It is whilst on our winding journey throughout life as we devote time to learning and developing, that we are in fact, preparing the wonderful return journey back to our origins… This is the message that seems to have been placed at the very heart of Almah, the latest album from bassist, composer, arranger and singer, Avishai Cohen. Tireless in his musical explorations and always ready to shift the boundaries of musical genre, it took thirteen albums as leader, for this Israeli artist to return to his first loves: classical music, and more particularly, chamber music. We are familiar with the peregrinations of Avishai Cohen, this jazz prodigy capable of mastering every genre, as he draws his inspiration from the music of the Middle-East as well as from Latin rhythms or pop. Elegantly fickle in his tastes, his bravery and curiosity have been tested on the demanding New York stage, after which he worked with such masters in the domain as Danilo Perez and Chick Corea, before ploughing his own furrow and going solo, completely unfettered and with a freedom that permeates his melodies and unbridled imagination. However, we are less familiar with the fact that Avishai Cohen started his training studying piano and classical harmony, as he attended the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Arts.
This vast continent, where his vocation as a musician was nurtured, is the source of Avishai Cohen’s current all-conquering and unlimited inspiration. Although he has always been proud of his musical roots, the bassist had not as yet celebrated this classical heritage on such an ambitious scale. At the helm of his trio, accompanied by the golden-fingered pianist Nitai Hershkovits and the youthful and brilliant drummer Ofri Nehemya, for the creation of Almah he indulged himself by calling on the services of a string quartet and an oboe – in the hands of the devilishly expressive Yoram Lachish. An incredible ensemble that, for one year now, has shown what it can do, displaying many wonders on stage, as part of a series of concerts entitled “Avishai Cohen with Strings”. For some musicians, resorting to such a team would be more akin to satisfying an urge rather than a genuine creative need. This is not the case for the musician from Israel: the chamber music tone of Almah is well and truly the crowning achievement of a carefully and patiently considered reflection and composition process. “In the past, I had already had the opportunity to work with a string ensemble,” he recalls. “But it was intermittent, a smattering here and there. I have always dreamt of making them an integral part of a project and some of the people I work closely with also asked me whether I would take the plunge. Yet, for a long time, I didn’t feel that I was experienced enough or that I had enough self-confidence or time to go for it. And then, three years ago, I began to gather together the musical resources and to write more and more for a string quartet as well as an oboe. The outcome of this turned out to be so sincere, so powerful and corresponded so much to my own desires that I took it to be a sign: I understood that I had to pursue this further.”
As a sign, among numerous other signs of Avishai Cohen’s precisely thought out and determined musical choices, the special composition of his string quartet includes two violas (Amit Landau and Noam Haimovitz Weinschel) in addition to the violin (Cordelia Hagmann) and cello (Yael Shapira). Classical tradition is accustomed to having only one viola. “I chose this formula because my music is written in a low register. The two violas create an incredible, deeper and more melancholic sound that, combined with the brightness of the oboe, really establishes a special colour. With this configuration, the result went so much further than I had originally planned: the music took on a life all of its own.” You do not notice it straight away in the harmonic make-up of the majestic Overture (‘Noam’, Op. 1), a piece that was initially composed for a double bass concert, dedicated to the memory of a young cousin who had died in an accident while serving in the Israeli army. The tonal and textural blend creates a kind of shadow that opens out into a multitude of different shades and reflections. Because of the wide scope of the sounds as well as the high definition of the arrangements carved out by Avishai Cohen, the string/oboe ensemble is displayed in the sweeping and shifting finery of a reduced orchestra that gives it added texture and energy when accompanying the jazz trio.
Throughout Almah, both entities continuously respond to each other, enriching the music and forming surprisingly organic bonds between composition and improvisation. It must be said that Avishai Cohen has no need to resort to musical trickery in order to create a link between both of these worlds: the bond already existed within his music, at the very heart of his musical feel, and was just waiting to be exploited to greater advantage. “I have always sensed the strong presence of classical music and jazz, with the love of musical compositions on the one hand, whether it is clever or popular, and the wild impulses and irrepressible desires to forget everything and improvise on the spot on the other hand. In Almah, both of these worlds, with their constraints and limitations, are empowered as a result of having been brought together. I love the fact that, as classical musicians ourselves, we have been put to the test: we have all been forced to expand our horizons, break our habits. What is happening here is very intense: it is like the sound of an orchestra that, all of a sudden, is allowed to be irresponsible and free at times.”
