Meet one of the most influential bass players of the 20th century

Avishai Cohen gives jazz a modern – and eclectic – twist.

Musician Avishai Cohen just toured the U.S. and performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival.Musician Avishai Cohen just toured the U.S. and performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival.Musician Avishai Cohen just toured the U.S. and performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival. (Photo: Youri Lenquette)

With his tightly shaved head, casual t-shirt and an expression of goofy concentration, Avishai Cohen doesn’t naturally look like one of jazz’s most innovative bass musicians. But his looks belie a seriousness and an amalgamated musical vision that strides the planet.

Born to a musical family in Israel, Cohen has traveled throughout the globe and incorporated dozens of disparate styles into his performances.

“There is no doubt a strong element of jazz in my music,” Cohen told From The Grapevine from the road. “But I have opened myself up to so many different sounds since a young age, such as Afro-Caribbean rhythms, classical, rock and Israeli folk to name just a few.”

These eclectic interests are reflected in Cohen’s personal history – his mother’s family came from Greece and Turkey, and she instilled in her son the sounds of her own upbringing. As a young musician, Cohen moved to New York City, where he started off busking in the subways and parks and working a day job in construction. He later performed in small clubs, but it wasn’t until he got a call – and a record contract – from jazz pianist Chick Corea that his career took off.

Since then, Cohen has worked with artists like Bobby McFerrin, Roy Hargrove and Herbie Hancock, and collaborated with Alicia Keys and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Bass Player magazine called him one of the 100 most influential bass players of the 20th century.

But his roots as a wandering artist are still detectable in every lick and composition he writes. “I’m very lucky to say that almost any place in the world is a potential muse for me,” he said. “Many things affect me, even the sound of a city, which has a certain kind of rhythm.”

On his latest album, "From Darkness," Cohen returns to a format that has been productive for him in the past – working in a trio. The album is packed with musical ideas – shifting from classical jazz sounds, to latin riffs, ragtime ballads and Mediterranean grooves. His last trio album was "Gently Disturbed" in 2008, and he said he cherished that project so much that, despite his successful outings as a solo artist, he couldn’t wait to go back to performing in a group. “I’ve been meaning to return to the trio format for some time,” he said, “and I feel I was finally reaching a truly new, fresh and incredibly substantial form.” He’s right – the interplay between Cohen and his fellow musicians on the new album has a fresh sound that attests to Cohen’s talent as a collaborator and composer.

Cohen writes on the piano, though he plays on the bass, and says that his process is one of personal intimacy. “I have to be feeling close to myself,” he said. The new album is full of these moments – where the music slows down to allow a particular idea to play out, or where silence is exchanged with strings in such a way that every note resonates. This is particularly clear on the oft-haunting “Ballad for an Unborn,” which drifts and swirls about, evoking the tender caress of lovers murmuring about the future.

“Composition to me is me being around an instrument and detecting something when it happens, being aware, being connected to the moment, recognizing something, the hit, a cord, the origin and where it starts,” Cohen says. “That’s how I compose: being aware of a sound, a form of life and the nature in it.”

What about the title of the new album? “Each day comes from the darkness of night,” Cohen explained. “But the darkness is a good sense: the shadow and the light. We are even born from the darkness, but again, there is always light after dark and we can not separate the two.”

Darkness and light – not as opposition but as dialectics – mingle throughout the album, producing a deeply personal effort from Cohen. His collaboration with Nitai Hershkovitz (piano) and Daniel Dor (drums) does not obscure Cohen’s own vision – a broadly cosmopolitan approach to music that always returns to the familial music tradition. From Jerusalem to New York and now throughout Europe and the world, Cohen transmutes the exotic into the personal.

Mordechai Shinefield has been writing about music for over a decade for a variety of periodicals including Rolling Stone, Spin Magazine and the Village Voice. His tastes in music run the gamut; Malian desert blues and palm wine music from Sierra Leone, leftfield electronica, Middle Eastern folk metal, sun-soaked psychedelic folk, avant garde free jazz, vaporwave, and even some top 40.

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