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)

When I first heard you, you were playing bebop fluently. Then in 2005, when I wrote a DownBeat Players piece about you, you said you’d fallen in love with West African music, music based more on groove. Now it seems you’ve presenting a balance between the rhythmic imperatives and the harmonic context.

I got to New York in November 1999, when I was 21. Before I left Israel, I was working as a professional trumpet player. I played jazz gigs, quartet gigs, played bebop, did commercial work, doing trumpet for sessions, rock ‘n’ roll, pop, electronic music. My first recording with effects on an album, I was 14 or 15, a local band—a great producer heard me and took me. TV shows, house bands ... just professional gigs, to get everything in place. Sight-reading, sound, vibe, section playing. I learned everything at a very young age. Also, growing up with a brother and sister who played [Yuval and Anat Cohen], you learned how to play in a section.

So I was already into hard-bop when I got to Berklee in 1997. Just after I got there, I did the Monk Competition and got third place. The competition doesn’t mean much, but all I’m saying is that I could play. I was already coming out of that world, and getting a little bored with the straightahead—although it’s still my passion and I love to do it. At that point I had a band called Lemon Juice Quartet with cats from Berklee who later on played in New York. That was avant-punk. We played the Knitting Factory many times, and did tours. It was the downtown scene; the people there didn’t know I play jazz, and vice-versa. I went to Smalls and did sessions, but I was involved in playing free, going on stage with a bucket of toys and whistles and plastic things. That’s what interested me at that time.

Of course, I took any kind of work I could. Cuban music, Venezuelan music, funk, playing with Milo Z’s band doing dance moves—though I decided not to do weddings or bar mitzvahs.

At Smalls, I played with Jason Lindner, Omer Avital and that crew—everything was original music. But when I’d play in a jam session, which I never loved but sometimes I’d do it, people would react, “Hey, man, I didn’t know you play straightahead like that.” What do you mean? That’s my main thing that I do well, because I love it, and I studied everyone and their mother as far as trumpet playing. Anyone you name, I’ve transcribed a million of their solos. That was my language, my passion, but I didn’t get to really do it in New York, and I didn’t see the importance of doing it that much. People on that scene never called me for gigs. Sometimes I’d sit in with Harry Allen or Grant Stewart, who are masters, and every time I’d feel embarrassed that I’m not invested enough in that style, because they do it so honestly. I felt maybe I’m not as honest. Maybe that’s why I stopped playing it a little bit, too, because once you don’t play bebop, you cannot just go back and play it. It’s a muscle, it’s a tool, it’s a life, it’s everything. You can’t be half.

The free scene also bummed me. I felt that a lot of people play what they call “free,” but it’s a style, and no one was free. Everyone was locked in on what “free music” is supposed to be. I did not find my voice in it. But I was lucky enough to meet Ornette Coleman and go to his place, and sit with him and talk with him and play with him.

How many times did you do that?

Many times. I cooked for him. Vegetable soup. He liked it. Once he was alone when I came to visit him. Next time I came, I thought, “Maybe I’ll just bring some groceries and ask him if he wants…” So I cooked there in his place. It was amazing.

Did Ornette play trumpet with you?

No. He played saxophone. So I got to feel what free is from the master of it. Maybe 90% of the time I was there, he just played in E-major, and pretty much diatonic the whole time, too—and still making worlds with those things. It was a first-hand lesson of what free really is. I get that, too, when I listen to Wayne Shorter or people like that, who really demonstrate what it is to be free. That’s my aim and my goal in my music. I want to get there. But not in a style. I don’t want to play a style of free-jazz.

But before I was to record with Triveni, my sister said, “Why don’t you throw in a few standards, too? All my life, I’ve loved hearing you blow on changes, but I never hear you do it anymore. I miss it.” She said, “I think it’s also going to be good, because people should know that you do it.” That also connected with the music I was writing. So with Triveni, I’d happily play tunes just because I liked them. I can play a blues, or play Don Cherry, or “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” or whatever I want, and then mix it with my music.

