scratch in some ways because it is physically different to electric and it was a hell of a journey, it still is, but it has become what I am known for, my signature sound. So something very natural and beautiful happen where I have that it found me as much as I found it; physically and emotionally and cerebrally and in any kind of way, something kind of locked there and it became the preferred instrument for me to perform with, the instrument I feel most comfortable with. But I’ve stayed close to the piano and the electric bass and I have it on some of my records, much less than the upright but it’s definitely an instrument that I love as much and Aurora I have this tune that I used it on, called ‘It’s Been So Long’ that I sang with it, so it’s like it enabled me to get that side of things – like just singing with an electric bass with the overtones and everything, it’s such a special place, it helped me develop different compositions that I would never be able to with the upright, or the piano, so it’s an instrument on it’s own that’s very important in my life and in creation. Yeah then I started playing the upright and that brought me to New York, and there I developed into other things.”Was it a scary thing to go to New York? Did you feel that music would pull you through all that?“Yeah I did go through difficult times as any one would and does when they move to somewhere and that was the challenge of being in a different place, but the music was what kept me positive, vibrant and alive and resilient to whatever came about.” You learned on the job by throwing yourself in the deep and ended up playing with some heavy cats like Joshua Redman and Wynton Marsalis, was that a good educational experience for you?
“Well I was very hungry when I went there I was in a great time to learn, was open, and I’ve learned from many different influences I played in a reggae band on my electric, I played Afro-Caribbean and salsa and Latin jazz with some heavy cats, as well as straight ahead jazz as well as I had a rock band at a certain point, so I have really touched almost anything that was interesting and exciting for me, I’m that kind of person and I’ve gathered a lot of influences and information that have become part of my DNA, that today have enables me to come up with a record like Seven Seas or Aurora or whatever came before, but it’s an evolution and it holds many influences and now that I sing as well it’s opened a whole other spectrum.”Do you feel like you can now approach your music more as a singer song writer now? Is that your goal now?“My goal is to execute desires and emotions and creative juices as well as I can and as accurate and honest as I can, so may it be electric bass, or the upright, or the piano or singing or just playing it’s always serving the idea that I have at the moment of a composition or a song with or without lyrics I’m always striving to serve the writing or the actual story as best as I can.”Do you combine written notation and or just playing things and showing them to the band you have?“It’s a combination of the two, I write a lot but at the same time there’s a lot of room for expression and solo so the musicians they must be informed with my music for a while and be open minded, or free enough, to express their own take on the written material, more or less that they get the information that they take the inspiration from and interpret it from. It’s a fine balance and some are better at it and than others, it’s that balance that makes a record tick and makes the music happen, where it’s not too confined to anything, it’s those elements that come together and move it and make it interesting, both to listen at home or on a live show.”How did you absorb the folk influences from your homeland?“It’s hard to say accurately how it does but it’s a fact that it does, though anything has an effect on you when you are a sponge or when you accept yourself as someone that receives energy and information and translates it or makes something with it, to put it out again and make it flow through you. So everything is an influence but of course there are the influences that are more apparent more that you can pick out, it’s easier for you than for me because I’m just one organ (laughs), that translates my emotional ups and downs or whatever you want to call it, my emotional life into what I do but I’m sure that I grew up on certain influences in Israel that may be Mediterranean, or eastern European or things that came to Israel, or things that I heard on the radio, everything is an influence but I’m a sucker for a strong melody, a carved story, for me what takes me is something that’s got simplicity in that sense, that’s not trying to be anything too much, that’s just being but has an innocence to it, it’s a very fine line it’s difficult to find when you’re searching too far, you’ve just got to be attentive to yourself at all times and let yourself reflect on things and let yourself be able to capture those moments as best as you can. That’s really the on-going thing that never stops.” There are still artists in jazz today that feel they have to try and reinterpret the jazz tradition and find it hard to create their own sound, why do you think that is – seeing as you’re someone who has successfully done that? “It’s a phenomenon that’s interesting for me, I bump into it every once in a while, like England is interesting like that with jazz, it’s not really innovative that much I’ve got to say. Not in the people that I’ve heard here and not in the way they perceive it through the journalists that I’ve been talking to, it seems like it’s lost in that place where it’s never going to be as real as it is in the States, or in New York, but at the same time if it’s got a chance it’s not being taken, you know, to be you… to be you! I’m not saying that there isn’t any one like that here because I’m not informed about everything, because there’s always something pushing the envelope but it seems that in general, it’s not existing here as much. There’s like this fear of what’s allowed and what’s not allowed, which is totally not what jazz is about so it’s a bit disappointing in a way.” But then there are those guys like Jasper Høiby who we both know who are doing something different. “Yeah he’s a motherfucker, but he ain’t English bro! (Laughs) But he is living in England and that’s a choice and he’s got a scene, there are some serious