Avishai Cohen Fuses Jazz With Israeli Roots

Israeli trumpeter comes to perform at the Regattabar

“People like to hear people analyze their own music,” says Avishai Cohen, calmly sipping an espresso before a sound check at Cambridge’s Regattabar last Thursday. “Today,” he says, “it’s like the better you talk about your music, the more gigs you’re going to get.” Yet the Israeli trumpeter doesn’t utter a word when he takes the stage later that night. The 34-year old Tel Aviv native silently saunters into the spotlight to exuberant applause, wearing an open-collared black dress shirt and a red tie dangling around his neck. His long hair has been pulled up into a bun at the back of his head, fully revealing his bearded face. There’s no flowery opening speech, not even a count off; Cohen simply puts his trumpet to his lips and lets the burnished-toned notes speak for themselves. Throughout the rest of the performance, Cohen speaks very little, instead letting his tradition-informed but fresh sound define his musical persona.

Cohen has spoken the language of music since early childhood. His siblings are both professional jazz musicians, and he credits his brother Yuval, a saxophonist, for dragging him into the art. “He used to come home and practice with his friend, who was a trumpet player,” says Cohen, who was so impressed that he eventually took up the trumpet to jam with his sibling. ”The joke at home is that I picked it because it looked easy, with only three valves. I wasn’t that strong at math, I guess.” Trumpet may have been more challenging than Cohen expected, but he took to it, ending up at Berklee College of Music and eventually in New York. It was there that Cohen became a rising star in the then-thriving jazz scene of the city.

“In a way, I caught the end of an era,” says Cohen of his time in late-90’s New York City. “There were still [jam] sessions going on, cats hanging at the bar until six in the morning. I used to go to bed at eight in the morning, almost every day.” Things are different now. While jazz conservatories keep pumping out swinging young players, New York has seen many of its hallowed jazz clubs, like Tonic, close due to a struggling economy and shrinking audience. Cohen thinks the musicians might be partly to blame; he finds much of modern jazz too intellectual. “If anything is way too brainy, it’s hard for me to listen to it,” he says.

Cohen has always eschewed overly mathematical melodies in favor of singable ones. Throughout his career, he accomplished this restraint through Israeli-influenced grooves driven by meditative piano and guitar. With his current ensemble, Triveni, which features a skeletal trio of trumpet, bass, and drums, Cohen attempts to achieve a similar level of accessibility in more of a pure jazz context. “What makes the group different specifically [from previous projects]…is that [in the past] the compositions were the main thing, and the improvisation was there to complete the composition,” says Cohen. “In this trio, it’s the other way around. The compositions are there as the point of departure for the improvisation…. I wanted to have that fresh feeling that welcomes you to just jump in.”

Indeed, while the instrumentation puts Cohen’s trumpet in the spotlight, the real fun comes from the exuberant interplay between Cohen and his supporting duo. At their Regattabar performance, it seems that bassist Ben Street and drummer Jeff Ballard know telepathically exactly when to fill in the gaps in Cohen’s solos. On Cohen’s original composition “Safety Land,” the first track on the group’s new album “Triveni II,” the group displays thrilling cohesion, with Ballard and Street seamlessly shifting between grooves and meters behind Cohen’s always swinging lines. It is this truly electric experience of group improvisation that Cohen attempts to and succeeds in imparting upon his listeners.

The stripped-down jazz of Cohen’s Triveni band showcases the accessible heart of jazz. He takes care to establish a musical rapport with the audience; on his spirited, plunger-muted rendition of Duke Ellington’s ballad “Mood Indigo,” he is unafraid to repeat melodies that are almost childlike in their digestibility. Yet even when his technical virtuosity is on full display, like on his performance of John Coltrane’s “Wise One,” his astounding runs through every register of the horn feel like a seamless wave rather than a barrage.

“I wrote in the liner notes when I made my last record…that I wanted to sound like Billie Holiday,” says Cohen. “If you tried to sing like her, it wouldn’t be simple at all, but she didn’t try. She just sang. And for me it goes straight to the heart.” Cohen’s music, too, seems effortless in a way, but at the same time, every melody, every idea, remains utterly intentional.