Born in Tel Aviv, trumpeter Avishai Cohen moved to the US to study at Berklee and won the Thelonious Monk competition in 1997. He recently released the fourth record in his own name for ECM, Big Vicious. He spoke to Sebastian by phone from Tel Aviv about life in lockdown.
What was the first album you purchased as a “jazz musician” that was particularly influential for you?
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It could have been Gerry Mulligan and Art Farmer – the quartet album News From Blueport. Everyone always talks about the quartet with Mulligan and Chet Baker, but the combination with Art Farmer was incredible. No chordal instrument, just getting to hear all the harmonies so clear. (It obviously wasn’t the only recording without a harmonic instrument I was listening to. Later on came Ornette, and others… so that sound of playing without a piano is very familiar to me.) The arrangements for two horns, so hip, interesting, and complicated but not over-complicated. My first album was with a trio without a piano, and it also led to Triveni (with Nasheet Waits and Omer Avital). Art Farmer also had that incredible soft sound, swinging, so melodic. And he brings out the harmony so beautifully – and not just technically.
What are you listening to right now?
I’m listening to a lot of classical music, mainly Ravel, Rachmaninov, Chopin, Scriabin. Other than that, a lot of rumba and salsa: Los Munaquitos de Mantanzas, I’ve put on some Israel ‘Cachao’ López, and some La Sonora Ponceña from Puerto Rico – and looking at my list I just heard some Chico Buarque… some Hector Lavoe…James Blake…
Have you done or watched any livestream gigs or events since lockdown?
I haven’t watched much I must say. I logged into a party – it was fun to see the people at home dancing – and I’ve done a few yoga lessons on Zoom. I did a masterclass for the trumpet players at Berklee, and a Q&A about the new album on Instagram. As for the whole experience, I find it all a bit weird. You win some and you lose some: it’s convenient, the travel from my living room to my computer is very easy. You don’t have to go anywhere, you can just log in and start talking from your couch. But although you can see the faces, it’s not the same. I always prefer to go out, meet with the people directly, sit to have coffee…
A memorable highlight in your career or education?
One of the highlights of my career happened this February, right before the lockdown. I had a big concert in the Opera here in Tel Aviv in front of a full house, completely sold out. I call it a highlight because I played with a great orchestra, the Israeli Camerata, playing my music arranged for orchestra by an amazing arranger working with me, Yevgeny Levitas. It involved three projects all together on the same stage: my duet with Yonathan Avishai, my quartet with Yonathan, Barak Mori and Ziv Ravitz, and also Big Vicious – with Uzi Ramirez, Yonatan Albalak, Aviv Cohen and Ziv Ravitz. Basically it was my three worlds colliding. And that already is amazing: to jump from the duo to the quartet, to move to the side to play with Big Vicious, to go back and forth. It was a tremendous night.
Is there another instrument you wish you played?
I do play a little bit of piano but I would love to know how to play the piano in a thoroughly professional way.
Has this time in isolation inspired any new creative ideas?
Absolutely. I’ve been writing new music. And I’m also working on a new project with Rejoicer. He’s a great producer and artist. He was also a little bit involved in the Big Vicious album. We started a project together half a year ago. But then we were supposed to be on tour and we weren’t supposed to even meet before June. Then both tours got cancelled so we’re both here in Tel Aviv. We started meeting again and working…there’s definitely going to be an album. And I’m writing music for my quartet. Things are coming…
What are you most looking forward to once this is over?
(laughs) Making money again.
A chance to plug a friend’s music right now…
I’m listening a lot to Rejoicer’s new album. It’s just been released on Stones Throw, called Spiritual Sleaze. He is in the realm of electronic music, but he’s also a great composer and is very melodic, very structured, and at the same time groovy and beautiful. It’s a really nice album. It hasn’t left my vinyl player for the last two weeks.
And finally, a word about your new ECM album Big Vicious. People might be expecting a certain thing from you based on your previous albums, a certain thing from ECM, and this is very different.
Yes, I always have to break some expectations. I’m not here to meet expectations, but to surprise people.
How have you found the reactions to the new album?
The reactions would have been the same no matter where it was released. They have been great, and the fact that it’s on ECM is just another angle. The involvement of Manfred [Eicher] has obviously had an influence on the album, but this is basically the music we have been playing for years. We’ve been performing as a quintet for six to seven years now.
I’m very happy. I know it’s not a conventional choice, but ECM is a label I love and where I feel very much at home, and I was pleased to find out I could release the album on it. It also has the same elements my quartet albums have. It’s deep and it’s a search, a quest, a journey. It’s musical and it has everything I love about music.
LINK: Big Vicious on ECM
I would have been interested to know what he thought about his namesake and fellow Israeli Avishai Cohen, the Double Bass player.