guys around him.” But there’s also the college system that puts kids through these academic jazz courses in large numbers… “Man, it’s a confusion, because jazz is a very intelligent form of music, jazz is understated… so if you find your way of saying something with understatement in a good way, like where it’s not like bluntly in your face, there are very few people that have the delicacy in their being, and again you can count them on one hand. And at this point places like England, unfortunately, the ‘institute’ or the writers or the booking agents, or the festivals or the magazines they’re kind of afraid of their own selves, or they don’t really take chances, and they are trying to go with something that is accepted, which is not jazz! It’s done. Jazz is everything that has to do with the unknown being explored, or the unconventional being explored and you can look at it in many ways. But it’s not about instrumental free jazz, or whatever that makes it jazz, it’s bullshit. Jazz is for courageous creators and people, and there’s very few of them. I’ve found that every place has it’s very conservative side and those who push it, it’s always the same in every place that exists. When you are a real creator a real artist in that sense, you’re not a part of that, you are always lonely in your way, sometimes you feel you are not appreciated, sometimes you feel that you are super appreciated, but you’re not really a part of any of that, and that’s what makes you hopefully successful, and that’s the best way to be, to be successful in your own way. It could be forty people that come to your show, but they are really into it, that’s a certain kind of success, but then it might be four thousand people who come to your show and you know why they are coming and that’s super bad! And the only way to get there is to do what you want and like, honestly, with no fear of what people would think about it and just fucking jump… into the water. And that’s very rare man, but you detect those people right away, those artists, they’ve got a different look in their eyes, you know? (laughs) It’s true!” Miles Davis had it right? Or Jaco… “Ooh, what an example, or Jaco, yeah, but there are very few people like that today, it’s almost non-existent, maybe it’s just in my eyes. I guess back then too, how many did you have? You had Jaco, and Miles, and John Coltrane that just died for what they did and didn’t give a damn. And sometimes played for four people and sometimes played for four hundred thousand. It’s just a different breed of people.”
How have your long-term fans reacted to your new material? “Some – there’s certain hardcore fans, I don’t know if that’s of my music or jazz in general – but the ones that are fans instrumental music find it harder to digest a record where there are songs without solos but people are like that about everything, they like to know what they are getting and if you make a change they get confused and weak and it’s incredible to see that but as an artist your nature is totally opposite of most people. Your nature is to always change regardless so sometimes you loose some on the way, but you gain more another way. But for me I can only say this, the amount in hearing me, live or on record, is bigger than ever. And I haven’t done anything intentionally for that, I’ve just done what I like so it proves to be the best way, it really does, the only way. And I understand totally the people that prefer more instrumental or the ones that prefer more vocal I respect all of them, but at the end of the day the ones that are really attached to my music, they go with me everywhere. But it’s always coming from the same place, it doesn’t matter what dress you put on it” After the likes of Jaco and or Mingus or Scott Lafaro setting the benchmark for the bass in jazz, we’ve now really reached a point where we are almost beyond chops, what are your thoughts on this? “But if you think about it’s not Jaco’s chops or Mingus’ chops that have maintained your attention to them, it’s their whole voice and their writing that went beyond their instrument. And my career has been led by my writing more than anything else, more than my bass playing, that’s what made people stay after the solo, they see “oh, a good bass player, oh and now there’s some other stuff… “ I guess, it’s my speculation. It’s the stuff that will last when it’s coming from a true point and a real craft, it can’t be ignored.”How did other musicians react to your style of music when you first started putting it out there?“Well it’s always has to do with the way want to play it as well, otherwise I wouldn’t ask them, it’s always a joint effort though I must say I’ve been lucky with the music that I write, that great musicians always want to be a part of it. Well I discovered Mark Guiliana through his work with you, and he’s now doing his own bands and is on Jasper Hoiby’s most recent album, he’s just a wonderful musician.”
How was it working with Chick Corea in the way that you did? “Well playing with Chick was a dream come true, playing with a legend in his own time, and his experience and his artistry… sharing that on stage every night for six years was the strongest building point of my career in one time. It refined me as a musician and gave me a way to be who I am today as well, I’ve learned a lot about how to be a bandleader as well. Just being around him, and playing with him every night, and hearing and soaking up the stuff, it washed me with me many possibilities and inspiration, mainly inspiration.”Do you listen to a lot of stuff now?“As much as I can – when I come into town, like young musicians come to me with records, I’m always interested in hearing it, like Jasper’s record, the one before he played with Mark, that caught my attention. But I listen all the time, different things on Youtube that people tell me about, you can hear anything in two seconds these days!” Yes it’s a shame that today in spite of that there are much fewer opportunities to learn music through those building block, interpersonal relationships to the music and the musicians… “I wouldn’t want to experience it any other way, I feel bad for these [young] guys, but on another tip, they’ve got some shit that we didn’t – it always comes down to the same thing, you’ve got to come out of a big crowd, you have to be unique in yourself and very determined to make a statement, and then it’ll come out, out of you.”