with Nitai Hershkovits
New Album Duende
Released May 21st on Blue Note Records.
"The first time I heard Nitai, it was in a little café in downtown Tel Aviv, Nico, in my neighbourhood. They often have little concerts, but that afternoon, I was immediately hooked by the trio's pianist, and how he played. Ideas with a beat, subtle harmonies, the likes of which I hadn't heard for a long time. I had to work with him."
Avishai Cohen literally fell for Nitai Hershkovits : barely 20 and despite a cheapo keyboard the youngster reminded him of Chick Corea and Danilo Perez, two illustrious peers the double bass player had been lucky enough to play with."Nitai just swings naturally, with gentle authority; I've rarely seen that with other young pianists. He has something ancient within, a spirit that shines right through the way he tackles standards. You have to know your classics inside out, and love them, to tease the wonder out of them : no point just going over the same old ground, you have to do your own take, make them part of you. Nitai brings a fresh touch, reminding me of Brad Melhdau, without actually making any comparison. He has the same intent of making each song his own. He made me want to go back again to the story I thought was over."
The story in question: that of Avishai Cohen. Born near Jerusalem, on 20 April 1970, the double bass player landed up on the roof of the world at just 21. In the early 1990s, he built his sound, learnt his trade, in the shadow of cracks like Chick Corea and Andy Gonzalez. He gave us the foretaste of a generation of Israeli prodigies soon to take New York on. Which was not the case for Nitai, growing up in an orthodox family. And yet he sparked this back to our roots movement, jazz and New York, like a fountain of youth for Avishai Cohen. "We started playing quite naturally round at my place. This sort of kindred connection is truly rare. To start with, we were just going through my compositions and a handful of standards." Soon, they were getting on so well, it was like telepathy, with casual chat segueing into an informed dialogue between the two new collaborators.
That's how the duo came about, which he called Duende. It can be translated as spirit from Spanish, but it really refers to that baffling, uplifting feeling that Avishai Cohen really grooves to. "The word has an absolutely delightful sound. It's a feeling that nurtures music! Duende, for a duo. I could have put together another trio (Nitai Hershkovits joined the trio to replace Shai Maestro in 2011), but between Nitai and me, the connection was so strong, I was afraid another instrument might swallow it up. I needed to hold on to this precious thing."
So it was a dialogue, a format he had rarely worked with, apart from the remarkable Eternal Child with Chick Corea for Lyla, in 2004. “The duo is a highly classic and very demanding form. Like, it takes two to tango. When they play Mozart, Daniel Barenboim and Itzhak Perlman can sound like an orchestra, a duo, or a solo. The same goes for the incredible Beyond The Missouri Sky between Charlie Haden and Hank Jones. You can sound broader, with more space. That's what I feel this record offers: a vaster horizon than what I have managed previously."
And yet with the new millennium, the most sought-after sideman has been working non-stop as a leader, burning epoch-making albums. Starting with those cut in New York, like Lyla (The Night, in Hebrew), and Gently Disturbed, as the thundering trio's pinnacle; and the two latest on the Blue Note label, Aurora and Seven Seas recorded when he returned to Israel. Digging into a new groove, a kind of chamber classical jazz folk, these two albums broke with the past in a career that seemed to be written in the stars. Avishai Cohen dares to change his step with this record that favours a double bass-piano formula. "Surprise is a crucial element of life and creative flair. For as long as I can play music, this sense of freedom will guide me. In a duo or a quintet, whatever, it's me. And in this duo, there's a bit of both of them: Nitai is more than just a partner. You see, this musician who came to learn, taught me a lot. He is part of this generation that's always hooked up. Yet at the same time he already has the wisdom to step back and distance himself from the slew of information. Believe me, he's rare!"
After sharing for several months, they have built their very own sound. "We established a common language, in which to hold free-ranging, accomplished conversation. Shared sentiments, on the tracks, cut in a day, live, on the first or second take. Likewise, we chose the entire repertory together, just the two of us. It's the product of a dialogue with no holds barred, where we experimented without putting any pressure on. We play for pleasure. Like on Cole Porter's All Of You. This balance shines through the programme with its taste for classics and venturing out into the unknown."
They get through three standards including an original take on Criss Cross by Monk, one of Avishai's favourite composers. That's the crunch. “To cut it, we really needed to find our own twist on it. The piano in fact accompanies my double bass.” In the end, it sounds like Avishai Cohen, then you perceive Monk. They have also covered three themes like Ann's Tune written ten years ago, and Calm, which features on Continuo and gets totally transfigured. Furthermore, Avishai also penned three new compositions: Signature, which right down to its title sets the stage for the record, Soof, and last but not least, Ballad for an Unborn, a piano solo that wraps the record up. Avishai is on the stool: "I've been doing it for years. During this session, I was thinking of the atmosphere in Mingus Plays Piano, one of my all-time influences. At the time (1963), the great Charles had just hit 40." Like Avishai when he cut this record that smacks of a good old-fashioned LP. 35 minutes of music in all: like one of his favourite albums, featuring Paco De Lucia and Camaron de la Isla. Less is more is back.
“With jazz especially, the older you get the better you put your finger on it. You play fewer notes but project your voice further. Once it's all there, you have to go for your options, erase, to hone the message. This duo illustrates this perfectly. We just recorded our expressions, without any artefacts or acting the virtuoso. Talking with our hearts, not our fingers."
Message received loud and clear.
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"Avishai Cohen with Strings"
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