Avishai Cohen’s Symphonic Vision


Avishai Cohen with conductor Alexander Hanson and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

(Photo: Bernard Rie)

Bassist and composer Avishai Cohen has been dreaming big for a long time. And part of that dream has been to expand his vision of making music from the trio format that he has favored in jazz to the grand stage of blending that trio with a symphonic orchestra.

With the release of his latest recording, Two Roses (Naïve/Believe), the Israeli-born artist has turned that ambition into reality. Collaborating with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, conducted by Alexander Hanson, Cohen and his trio mates Elchin Shirinov on piano and Mark Guiliana on drums turn in a lush program of 14 songs that put Cohen’s composing, arranging and vision on full display.

Frank Alkyer, DownBeat’s editor and publisher, caught up with Cohen through an email conversation to learn more about the project as well as take in Cohen’s heartfelt homage to his mentor Chick Corea, who passed away in February.

Frank Alkyer: You mention that recording with an orchestra is nothing like making a jazz record. What are the challenges? How do you overcome them? What are the rewards? You have been working toward this kind of fusion of jazz trio and orchestra for some time. Why did this album happen now? Why did you feel this was the right time?

Avishai Cohen: When I started, it seemed a natural time to do it because I have been writing and arranging more and more for strings for years. I’ve always dreamt of making it a whole project. My classical training, other than studying classical piano from 10 years old, has been mainly listening to a lot of great composers. My studying of Bach, Mendelssohn and even Béla Bartók in my younger years triggered my hunger for classical music.

Working with classical musicians was more difficult to start with because they work differently, even just in the fact that they are used to playing through written music from scores, and we are used to improvising. That‘s what makes it different and also adds to the music in a very special way.

For many years I thought of writing some of my existing music and new compositions for a full orchestra. It seemed more like a fantasy for a while, but at a certain point, it felt like the right time. So I decided to contact some good orchestrators and begin the journey — diving into the assignment, getting deeper and deeper into it — and within a few years this incredible body of work was ready to be performed and recorded.

I engaged several wonderful arrangers/orchestrators along the way [who were] connected to the classical world, working closely with them day by day, such as Robert Sadin from the U.S.A., Jonathan Keren from Israel and Per Ekdahl from Sweden, great musicians in their own right.

Alkyer: I love that you mention that you have devoted yourself to many of the same songs your whole life. What draws you to songs like “A Child Is Born” or “Two Roses”? What does it take for a song to earn your devotion?

Cohen: “Two Roses” is a lifetime project for me. It reflects where I have been and where I am today.

The two songs you refer to, I have arranged and visited many times. I think the fact they were so well-written originally, they tell a story within a story. They touch people — be it when I play live or have recorded them. The original notes are so good, but it’s wonderful to arrange them and bring out another side to the music.

I never grow tired of great music and storytelling. They move me. And from my live shows and ongoing feedback from fans, they have also enjoyed and embraced them. They both, as others, engage you, and you want to find out more, what they mean, whatever language. They are just two examples of songs that have been around me for years and will also be there for years to come.

It’s the original craftsmanship and creation that makes them special to me, and many others. So this is my way of celebrating them and others that are included on Two Roses and other previous releases of mine over the last 20-plus years.

Alkyer: Did you walk into this recording a little more nervous than you’d usually be, or was it like pulling up a comfortable chair?

Cohen: It was challenging! Over the past five years, I have completed many live shows with orchestras, so I was getting used to it a bit. But I must say, I needed to adapt myself in the beginning. In the jazz trio formation, we are used to improvising more. With this big orchestra, you need keep in mind to read the scores, as this is how an orchestra is working. So it’s finding a balance between reading the scores and to include the small solos and improvisations in between, at the right time. No doubt with such big orchestras, you need to have a conductor who understands your music and rehearse before the concert or recording to be sure we are all aligned and bring this real thing, this music. I have to say Mark and Elchin — my trio — performed with such finesse and understanding at every moment.

Alkyer: What were the biggest surprises in recording this project? What worked? Was there anything that didn’t work, that had to be scrapped?

Cohen: I was creating an atmosphere. It was all set in the original arrangements, how to legitimately entwine both engines to one whole. I wanted to tell stories and balance those with integrity for the music and original notes, never losing the heart of the song and music. I have lived all my life with certain songs, and to capture them like this is a total blessing.

We made, of course, a selection of the songs. We recorded, and I think only a few never made it, so far. I was asked to record a few more songs, as always, to cater for other possibilities down the line. I do know that the double vinyl release of Two Roses has two bonus tracks, “Seven Seas” and “Overture ‘Noam,’ Op. 1,” and I wrote over the past few years other new compositions that are included on the final album.

Alkyer: One of the joys of this recording is the lush beauty of hearing such a large collection of musicians during this time of pandemic. When did you record this?

Cohen: We recorded this in January 2020, just before the pandemic, so without any restrictions at that time, and us not knowing what we all faced globally. So we were lucky we had completed the whole project, at the right time.

Alkyer: As we reopen with live music in the United States and around the world, do you plan to take this material on tour? When will we be able to catch your trio playing live with an orchestra?

Cohen: The sooner the better. We have some “options” in the U.S. within the next year, which I cannot reveal right now. However we will as always be announcing the latest news on my website.

Honestly, I really miss the stage. I have some trio shows confirmed right now in Europe. And in August, a residency is booked at the Blue Note New York (with the trio). Fingers crossed this pandemic is over soon, and we all can enjoy coming together again at live shows. It will be a big party! And I expect there will be many emotions from fans and all of us.

Alkyer: I’m old enough to remember when you first came onto the jazz scene, and I’ve read and heard interviews with you talking about your early days in New York busking on the subways and working construction jobs to get by. In those early days, what were your goals? What did you think success would look like? And, do you ever stop to look back at how far you’ve come?

Cohen: When I came to New York, I had a plan and wanted to succeed. I needed to be there. It was the place to be. So I was going to make it happen, any way and any how. Working in construction was part of it. I’ve always felt I need to work hard to reach my goals, and I wanted to perform. So, I did what most musicians do — a lot of gigs and have a job on the side. It’s good to school yourself this way, I think. I had a great time in New York. Every time I visit now, I see friends from that period — always good to see them, and some great friendships were made there. As then, I still strive for perfection. I practice every day to become better and better.

Alkyer: Chick Corea was a friend and mentor of yours. With his passing, could you please comment on what Chick meant to you as an artist and as a person?

Cohen: Chick was like a father to me. We were very well connected musically for more than six years. He was an early believer of my playing and my music, to the point where he produced my first four albums, from 1998 to 2001, on his Stretch label.

I miss him every day and, to be honest, I’m still trying to deal with this loss. We were always in touch through the years, and I learned so much from him. He was always gracious, giving, and taught me how to share my music and performances with the audience. He also taught me how to be a band leader, in many ways, and share the stage with those around you in the moment. He will always be in the air and space I breathe.

A true gentleman and inspirer to me and others. Yes, a musical genius. I am so fortunate to know him and spend so much time with him on such a personal level. DB

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