But before I got to Triveni, I’d started to venture into world music and African music. I did two concept albums, After The Rain and Flood, that had no standards, all originals; it’s not swinging, not that kind of music. Daniel Friedman, who plays drums on those albums, introduced me to Oumou Sangaré. It changed my life.

This year you’ve been playing with Danilo Perez in the Jazz 100: Dizzy, Ella, Mongo and Monk project. Are you deconstructing the standards or playing them straight?

Every arrangement I brought to SF Jazz Collective during my five years there, from the very first one, “Sir Duke,” was super-deconstructed. “Matrix” by Chick Corea,” super-deconstructed. “Inner Urge” by Joe Henderson, super-deconstructed. People know how it should sound. I wanted to bring my arrangements. If you really want to hear the original of “Sir Duke,” put on Stevie, because that’s going to be as funky as it gets.

The same with this new project. Danilo brought a few arrangements that are far-out with the harmony. I brought one arrangement. Chris Potter brought a Monk piece. I brought “Manteca.” It’s an arrangement from 10 years ago. It’s very messed up! It’s still grooving, it’s funky, but ...

I get the sense that the trumpet comes fairly naturally to you, and you work hard to build from that. Whether or not that’s the case, can you speak about your relationship to your instrument?

I think you’re right that I’m a natural player. But even though there is something natural about it, my life changed after I studied with Laurie Frink, using that almost athlete-like mentality—do the work, let the muscle learn what it needs to do, and don’t think too much. I’m not an instrument-oriented person. People switch seven mouthpieces during a gig. I played the same mouthpiece for years; I played the same horn for years. After my other horn died, I needed a new horn, and that’s what I play. It’s a great horn, by Josh Landress, a guy in New York. That’s always been my mentality. Once I find something that’s working, I stay with that.

You wear a mouthpiece around your neck as a sort of decorative thing, but it’s functional.

Yes, it’s functional. I use it on airplanes, walking in the morning to school—that’s where I warm up. Lately I haven’t been using it much, but for a long time I did.

You also have a fair amount of body art. Does it comment on your work as a performer or your artistic activity? Or is it coming from a different place?

I don’t know. I guess it’s connected in a way. First of all, it’s expressing yourself. It’s finding who you are through that. It’s not for everyone. I’m not encouraging everyone to get tattoos, but if you’re into it, then your choices of what you’re getting, when you’re getting it, where you’re putting it … that’s part of self-expression. I think it’s a natural thing. It was not a conscious choice, “Let me find a way to express myself through body art.” At a certain point with tattoos, you know something needs to be in a certain place, and you want it. When I feel that strongly, I get it. I don’t think about it. But I guess if you analyze it, yes, it’s some kind of self-expression. Today it’s so common that it’s not shocking. Someone without a tattoo, it’s like, “Wow, check this guy out; he has no tattoos; it’s so unique.”

You recently moved to Goa.

The seed that I’d want to live there was planted eight years ago, when I was in Goa for the first time. I love India. I love the Indian people. I love their tradition. I love their generally non-violent mentality. Not that there’s no violence in India, but in general, there’s less anger. Tel Aviv is so heated, and New York is a rough place. Also, I grew up in Tel Aviv, so I love beach life. I want my kids to see sunset on the beach every day. It took eight years to find the right timing to make the move. My kids, who are 7 and 11, go to a school there. They’re barefoot every day. I do yoga four times a week. I get to practice more than I practiced anywhere else I’ve lived. Of all the places I’ve been, it’s the closest I’ve been able to just be present—present with my kids, present with myself, with my wife, with music, with the search, with reading, with studying.

It’s also connected to the fact that for the last two years I’ve mainly been working as a leader, which gives you control over your time. When you’re a sideman, people tell you, “You have to go here, you have to go there…” Now I choose how I spend my time when I’m not on the road. I look forward to getting back there. DB

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