BLACKCOUNTRYROCK – Avishai Cohen, Shai Maestro and Mark Guilana – The Barbican, London, 24th November 2018
Sometimes it is nice to go to gigs with no preconceptions. It’s even better when they turn out to be wonderful.
My good friend Raymond Gorman had been badgering me about Avishai for years. When Cohen announced a London Jazz Festival gig at the Barbican, it was the perfect chance to see him. Ciaran, Raymond’s drumming colleague from the Everlasting Yeah for the ride too. For the second time in as many weeks, we all got to admire some stellar percussionists. Following the incredible King Crimson gig at the Palladium with their three drummers, this time we got to fanboy over Mark Guiliana.
Guiliana was part of the David Bowie Blackstar band, and he was joining Cohen and pianist Shai Maestro to perform 2008’s Gently Disturbed album. This was a regrouping of a trio that hadn’t performed the record for a good few years, yet the skill of the musicians was evident as they took musical cues off of each other. This was music by intuition and knowledge, playing from memory with all the risks that entailed.
I’d deliberately not listened to Cohen and approached the concert completely cold. It was liberating to be so open-minded about what I was about to hear. There was a huge amount of love for the band in the Barbican, every solo loudly cheered, the ebb and flow of the music applauded. Cohen has acknowledged influences from the pop and rock world such as Stevie Wonder and Led Zeppelin. This was evident both in his playing and his comfort as a central point of focus for the band.
The trio clicked brilliantly. Both Guiliana and Maestro are economic players, the former soloing with the minimum of fuss, the latter using his keyboard sparingly, often sticking to a limited part of the keyboard. Maestro has a knack of playing what sounds like the occasional “wrong” note, but repeats it. It is evidently the note he intended to play and introduces a little bit of grit into his playing. Guiliana comes from the “less is more” school of jazz drumming. Having seen Antonio Sanchez play with Pat Metheny at last year’s festival, the two are wonderful incredibly different. Sanchez has a bigger kit and plays with a stiffer wrist generating more force. Guiliana holds back, only reaching a relative fever pitch on a couple of occasions. It is all the more impressive when he does enter this realm. Both brilliant drummers, all the same.
Cohen was central and spectacular. Treating the bass like a dance partner, his playing was inventive. Whether playing below the bridge, slapping open strings or using the body to add to the rhythmic patterns, he dared you not to look away. When you did, it was to the other members of the band, who matched Cohen’s inventiveness. Nothing was too showy but everything was emotional whilst being technically wonderful. The music looked both eastwards and westwards, with middle eastern and latin grooves, often within the same song.
After completing playing of the Gently Disturbed album, Cohen returned to sing a heartfelt Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child, drawing his bow across his bass to create a drone. His voice drew on folk traditions, translating the African American Spiritual into something clearly from the Middle East. The remainder of the band joined him for a couple more songs to another unanimous standing ovations.
As a final treat, here’s a clip from 2007 of the trio from the first time around. The first three minutes are just Cohen and Guiliana engaged in some insane interplay, with Maestro joining in at the end. There is a recently uploaded version of Gently Disturbed played live but with a different drummer, Noam David – still worth checking out though.
I’m converted. As I am typing this, I’m listening to Shai Maestro’s 2018 trio album on ECM, The Dream Thief. It is beautiful, perfect Sunday morning music.
I realise how privileged I was to see three such talented musicians perform at the Barbican last night. It was a rare treat. One of my friends on the evening, an experienced jazz gig goer, commented that he had never heard a louder audience for a Barbican concert. I have to agree. There was much love, demonstrably expressed for these musicians and their musicians.