Jazz Japan interviewed Avishai Cohen at his home in June. The article is about Israeli Jazz, music and life.

[one half]“Avishai Cohen, Omer Avital and Avi Leibovitch flew to New York in 1992.”

This story is almost a legend among Israeli Jazz musicians.
Many musicians from Israel have flourished globally in the Jazz world throughout the last decade including the most well known Israeli jazz musician in the world, Avishai Cohen. If you would walk through jazz clubs in Tel Aviv, you would find unique scenes with many teenagers jamming late at night and playing original tunes with their friends. Jazz in Israel has been a fascinating movement in recent years. Exploring the commencement of the movement would surely enable understanding the legend.

Avishai Cohen has performed on 50 stages (!) around the world during the last two and a half months. On 21st of May he returned for a performance in his home country, Israel, after an absence of ten months. He completely fascinated 1500 fans with his overwhelming double bass skills and nostalgic tone of voice. A week after the show I visited his apartment in Tel Aviv. He talked about his new album “Seven Seas”, the movement in Israel and he also expressed his philosophy of music as well as of life.

“That which we looked for in NY long ago can now be found in
Israel”.

“What is Israeli Jazz”? This is a common question among Israeli musicians. Avishai answered this question saying that
“You can ask such a question, because there is such thing. We went to NY because we wanted to play with the best musicians in the world. But now, after twenty years, you can find what you once looked for in NY, here in Israel. We can be proud of having a number of talented Israeli musicians performing globally. The high level of each performer is one of the components of Israeli Jazz.”
Avishai Cohen’s trio members are the best example to introduce the excellent quality of Israeli young musicians. His drummer, Amir Bresler, is 21 years old. Shai Maestro, who has just departed from this trio in order to seek his own music, is 24 years old. Throughout the last five years Avishai had total confidence in him, calling him “My man”. The newcomer that Avishai invited to join his band after Maestro, Nitay Hershkovits, is 22 years old. These musicians are representatives of the fine Israeli musicians, but they are merely the tip of iceberg.
Maestro, who has been based in NY for the last two years, provided proof of the existence of the “movement in Israel:” by saying, “When I arrived in NY, I realized that we could be easily accepted in NY since Avishai and other pioneers paved the way for us. I was surprised to discover also that Israeli musicians are a significant portion of the very good musicians playing in NY.”

Israeli Standards
The latest album “Seven Seas” includes “Tres Hermanicas Eran”, a traditional Ladino song. Avishai states that Ladino songs are part of his genes, which he inherited from his mother, whose father immigrated from Greece to Israel. Traditional Ladino songs are an essential part of his repertoire, since his debut album “Adama” in 1998.
Israel is a country built on immigration. According to a survey, one third of the population currently living in Israel were not born in Israel. In other words, a huge number of immigrants have gathered from all over the world and built the country. They brought with them various cultures, including music. Apart from Ladino Andalusia, Yemenite, and Moroccan music, various types of folk music have been brought into Israel via immigrants.
These varieties of music have impacted local Arab music, and vice-versa. The eclectic nature of these influences has and is creating today’s Israeli music. The unique history of music in Israel is also an important element that enhances the movement.

“Two Roses” is originally a song composed by Mordechai Ze’ira, who was a great Israeli composer in the 1950s. He wrote a number of songs that are loved and cherished by many generations in Israel. Avishai has recently arranged such Israeli songs according to his musical taste. “This is the beauty of Jazz. It is so free and open that I can play these beautiful songs written by great Israeli musicians and poets. In America, George Gershwin and others wrote a number of compositions in the early 20th century, which later became jazz standards. In much a similar fashion we can make a number of composition written by Ze’ira and other great artists be a kind of “Israeli standard”.
Avishai sees the endless opportunities of Jazz in his music.
Many other Israeli Jazz musicians play such indigenous music in Jazz style. A unique aspect of Israeli Jazz is that the audience enjoys the new-old sounds played by young Jazz musicians. I once witnessed a moving scene in which an aged audience started humming immediately after Avishai started playing “About a tree”.
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Uplifting music
Looking back on his experience in NY, Avishai says that the fact that he played with the best musicians in the world, enabled him to recognized the real significance of Jazz and to bring his music to numerous other stages. “The most important thing for me, however, is to keep on writing my own music. You must continue to express your emotion and yourself in your music”. In recent years, Avishai has written and sung his lyric. “I am not a poet. Therefore integration of words and sounds is important for me”, he said. However, the contents of his lyrics, as in “Ani Aff” and “Halah”, present a very strong and dynamic attitude towards life. “Are these messages for yourself or for the next generation?”
I asked. “The messages are definitely to myself, they encourage me to keep on writing my music,” he replied without hesitation. Avishai has an unshakable belief on the value of music in life. “Music can remind us of another reality of our lives. Life is not merely daily life such as money and other tangible things. These also compose our reality, but there are other realities in our lives. Such as love of people and emotional experiences that though not visible can easily be forgotten. Music can bring a spiritual uplift and remind us of the importance of the values of the other reality. Namely we can realize the invisible reality of life through the beauty of music. Therefore, it is obvious for me that good music is uplifting music.” “Seven Seas” includes both dynamic tunes like “Seven Seas” and “Ani Aff” and soothing tunes like “Hayo Hayta” or “Tres Hermanicas Eran.” These tunes, whether dynamic or soothing, were born from one journey as Avishai sought to create uplifting music.

