Interview/Feature in Oregon Music News, 19th October 2010 with Tom D’Antoni

You get a good idea of the breadth of Avishai Cohen when you look at his credits on Aurora, his last album. They read: Arranger, Bass (Electric), Composer, Double Bass, Piano, Producer, Vocals.

They don’t add that the songs are sung in English, Spanish and Ladino, the Spanish-based language of the Sephardic Jewish tradition. His mother would sing to him in Ladino. He didn’t pick up the bass until, as a teen, having moved from Israel to St. Louis, someone played him a Jaco Patorious album. That was it.

He has released eleven albums, played in Chick Corea’s band and is in the middle of one brilliant career. He’ll be bringing his band to Winningstad Theatre at the Portland Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday, October 23, 7:30pm, $33 & $40.

He is presented by PDX Jazz, the Portland Jazz Festival folks.

I spoke to him on the phone. He was in his hotel room in Maine.

Q. When you’re composing, does the language that the lyrics are in dictate the music?

A. My take on words, was thinking about that today,I love words for their meaning but I love them more for what they don’t mean or for how they sound. To me, words are beyond the one meaning. It’s the feel, the sound.

So I go by the sound before,of course I think of the meaning of it, The reason I sing in a few languages, too is because for me language is a sound and every language is different.

When I write a tune, I go, like being unconscious, but at the same time conscious too. So I’m working two different things. I go with the sound that’s the composition without words,the words bring the music and the music brings the words. I don’t write words and then put music into it. I do both at the same time.

I write on the road sometimes but I mainly do it in the comfort and quiet of my environment at home with my piano. Ninety percent there.

Sometimes I bring myself to the piano not knowing anything, something either happens or doesn’t. Sometimes I’ll be sitting on the couch and humming something then I kinda know I have something and I’ll go over to the piano and complete it from there.

Sometimes I’ll be walking and I’ll think of something and record it on the phone and then bring it to the piano. I don’t really think too much. If I think I can’t write. To be honest, it’s something I don’t have control over and hope I never do but I know that everything makes a difference,someone you met in the morning might be an influence on what you write in the afternoon.
I am influenced by everything and anything.

Q. Is there a tune from Aurora, your last album that we can share?

A. Why don’t you put “Alon Basela”…alon is oak…oak tree…and alon basela is an oak tree living in rock. This is a song I wrote with the bass, by the way. I wrote the bass line and the words came as I wrote the bass line, which is more rare and cool.

The song is about resiliency,you can stand the storm and not fall down,hard to say in English but it’s about the power to be stronger than the things that put you down, make it hard to keep living. You are strong enough to keep going. I like that song for the words and for the groove which has Moroccan influence,some Gypsy influence in it. It uplifts you, I think.

Q. Who will you be bringing with you to Portland?

A. The band that is on my latest record, the one I’ve been on the road with for five years,Amos Hoffman on oud and guitar, Karen Malka on vocals, Shai Maestro on piano and Itamar Doari on percussion.

Q. Will you be playing any piano?

A. Yeah, last night I did, I opened with a tune that I just recorded on the new record that’s going to come out, a Ladino song that I sing and play piano on. Yeah, I might do that, sure.

Q. What instrument do you travel with?

A. It’s a Freschner, German-made, hundred year-old Freschner, a beautiful bass that I’ve had now for,sixteen years? Probably.

Q. I talked with cellist Zoe Keating once and she described finding a new instrument as being like dating.

A. I hope dating is not like that. Looking for an instrument is not fun.

Q. Did you ever play Portland with Chick Corea’s band?

A. I don’t really remember.

Q. Do you keep in touch?

A. Yeah, I just saw him about a month and a half ago.

Q. Do any playing with him?

A. We haven’t. Our schedules are conflicting each other, that’s a good thing, but I think we will in the future. At this point, it’s just impossible, but I was lucky to be around in Tel-Aviv when he came to play. We hung out for a while.

Q. Is that where you’re living?

A. Yeah, I’ve been there six years now since I moved from New York.

Q. You’re one of the few bass players who accompany themselves while you sing,just you and the bass. You can go way back and think of Slam Stewart, it’s unusual, it’s a beautiful sound.

A. First of all, it’s different from Slam and Major Holley because what they did, beautifully, was they sang their solos with the bow. They would be an octave above the bow,they created a beautiful sound that was very recognizable for what they did.

I’m doing something a little different where I’m actually playing the bass and singing a different line,even harder in some ways,another kind of thing.

Q. How is it harder? What’s the challenge?

A. It’s a big challenge because it’s like playing a Bach invention,counterpoints and stuff,it doesn’t always go with what you sing, you go down with the bass line and sing upward with your melody and,it’s almost like a tri-dimensional thing. You have to practice a lot to really be comfortable with it. In the beginning it was,I had to work a lot at it which was a great thing because I’m always looking for challenges.

I started singing more with the piano. I have composed on piano for years but then I said to myself, “I got to try it with the bass.” And that became another task. It’s great, but it’s a great challenge. You’ve got to be on top of your game.

Q. What are you working on now that’s challenging?

A. I did a new record, recorded it a few weeks ago, there’s some new tunes,there’s this one tune in 13/8 that’s very challenging to play, to improvise on. Opening it up is another thing. I have no one to study that from. I don’t know anybody who really does it so I have to invent my own ways, and my piano player has to invent his own ways of learning a whole new way of improvising fluently on 13/8 with the movement of chords and everything. It’s not easy. That’s a new challenge.

Q. How is it going?

A. It’s going well. We’ll probably play it. It’s called “Dreaming.” You don’t necessarily hear that we struggle when we play it, but in our own way we have a lot to grow with it still, because we just started playing it.

Q. So you work on it from the bandstand.

A. Of course. As you get more confidence in what you’re doing, you must grow. If i leave everything for rehearsal, then part of the fun is gone. The challenge of having to make sense on the bandstand brings another level. You get better. I do because I have to make it happen.

I think it’s part of the tradition,a sense of Jazz or improvising, really,to take the chance and to maybe not be great that one night,or have thoughts of how to make it better but the challenge of having to make it work, not knowing if it will. It’s part of what makes us who we are as improvisers and defines us as Jazz musicians or musicians who go beyond what’s written. You have to keep that alive, otherwise you have to keep that going or it gets boring for people like us. We’re just always wanting to go free.

I don’t play standards very much, but it doesn’t matter what you play, original or standard, you can play it thousands of times and make sense or make it into something else just because you’re letting yourself be who or what you are at the moment,react to life rather than any other rules. You know the rules, you know the music, what you got to do is be yourself at that moment, and miracles do happen.