By Greg Cahill | From the July-August 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
Ask Avishai Cohen what it’s like to lock in on a groove with a drummer and the acclaimed jazz bassist gets right down to business: “It is one of the essences of real insight and the most important basic connection between the bass and the drums,” he says. “If they don’t lock in, there is nothing… whether it’s [Ravi] Coltrane and [Matthew] Garrison or Rush’s Geddy Lee and Neil Peart. The configuration for bass and drums defines the heartbeat of those bands. That’s how important it is to the music.”
The bass-and-drum configuration is everything on Iroko (Naïve), a scintillating and tuneful new duo album that pairs the 53-year-old Cohen with New York Latin-jazz conguero and singer Abraham Rodriguez Jr. The album harks back to Afro-Cuban legend Mongo Santamaría’s inspired drum-and-chant formula.
Cohen and Rodriguez met 30 years ago in a small New York nightclub after Cohen moved to the Big Apple at age 22. Born on a kibbutz in Northern Israel, Cohen started playing the piano at age nine before switching at 14 to the bass after a St. Louis music teacher introduced him to the music of the legendary jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius. Cohen went on to study at the Music and Arts Academy in Jerusalem and the New School in New York before joining a group with Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez.
In 1997, he joined jazz great Chick Corea’s New Trio and remained with that outfit for six years. Over the course of a stellar career, his genre-jumping recordings have showcased his diversity: in addition to Afro-Latin jazz, he recorded 1998’s stunning bass-heavy debut, Adama, followed that same year by corea.concerto with Corea and the London Philharmonic Orchestra; the impressive 2003 jazz-fusion album Lyla, which includes a fascinating bowed drum-and-bass rendition of the Beatles’ “Come Together”; 2009’s Sephardic-influenced Aurora; 2017’s pop-oriented 1970; and the strikingly powerful soundtrack to Michale Boganim’s 2022 film Tel Aviv/Beirut, which alternates between small jazz combos and symphonic arrangements. He sometimes sings in the Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish dialect spoken by his mother.
Strings asked Cohen about Iroko (which takes its name from the troll said to inhabit the hardy, long-lived African teak tree), his career, and the art of jazz.
Iroko marks the culmination of a considerable journey.
Iroko started 30 years ago on the Lower East Side with Abe Rodriguez in pianist Ray Santiago’s apartment. When I teamed up with these guys, it immediately felt like that was exactly what I was searching for in New York City. After playing and immersing myself in a lot of jazz, this just felt right. Abe, more than anyone else, was a shining star for me. He is a genius and, to me, he is more like a messenger of God. That feeling never really left me, so when the time was right, when I could finally take Abe into the studio in a duet situation, I did it. There were a few starts and stops in the evolution, but Iroko is now the fruit of the tree after all these years. My ability as a known musician makes it possible to put this immediately—right away—on big stages. Iroko is a big step and is influenced by some of the heaviest musicians I have known for years and who are a part of this [subsequent concert] band, including my old friends, Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez; my old IVB [International Vamp Band] bandmates Yosvany Terry and Diego Urcola; Jose Angel; and, the youngest member, [vocalist] Virginia Alves. These musicians are super happy playing the music, and that’s the biggest reward I could ever hope for.
How would you describe the writing and recording process of this project?
Very spontaneous, because of my knowing Abe’s world. We played so much before, have so much history, that I knew a lot of his vocabulary. The vision I always had was just to get together and record live and just watch the magic unfold. Everything was done in one day and most of the takes were the first takes.
Listening to the classically influenced, string-heavy Almah, or 2009’s Sephardic-influenced Aurora, one might be surprised to hear you playing Afro-Latin jazz. What’s the unifying factor behind the many faces of Avishai Cohen?
Acceptance, hunger, and a thirst for entities of knowledge and culture within music and, here especially, the world of Afro-Caribbean music, which are huge “fields” of music that I have been so blessed to be around by knowing some of the greatest musicians and music. Growing up listening to classical music, inhaling it naturally. And then, as we live life, we realize that we are all unique and have stuff stamped in this emotional world. If we’re really lucky, we’re able to bring it out in a craft.
What makes for a great rhythm section?
Listening. Without the quality of listening, there is nothing. You must listen to your pianist or bassist or drummer—that’s how you create the best chemistry, by being attentive to your peers and band mates. Our occupation demands that we create a sound bigger than ourselves. The greatest thing about jazz is the joy of musicians conversing, sharing their knowledge, and getting out of the expected and going into the beyond.