“I have a kind of ‘musical storage’ in my mind,” says Avishai, pointing to his head. “My ears are so sensitive, that I can ‘record’ all sounds and songs that I have listened to since my early childhood. There are endless numbers of such sounds in my ‘musical storage’. It is very important for me to listen to them. Even during tours I try to find time to listen to my ‘musical storage’ as much as possible.” The steps in composing his music start from listening to the sounds in his ‘musical storage’ which are strongly affected from nature. Alike previous albums many tunes of “Seven Seas” are named after nature such as the title of the album and the compositions: “About a Tree”, “Two Roses”, and “Ani Aff,” in free translation: I fly, which is a song about the sky. Avishai grew up in a richly green environment. Looking back to his childhood he says “One day I suddenly felt the power of nature, as a silent power. When I realized that nature exists as it is even before I myself came into existence, I realized the power of the nature. At the same time I found a meaning of my existence on earth.” This power encourages him, even presently, to compose new songs. “Whenever I see the trees I have seen since my childhood, or whenever I feel the winds and smell flowers that I remember, they clearly remind me of the sounds and songs that are connected to these natures. If I describe the beauty of nature with literal expressions such as ‘beautiful’ or ‘wonderful’, my emotional experiences would have never changed. However, music is free and open, so that I can compose new music based on emotional experiences that I experienced in my childhood.”

Avishai began playing the piano at the age of six. “To play the piano from the music score was far from me. I felt that I did not belong to this type of music. Jazz, on the other hand, enabled me to express my music. I could express various kinds of sounds that were stocked in my ‘musical storage’. Jazz has a significant roll in bridging between me and music. If you feel the beauty of music through my tunes, it is also the beauty of Jazz. Jazz that can not bridge is not Jazz.” Avishai repeated the significant roll of Jazz as bridge.

Countless young Israeli musicians follow the path that
Avishai and his friends paved. We cannot keep our eyes off the movement of Israeli Jazz.

Message from Avishai to Japanese fans
I would like to encourage Japanese people who are facing tough and difficult situations. I wish “Seven Seas” could give peace and comfort to the people.

A history of Israeli Jazz
The Israeli society and culture hold good and solid grounds for the emergence of the Jazz movement. First of all, Israelis do not hesitate to exchange their opinions with each other even at the first meeting. Sometimes people even shout at each other but nevertheless from such discussions new friendships often emerge. I would suggest calling it the “Art of debate.” Secondly, the Israeli people are often proud to call their own society an “improvisation”. Israelis’ favourite phrase is “Ihie Beseder” (literally means ‘it will be all right’)”. In many occasions people do not seem to be serious saying this phrase. However, if they face a problem, they utilize all of their personal connections and personal experiences in order to solve the problem. Finally, they solve most cases, proudly saying “We do so by improvising”. This unique value of society has enabled many fields of art to develop in Israel, while interestingly Jazz was not very developed in Israel until the last decade.
I may indicate that the late 1980s was the dawn of the movement of Israeli Jazz. The <> will celebrate its 25th anniversary this summer. Avishai Cohen has served as the artistic director of the festival in the last three years. In recent years Israeli artists have become the main participants of the festival and this is and has been a great opportunity for young Israeli musicians to play with world famous artists on the stage of the traditional jam sessions during the festival. In 1986, Harold Rubin, a free jazz-oriented clarinet player, established his own band called Zaviot’. Rubin emigrated from South Africa to Israel in 1963 and thus his musical sense was strongly influenced by black music. Rubin has a strong influence on the Israeli music scene. At that time Avishai, then a high school student, played Jazz at a small theatre in Jerusalem with Amos Hoffman, who is an oud and guitar player and they have played together since those days.
In 1992 the first Israeli record shop ‘The Third Ear’ was opened with a Jazz department. Junior and high school students aspiring to be Jazz players used to come to the shop and listen to newly arrived CDs from all over the world. “The Third Ear” played the role of a library for students for many years.
History of Israeli Jazz has more future than past. This coming September, Shai Maestro will start tours in Europe and the US with his original music and ensemble. Omri Mor, a genius pianist beautifully emerges Jazz and Andalusia music. Itamar Shatz, plays the sax with smart sounds, and is planning to fly for NY in the coming autumn. Yaron Herman, a Europe-based talented pianist, will no doubt be mentioned in the history of Israeli Jazz.