Trumpeter Avishai Cohen’s Quest For Tranquility

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In his band Big Vicious, Avishai Cohen plays trumpet and synthesizers.

(Photo: Mark Sheldon)

As the coronavirus moved across Europe in mid-March, trumpeter Avishai Cohen sat in his Tel Aviv home, contemplating the growing probability that his monthslong tour in support of Big Vicious, his band’s new ECM album, would be wiped out.

While someone else in his position might’ve been stressing about the situation—the loss of income and inability to share his music with listeners—Cohen sounded remarkably sanguine, in-line with the conscious decisions he’s made during the past decade to step out of the mainstream and slow down his life.

“This is my main thing right now: Live in the here and now, take things one day at a time,” he said during a phone interview. “I’m stopping everything I can, and stripping everything to the bone. I’m spending a lot of time listening to music, playing, going for walks, enjoying my kids.”

To those who have known Cohen well over the years, his decision to step back from the mainstream—to move out of New York City and disconnect from many of the social networks that musicians must embrace to conduct business—is no surprise.

“I’ve known Avishai since 1997, when we went to Berklee together,” said saxophonist Miguel Zenón, who was Cohen’s bandmate in the SFJAZZ Collective from 2010 to 2014. “He’s always struck me as someone who has a very laid-back attitude towards music and life in general, someone who lets things come to him. You can hear this in his playing and music making, but he’s like that as a person as well.”

Cohen, 42, has created a broad and deep body of work—encompassing multiple part-time projects, like his trio Triveni, with bassist Omer Avital and drummer Nasheet Waits; his quartet with Waits, pianist Yonathan Avishai and bassist Barak Mori; and the 3 Cohens, his “family band” with siblings Anat (clarinet) and Yuval (saxophone). In addition, the trumpeter has lent his distinctive instrumental voice to recordings by a diverse range of musicians that stretches from rock veterans like the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the up-and-coming singer/keyboardist Kandace Springs.

Having first played in public at 10 years old and toured with the Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Cohen was a seasoned performer when he arrived in Boston to attend Berklee College of Music on a full scholarship. He turned heads when he placed third in the 1997 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Trumpet Competition. Later, he relocated to New York and became a familiar face on the city’s club scene.

Zenón said it’s no surprise his friend’s career in the States had the trajectory it did.

“He’s one of those guys who can do pretty much anything,” the saxophonist said. “Nothing feels like it’s too difficult for him.”

With a tone and sense of spacious freedom steeped in Miles Davis’ work, Cohen was a welcome addition to the New York scene at a time when keyboardists were rediscovering electronics, drummers were looking outside the jazz canon for new rhythmic inspiration and string players were expanding their textural role in combos. But the trumpeter also had the type of jaw-dropping technical facility that drew comparisons to forerunners like Freddie Hubbard. And, as a composer, Cohen could create the kind of open-ended environments that invited collaborators to step inside and make the space their own.

“Even in through-composed pieces, [Cohen] is not dogmatic about dictating the flow and shape,” said Waits, who played with the trumpeter for 10 years and recorded five albums under his leadership. “He leaves things open to interpretation, so it’s different every time we play it. He captures some of the vitality that you would feel in an Ornette Coleman tune, but there’s always a certain element of freedom in his compositions.”

While his first decade in the United States was marked by a series of increasingly high-profile gigs, life at the epicenter of the jazz universe wasn’t sitting well with Cohen.

“I wanted to get out of the rat race,” Cohen said. “In New York, if you want to take a few months off to rest, you need to get a new mortgage or something. I wanted something that was exactly the opposite of New York; something simple and cheap that would let me sit, stay put.”

In 2011, Cohen, his wife and two children left New York to return to Israel, although his schedule continued to keep him on the road for more than half of each year. But that pace of life began to pale as well.

“Eventually, we moved to south India,” Cohen said. “It seemed to be the right place for four years. We liked it a lot. The kids had a good school. Life was easy and simple. I stopped chasing my tail. I would just do yoga, run, spend time with the kids.”

Other than playing with tabla master Zakir Hussain in Mumbai, Cohen said his Indian sojourn was not about the music of the place. “It wasn’t a musical situation,” he said. “I didn’t study the music of the area at all. India was just a place where I could relax and practice.”

Eventually, though, Cohen’s marriage ended and he once again relocated to Tel Aviv in early 2019. “I just had enough of it, so it was time to go back to Israel. I missed my friends and needed musicians around me again.”

But once he was back, Cohen found himself wondering exactly what kind of music he should pursue there. He realized one thing was clear: He didn’t want to start another quartet. It was time for something new—or at least a new spin on something old.

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August 2020
Terri Lyne Carrington
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