Q&A with Avishai Cohen: Real Freedom, True Presence

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Avishai Cohen at the Siena Jazz Summer Workshop in Italy. (Photo: Caterina Di Perri at Siena)

At 2:30, two hours into a lunch break on day three of the first week of Siena Jazz Summer Workshop, trumpeter Avishai Cohen was playing the drum set in the well-equipped practice room—one of 20 on the second floor of the workshop’s facility in the city’s 16th-century Medici fortress. In an hour, he would be teaching his second class of the day on instrumental technique and would be overseeing the second of two combos he was guiding. His work-day had started at 9:30 a.m., and he’d been up late the previous evening, following a cusp-of-midnight concert in the courtyard of the 14th-century Palazzo Chigi-Saracini that houses Siena’s distinguished Chigiana Musical Academy with fellow first-week faculty members Gilad Hekselman on guitar, Drew Gress on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums, who applied themselves to creating informed, collective deconstructions and rearrangements of the iconic tunes “’Round Midnight,” “Hot House” and “Infant Eyes,” before concluding with a blues.

Cohen’s next stop would be Newport, Rhode Island, where he would teach under the auspices of Berklee’s Global Jazz Institute with Danilo Pérez, with whom he would conclude this year’s edition of the Newport Jazz Festival in a special “Dizzy, Mongo and Monk at 100” ensemble. Then he would return to Goa, India, where he recently moved with his wife and two children, before launching autumn tours in the U.S. and Europe with his quartet (Gadi Lehavi on piano; Barak Mori, bass; Gilmore, drums) behind the 2017 ECM release Cross My Palm With Silver, and its 2016 ECM predecessor Into The Silence.


This is an intense period.

Right now, semi-intense. Everything is in place with my quartet, and we have tours booked for next year, which is a great feeling. As far as writing and the music, I’m actually in a chill period, because I just released two albums almost in one year. I’m not going to rush to a new recording, so I’m not on any deadlines to write new music.

But I’m working on other things that add to the workload. For about two months, I was very invested in home-schooling my kids with my wife. I barely touched my horn. It was a great experience, but now I’m paying the price, of course, and trying to build my chops back up. Also, besides teaching, practicing, studying and listening to music, I was working on a video art installation that I did with a great video artist [Roy Nitzan] that just opened at the Tel Aviv Museum. It took a lot of time. And I’m working now on my festival, Jerusalem Jazz Festival, which will take place at the end of November. It’s smaller than the Red Sea Festival, which my friend, Eli Degibri, does. It’s inside the Israel Museum; all the shows except for one are in the galleries, surrounded by Picasso, Basquiat ... a beautiful atmosphere. I’m approaching my deadline, and I’m a deadline kind of person. If I’m not close to the deadline, I usually won’t start.

That’s what happened with my last album, Cross My Palm With Silver. A couple of months after Into the Silence was out, Manfred Eicher asked me if I would do another album, perhaps because the sales were very good. He said, “Just let me know when the music is ready, and we’ll set up a date.” I said, “Let’s set up the date, and then I’ll have the music. If you want to wait until the music is ready, it will never be ready. I know I’ll have all the time in the world to keep procrastinating, or I’d just keep writing, and then when do you know it’s done?”

Tell me more about the ECM albums. Into The Silence was a response to your father’s passing. Did you compose the music for Cross My Palm with an overarching theme in mind? I have the impression that the new one is a meditation on violence ...

Yes. Current events. It was revealed to me as I was writing. I write what I feel at the moment, but on the previous one, I didn’t have to ask myself, “What is this moment about?” Some of the titles came after the recording—it wasn’t like an immediate, “I’m going to write a song about this feeling for my dad.” But every single second was for me about coping with my father’s absence. It was a big challenge, because not only was it very personal music, but I shifted on every angle of the music. After a decade with a trio, the first ECM album was a mix, half-and-half of quartet and quintet. New musicians—the very first time we played together as a band was the session.

You’d played a lot with Yonathan Avishai in the group Third World Love, and with Nasheet Waits in your Triveni trio.

But never together with Eric Revis, who played on Into The Silence, as did Bill McHenry for years, but never really had a chance to play with.

As I was writing for that first album, I knew that I was dealing with a new direction, though I wasn’t exactly sure what the vibe was, and I didn’t try to find a vibe that would fit the ECM style—although it did fit. I was listening to a lot of classical music. You can see traces of that direction before that in Triveni, and if you check out, for example, my arrangement for “Inner Urge” that I did for the SF Jazz Collective my last year there, you’ll hear that direction.

