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Avishai Cohen + Nikki Yeoh’s Café Oran (EFG LJF 2021)

Avishai Cohen + Nikki Yeoh’s Café Oran

(Barbican. 16 November 2021. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Izzy Blankfield)

Avishai Cohen at Cso ada Ankara, October 2021. Photo credit: Gülcan Acar

Nikki Yeoh opened one of the most anticipated nights of the 2021 London Jazz Festival as she took to the stage with Café Oran, a project celebrating the music of Algerian-Jewish pianist and composer Maurice El Médioni. The London-based pianist was joined by Shirley Smart on the cello and Demi Garcia Sabat on percussion.

In a venue as large as the Barbican, Yeoh’s performance could have lost some of the intimacy that might have come naturally in a smaller jazz club – but this was far from the case. Yeoh’s thoughtful arrangements of El Médioni’s music, including ‘Samai Andalou’ and ‘Taktouk Andalou’, transported the audience to a dimly lit café in Oran as she meandered around Smart and Garcia Sabat.

Nikki Yeoh, Demi Garcia Sabat, Shirley Smart. Photo by Sass Hoory

Yeoh invited her audience to share in her admiration of El Médioni’s folk melodies with humour and virtuosity. The final number – a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’ – was an unexpected and profound reflection on injustice that showcased Yeoh’s range as a performer.

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Garcia Sabat’s exploration of a range of percussion instruments throughout the set was mesmerising. On the cello, Smart was both a sturdy bassline and a Grappelli-esque melodic voice.

Yeoh’s announcement that it was only the second time the trio had performed together was almost unbelievable given the clear chemistry of the group. In a set charged with warmth and energy, the Café Oran project showed why Yeoh is one of the most exciting musicians on the jazz scene right now.

Roni Kaspi. Photo credit: Gülcan Acar

Building on Yeoh’s introduction, international jazz superstar Avishai Cohen led his trio on the bass, with Elchin Shirinov on piano and Roni Kaspi on drums. Yeoh and Cohen’s trios were two very different groups, but they had in common a powerful sense of intimacy with their audience.

Cohen’s trio gave a masterclass in ensemble-led jazz from the very first number ‘Ani Maamin’. Each piece flowed into the next, filling the room with a rush of energy. Cohen’s outstanding ability to be both percussive and melodic with his instrument was particularly striking in ‘Intertwined’, the fourth of his compositions. The bassist’s characteristic charm and laidback enjoyment shone throughout the set.

The trio created worlds of sound and transformed them almost immediately into something entirely different. The wistful piano chorale that opened ‘Dvash’ became suddenly charged with anticipation with a shuffling beat from the drums and bass.

Elchin Shirinov. Photo credit: Gülcan Acar

The group’s greatest moments came when intricate rhythms were combined, elaborated on and pitted against each other. Cohen’s compositions combined frenetic bursts of energy with intricate rhythms and thoughtful solo lines. The eighth number, ‘Video Game’, was a pure wash of sound, the trio ebbing and flowing around Cohen’s bass solos.

Shirinov’s performance was suave and confident, melting into the lower tones of Cohen’s bass. His piano solo in the central number ‘Shifting Sands’ was a moment of calm within an electrifying set.

Shirinov’s charisma on the piano was matched by the effortless brilliance of Kaspi on the drums. Kaspi’s first solo in the sixth piece, ‘Joy’, was set to be one of the best of the festival so far, before being topped by her final solo in the explosive ‘Cha Cha Rom’. This was a tour de force from Kaspi. The passion and intensity of her playing brought the audience to their feet before the number had even finished.

Cohen was a brilliant band leader, rightly comfortable in front of the packed audience and guiding the group across a twisting, turning musical landscape. His attentive, often protective role at the centre of the trio gave Shirinov and Kaspi space to shine.

Cohen is adored on the London jazz scene, as demonstrated by the delighted reaction to the three encores – including fan favourite ‘Seven Seas’ – with which the trio ended their set. The group’s rendition of Isaac Albeniz’s ‘La Leyenda’, sung by Cohen to an enamoured audience, was a poignant way to bring this whirlwind of virtuosity to a close.

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