You are also a very melodic player.
Playing melodically never stops because my musical memories and my musical bag are so full of listening that it stimulates melodies, and it truly is never-ending. It just never stops. I feel like I’m a big bag of experience that interprets melodies. I find melodies to be the biggest aspect of music. The craft is so much about the statement or the story. The greatest composers are the ones who craft new entities; they put together a story that is their own and one that wouldn’t be there otherwise. It’s the highest quality of music—composition and improv are derived from the real essence and magic of music. The greatest musicians possess both of these things, people like [Thelonious] Monk, who was so much himself, and [Duke] Ellington. I feel the great composers of classical music were the great jazz musicians of their day. They were able to improvise within the language of how it was played to them.
You are not an artist who can be pigeonholed. Why is that important to you?
I never said it was important to me. I guess it’s something that you say, and I take that as a high compliment. One thing is for sure: I can’t do anything about what I get inspired by. My passion leads me, and my “management brain” tells me how it can be served up, of course, but it’s passion that is the engine. As an artist, I personally strive to be myself and be able to say something that makes a difference, but I will never be able to say anything that I don’t believe in. So the reality is, its limits are undefinable. When there is a great artist, in any medium, that is a huge gift to the world, but when other artists make a “movement” out of that artist, it doesn’t translate well. Just being inspired to do your own thing needs to be done more.
What led you to pick up the upright bass after moving to Jerusalem?
I was playing electric from 15 to 20 years of age, but I was getting involved in jazz, bebop, and hard bop, and those times in jazz had the greatest bassists, such as Oscar Pettiford, Jimmy Garrison, etc. They were all playing upright. I got one at 20 and started studying with Michael Klinghoffer in Israel and accumulated the language, as I was in my prime learning time in life, so I acquired the tools pretty fast and pretty good.
Who are some of your other jazz bass heroes known for their work on the upright?
Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Andy Gonzalez, Israel “Cachao” Lopez, Bobby Rodriguez, and, of course, Charles Mingus, but that is a whole other entity. The 1964 album Mingus Plays Piano remains one of my favorites.
What was it like moving to New York City? You were a street musician, yes? On upright? That couldn’t have been easy.
I wouldn’t say I was a street musician. Early on, I sometimes played in a duo situation with the great arranger and trombonist Avi Lebovich on the street. It was more like an “outdoor practice” in places like Tompkins Square Park, Washington Square Park—we were often kicked out of various “corners.” Ha! But I would say at that time, it was more about studying the music and seeing how people responded as well.
You were able to connect with some exciting young jazz players around that time and made a connection with Latin jazz. What attracted you to that music?
The rhythm, montunos [older Cuban song styles], [Afro-Cuban] tumbao [rhythm]—the essence of the machine and how it moves. It’s like a good drink, a successful combination of everything. Afro-Latin grooves are infectious and come to fruition like great recipes, or the grapes used in a fine wine. It takes time to get it, but once you do, you’re off and the learning never stops.
You also began a long association with the late keyboardist Chick Corea. How did he influence you?
Chick influenced me in every kind of way. He was just beyond, as a great musician, but even more important was that he was very, very kind. Him being kind, especially at that moment in time, was just everything I needed. That was more important than anything.
How does music continue to empower you, and how can your music empower others?
It empowers through its undercurrent and magic. Music, and all great art, provides unique moments when you are able to leave yourself—floating over unknown energies and connections to the world. You’re connected, but you’re flying and also disconnected, in a good way. All you have to do is love music. As kids, we attach ourselves to things like that, and it makes total sense.
2001’s Unity was a musical expression of your belief that music can unify the world. Do you still feel that way?
More than ever. Way more than before.
Why is that important?
The question answers itself—it’s important, period.
You have said of 2005’s At Home that “music makes one feel at home everywhere.” Does that encapsulate your philosophy of music?
I don’t have a philosophy of music. My destiny is to live as a musician. I go everywhere and I want to feel at home, and I do feel at home everywhere as a traveling musician and composer.
What Avishai Cohen Plays
Cohen plays a G.A. Pfretzschner double bass, c. 1910, made by a German family best known for their bows. It is strung with 3/4-size Thomastik-Infeld 3885 Spirocore Orchestra Double Bass strings. He uses an Italian bow.