Born in Kabri, Israel, Avishai Cohen’s culture runs deep, as his family has roots in Spain, Greece, and Poland. His mother, who was always listening to classical and traditional music, became a primary influence to his musical journey, which started at age nine when he first began playing piano.
Cohen continued to play the piano as well as bass guitar when he moved with his family at fourteen to St. Louis, Missouri. He then joined the Music and Arts Academy in Jerusalem after his teacher entranced him with the exploration of electric bass. Playing in the army band for two years, Cohen decided to take a leap and move to New York at age 22.
Naturally, transitioning to the Big Apple in 1992 proved to be its own challenge both emotionally and professionally, creating a tough start playing on the streets and working construction to pay the bills. However, the rough days brought a sense of authenticity as he studied at the New School in New York City with artists such as Brad Mehldau. Soon, he found himself recording and playing with Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez’ Trio, and he would go on to develop an appreciation of Latin music within his own sound.
Receiving a phone call from the late great Chick Corea in 1997 changed his life, as Cohen sent a demo to a friend of his, not thinking anything of it. After Corea listened to it, he was taken aback by Cohen’s freshness, and soon gave him an integral part in his music. He soon became a member of Chick Corea’s New Trio and a co-founder of his ensemble Origin for over six years, tuning his skills as a bassist and composer under Corea’s mentorship. His debut album, Adama then released in 1998, paying tribute to his mother Ora in the fitting opening track.
With his newest record, Two Roses, due this Friday April 16th, Cohen has been dreaming of the moment he could release a record with a symphony orchestra for over a decade. The lengthy process began in 2013 when he recorded his Almah album with his trio and a small chamber ensemble through a collaboration with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.
Aiming to steer away from any specific genre, he blends global and historical influences, and his rhythmic designs are largely impacted by Afro-Caribbean music. Also focusing on Israeli folklore melodies and their Sephardi, Ashkenazi or Yemeni heritages, he brought back popular tunes from his native country such as “Two Roses”-hence the album title, which represents both the jazz and symphonic elements throughout the project.
On the album, the version of “Nature Boy” has taken some inspiration from Nat King Cole, as Cohen’s deep vocals smooth over the subtle and intricate jazz instrumentals. Some of the compositions also have roots from North Africa, The Middle East, and Slavic countries such as Russia. For him, his vast cultural experiences intertwine to influence his very unique overall sound.
For the past several years, his albums have been produced in Gothenburg, Sweden, home of the Nilento studio of sound engineer and producer, Lars Nilsson. On working with an orchestra, Cohen states, “Of course, 80 people won’t play a beat like two or three people would. There’s a kind of inertia, which you have to get used to, and you have to understand how they breathe. It’s like a horse: at once beautiful, powerful and delicate….When you listen to this record, it feels like embracing a journey, entering my world, in a deeper and denser way”.
Although he explains that he plays the same songs over and over again just in different versions, his love of them never grows tiresome, choosing to do a rendition of “A Child Is Born” by Thad Jones in E Major. Tracks like “Morenika” and “Puncha Puncha” are also known to date back to hundreds of years ago, carrying a timeless melody of nostalgia that meets modern energy.
Slow and steady yet free and whimsical, Cohen’s own compositions widely range in dynamics, packing a punch here and there. Telling epic stories through the orchestral recordings, listeners can sense the emotional passion and appreciation Cohen exudes for distinctive and unique pieces of music.