“I like the unknown,” Avishai Cohen told me over the phone. The trumpet player was at home in Tel Aviv, taking a break from touring to spend time with his family and write. (His young son, playing nearby, punctuated our conversation with shouts and laughs.) Cohen’s career is blossoming right now, and he’s putting out some of the most engaging and genuine music the genre has seen in years. His latest album, Into the Silence, is a meditative, impressionistic six-song arc, written after his father’s passing. Though the dynamic range is subdued, the music is fresh and full of life. “I like to really experiment and come and have the vision for an album but let the outcome really be what’s happening on that day,” said Cohen, whose measured cadence emphasized the thought put into word.
Case in point, Into the Silence: Cohen wrote the music on the piano and didn’t play it on the trumpet until he was in the studio; none of his band members saw the music until they were in the studio. To add another element of excitement, the band hadn’t ever played together and Cohen limited the recording to only two takes on each track. The album was recorded and mastered in three days, a brief timeframe that sheds light on Cohen’s mature outlook. “What I’m focusing on more and more, for the last few albums, is to just let the music be.”
At 38, Cohen has built his reputation as a versatile player, and is credited on almost 70 albums spanning his career (eight as bandleader and 19 as a co-leader). His playing flows from smooth connected lines to edgy, darting solos through the duration of a piece. Over the past decade, Cohen’s work with Triveni (his trio with Omer Avital and Nasheet Waits), the 3 Cohens (a group with his sister Anat and his brother Yuval) and the SFJAZZ Collective have created a noticeable buzz in the jazz world, and in DownBeat’s Critics Poll, he has been voted Rising Star Trumpet for four years running. There’s the visceral lyricism of Miles Davis, but a wide breadth of contemporary influences as well. “I’m not a jazz purist,” said Cohen, who once sat in with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. “I love music that has heart in it.” Cohen draws influence from a diverse range of artists, mentioning James Blake and Andrew Hill in the same breath. “Now I’m working on my next album and I’m writing, and I have to remind myself again and again to forget about borders, and to forget about genres and styles and anything that limits in that way,” said Cohen. “Anything can be an influence on me.”
“I have to remind myself again and again to forget about borders, and to forget about genres and styles and anything that limits in that way.”
Growing up in Israel, Cohen started playing music at an early age, and had a wealth of performance opportunities. “Lucky for me, there weren’t that many trumpet players,” he said. Though his onstage life started in big bands, his ability to sight-read and improvise landed him studio sessions for everything from TV shows to rock and roll sessions to singer-songwriter albums and electronic music pieces. Cohen’s mid-teens were a formative time, filled with the juxtaposition of bebop gigs and classical concerts with the Young Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. His classical background deeply influenced his approach to ensemble playing. “Playing in orchestras and being a part of a section, is actually important for jazz playing: to know how to listen, to breathe together, to have intonation together, to start a note at the same time, to finish it.” By the time 18-year-old Cohen came to the United States to attend Berklee College of Music, he could play as well as any professional.
When recording his past few albums, Cohen’s approach has been very zen-like. “There’s not one perfect outcome,” he said. He realized that if the band recorded more than two takes of a piece, it started to lose the critical element of spontaneity. So he cut any track that didn’t work in a couple takes from the final record. Cohen realized that some of his favorite records had an element of grittiness to them — a skewed form here, a botched note there, a slightly rushed tempo — that didn’t take away from the music. He recognized that it’s not quantifiable perfection that makes an album good, it’s the element of authenticity and honesty in in the music. “If that comes through in the music, you can make as many mistakes as you want,” he said.
Contextually, with the innovation in recording technology over the past 20 years, musicians have the ability to edit tracks, with surgical precision, to create a perfect ideal. The flip side is of this perfection is that it is unreplicable in live performance. “If something is too shiny and too perfect, it takes away from the music,” he said. Instead of editing a piece of music until it’s sterilized, Cohen views the album as a representation of a specific day.
As the genre of jazz has become more nebulous, drawing from countless inspirations, listeners have also changed. “What I find has been happening lately, is that people want to feel the authenticity,” said Cohen. So, in live performances, he strives to never go to the same musical place in a piece of music. By consciously avoiding the familiar and comfortable musical ideas, Cohen is able to push his music in exciting new directions.
The unique balance in his life comes from a philosophical outlook stemming directly from his music. “Focus on being present,” he said. “and accept that whatever you plan, you’ll never be there anyway.”
Into the Silence
In this impressionistic recording, elements of post-bop intermingle with the blues, and the quartet’s tracks range from haunting and distant to emotional and pointed. Buy Now: $11