Far from getting trapped in a formal and purely academic exercise, Avishai Cohen moves up another level in his search of a subtly blended musical experience that brings together every facet of his identity to form a harmony that “speaks with one voice”. Almah is in keeping with his previous accomplishment of work by blending different styles and depicting impressions like in Aurora, his watershed-album released in 2009. In Almah, you will discover an opulent yet balanced programme, bringing together standards from various traditions, new pieces – such as Shlosre, a jewel of rhythmical virtuosity bound by the strings that provide it with a kind of soft setting – as well as a new look at some old tracks. “The advantage of being older and more experienced is that my musical repertoire is more widespread. I can come back to some of my compositions and give them new life with different instruments and arrangements.” Consequently, Avishai Cohen is fanning into flame, a theme that he recorded a decade ago, when he was back in New York: Song for my Brother turns into a playful and delicate call and response between the quartet and the trio, split down the middle with a dazzling double bass solo. Taken from the Seven Seas album (2011), Hayo Hayta becomes a sublime chamber music suite. The sequence is sophisticated yet always pure with its melodic lines, ellipses and motifs that reflect this “elaborate simplicity” that is, more than ever, a feature of Avishai Cohen’s art.
This particular type of beauty that is knowing yet stripped of all pretentiousness also surrounds the standards, the contours and substance of which are lovingly redefined by the bassist in his role as an arranger. One of his favourites, the instant classic by Thad Jones’ A Child is Born, opens up “like a flower” at the centre of the record, radiating the most refined fragrances of American music. Further on, the ravishing charms of the music of the Middle-East explode in Arab Medley – three melodies by the Lebanese singer Samira Tawfik, bound up in a breathtaking whirlwind of strings. In response to this joyful debauchery, listen to the controlled and dreamlike monotonous chant of Kefel, an old Israeli song illuminated by a mind-blowing piano solo by Nitai Hershkovits (“the most beautiful piano solo ever recorded on one of his albums”, says Avishai Cohen); and Southern Lullaby, a sumptuous ballad by one of the founding fathers of Israeli music, Moshe Vilenski, whose piano harmonies are reminiscent of the lyrical tone of Rachmaninov’s delicate touch. As a result, the Russian influence is not insignificant in the colour pallet on show in Almah: it also rises to the fore in On a Black Horse, a melody borrowed from the repertoire of the Red Army and extended with an infectious groove from another piece composed by Cohen, Linearity. “The heritage of Russia and Eastern Europe formed a key part in forming the genetic make-up of Israel and its music. My parents, who always loved singing, performed these melodies at the parties they organised in our home: they are therefore also part of my heritage. This was not intentional, but I can now see that Almah is steeped in historical and cultural elements.”
The only thing missing from this work of art was this beautiful veiled chorus that, for several years now, has been such an expressive addition to Avishai Cohen’s already very complete oeuvre. It emerges at the very end of Almah, like an essential defining moment, in Kumi Venetze Hasadeh, a deeply moving romance by another sadly forgotten Israeli composer, Ram Da Oz. Floating on an instrumental cloud filled with delicate melancholy, the voice of Avishai Cohen is like the finale, signing off an album that its author wanted to name after his daughter, aged only just six months, as if to underline the fact that this album is inspired by its genetic heritage as well as the beautiful promise of a new beginning. “With each new project, and maybe even more so with this one, I am reminded that I cannot really get away from myself, he says. And I get a pleasant feeling when, in an album that is so distinctive, I end up recognizing and finding these inner spaces, like islands that feel like the places I go to when I am composing. I believe that I can hear these moments that I experience as if I was in a bubble, in Almah. Those who have heard it do not give it a label: they don’t tell me, “Hey, that sounds like classical music of jazz”. Rather they say, “That sounds like your music”. One could not receive a better compliment. This means that I have created something that is sincere and as long as that continues, I have a reason to carry on.”