I didn’t know what it would sound like, but it felt very real, very honest. This music hadn’t been played by this band or any band. I hadn’t even been playing the music on my horn. I didn’t send anything to the musicians or to Manfred. We were supposed to have one rehearsal, and then record the next day. But the rehearsal never happened, because of delayed flights, and the cymbals didn’t make it, and then, by the time we were ready to start, it was either rehearsing or dinner. It was 7 o’clock. You know that, in the south of France, by 9 o’clock, there will be nothing to eat. So it was an executive decision—dinner or rehearsal. Of course, it was dinner and good wine, and a good night’s sleep, and then we have to see.

For example, the opening track, “Life And Death,” was the very first time this tune was played, and that made it to the album, because it had a certain vibe. It’s pretty simple, with a melody and changes for solos, so it’s easy to read it through and play. Other tracks, not so much. We had to find “Into The Silence,” which is a completely different type of composition, with a vague melody hidden inside it. “Quiescence” is a vibe tune, just one chord, where you have to find that real specific vibe. Everything is written on “Dream Like A Child,” and you find the improvisation within the written material. Actually, every tune is a little different in its treatment.

Does the album constitute all the material that you recorded?

I brought a few more tunes that we didn’t even get to. We put the album together as we recorded. After we recorded “Life And Death” we knew it would be the beginning. It was amazing to hear this new thing come to life that I’d been working on for months. We finished recording halfway through the next day, and on the third day we finished mix and master. Manfred’s help was tremendous. I would never finish a master in three days without him. He wasn’t at the session for Mark Turner’s album, Lathe Of Heaven, which I played on, so I didn’t know what to expect. I was a little afraid we might clash, that maybe he’d push for a place that I don’t hear. But it felt very natural. We agreed on the sequence, and things went smoothly. He’s done so many albums, and he’s heard everything, so I knew that as long as the music is there, I could not do anything that would scare him, or be too long, or too out, or too anything. When you’ve been playing, you have less perspective.

After Eicher assigned you the deadline for the follow-up, you generated the five tunes on Cross My Palm With Silver ... and maybe some more that didn’t make it onto the CD?

There were more, yes. Into The Silence was released in February 2016. Already in April-May, we talked about recording. Then we set the deadline for September. So I had four months to work on the music. Since the music had just poured out of me on Into The Silence, I thought it would be easy, but it was much harder than I thought. Suddenly, I didn’t have that natural thing of the first one, which was overwhelming and all-encompassing, because it was such a big subject ... my dad. I had to create it from blank.

I had a few albums that followed me through that period. Even though you might not hear the connection and it’s not supposed to be felt, Out To Lunch, for example, was a big thing in my head. It gave me something of the spirit that I wanted to grab, although it ended up something completely different—but at least it was a direction, a general vibe that I was searching for. Then I had to find it through the compositions. I was going to just write new music, but still I was overwhelmed by that emptiness. On the first one, I was so emotionally invested in what I was going through that I had zero questions.  Now, without that emotional investment, it was all the questions. What is it? What did I want?

As opposed to the first album, we had in our favor that we already existed as a band, and we’d done a few gigs before the recording. I didn’t have to wonder what the band sound is. There’s a different bass player, Barak Mori—but Barak did most of the touring in that first year anyway, because Eric Revis was busy. I thought that getting to play the music live would be helpful by making it tighter, but I learned it’s not so simple. You gain something, but you also lose something. The way the swing felt in a certain section on a live show might not translate as great into the album. Towards the end of the process, I realized that I was thinking about all this shit that’s going on around us—reading a lot, talking to friends about it. Not necessarily every day, not necessarily in connection with every tune—like meditating on a subject and then writing about it. I don’t work like that, because I write over time. But all those elements are in the titles. “50 Years And Counting” deals with 50 years of occupation.

And what about “Will I Die, Miss? Will I Die?”—what a title.

There was a video that came from Syria after the mustard gas attack. You see this poor kid, and this woman taking care of him, and he asks her that question: “Will I die, miss? Will I die?” He’s really wondering if he’s going to make it. I’m no longer living in Israel, but I was there at that time. Syria is right around the corner, so everything was very close. There’s that helpless feeling that everything you’re being fed is lies, that you’re being played all the time. Which media do you trust? What’s the relationship of media and politics? Even if you want to be active, what can you do to change what’s going on? I’m not bringing the solution, but just raising those questions, mainly for myself.

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January 2018
Esperanza Spalding
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