Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

May 25, 2021


Cohen is something of a musical polymath and one can’t help admiring his sense of ambition, his breadth of vision and his sheer musicality.

Avishai Cohen

“Two Roses”

(Naive/ Believe M7369)

Avishai Cohen – bass, vocals, Elchin Shirinov- piano, keyboards, Mark Guiliana – drums
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Hanson

Born in Israel in 1970 the bassist Avishai Cohen moved to New York in 1992, first making his name on the international jazz scene as a member of the late Chick Corea’s ‘New Trio’ and later of the pianist’s larger Origin group.

After leaving Corea’s employment he made his leadership début in 1997 and established his own Razdaz record label in 2003.

Cohen has always been more than a ‘just’ a bassist. An ambitious and prolific composer he doubles on piano and vocals and has always embraced a wide range of musical and cultural influences, including the folk music of the Jewish diaspora. 
He also draws on jazz and on various aspects of Afro-Caribbean and Latin music, the latter encouraged by a spell with pianist Danilo Perez’s trio.

Cohen also has an interest in pop and rock and his output as a solo artist has been prolific and varied, ranging from conventional jazz ‘piano trio’ recordings to more song orientated material, such as “1970”, his ‘vocal’ album released in 2018 and named for the year of his birth.

His previous experiments with classical forms include the 2013 album “Almah”, a recording that featured his jazz trio alongside a small chamber ensemble featuring four string instruments plus oboe. In 2016 Cohen released “An Evening With Avishai Cohen”, his first recording to feature a full orchestra. He names Bach, Mendelssohn and Bartok as being among his influences in the classical sphere.

I can’t claim that much familiarity with Cohen’s now voluminous back catalogue, although I have been fortunate enough to see him performing live on a couple of occasions, firstly at the 1997 Cheltenham Jazz Festival when he was a member of Corea’s Origin group.

More recently I saw him leading his own trio featuring pianist Shai Maestro and drummer Mark Guiliana at The Barbican as part of the 2018 EFG London Jazz Festival. The performance was a celebration of that trio’s landmark 2008 recording “Gently Disturbed”, a hugely popular and successful album that was a profound influence on the Anglo-Danish trio Phronesis, led by bassist and composer Jasper Hoiby.

The Cohen Trio’s Barbican show was a highly energetic and richly entertaining affair that featured some truly remarkable playing and revealed Cohen to be a hugely charismatic stage performer. He is an artist with a dedicated following and this show celebrating one of his most popular albums was rapturously received by a wildly enthusiastic crowd at a packed out Barbican. I think it’s fair to say that for me it was the stand out gig of the entire Festival.

Cohen’s current trio features Guiliana and the Azerbaijani pianist Elchin Shirinov, a bandleader in his own right. Shirinov played a free lunchtime show at the Pizza Express Jazz Club at the 2016 EFG LJF which saw me urging potential listeners to “keep an eye open for the highly talented Elchin Shirinov”.  His profile has certainly increased in the intervening years, thanks in part to his appearance on Cohen’s 2019 album “Arvoles”.

“Two Roses” represents the logical extension of Cohen’s “Almah” and “An Evening With”  projects. It teams him with the largest ensemble he has ever worked with, the massive ninety two piece Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Alexander Hanson.

The material on “Two Roses” is a reflection of Cohen’s life and career to date. Many of the twelve pieces that appear on the album have appeared on previous recordings but are presented here in an entirely new light.

The selection includes traditional folk songs such as “Morenika” and “Puncha Puncha” alongside arrangements of jazz standards, namely “A Child Is Born” and “Nature Boy”. There are also a number of Cohen originals, including “When I’m Falling”

“I’ve basically devoted myself to the same songs my whole life”, explains Cohen, “which hasn’t prevented me from writing and learning new ones”.

With regards to recording with a full symphony orchestra he states;
“Recording with an orchestra is an adventure in itself. It’s nothing like making a jazz record. An orchestra has its own rhythm, of course, 92 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”.

He admits that the combination of power and the tenderness that the orchestra is capable of generating, was initially a little overwhelming. “It really is a project and recording of a lifetime”, he enthuses.

Album opener “Almah Sleeping” harks back to an earlier project and demonstrates the rich colouring and texturing that the orchestra is capable of in an arrangement rich in terms of dynamics and emotional grandeur. Shirinov’s piano weaves its way gently through the symphonic textures in an arrangement that would be perfectly suited to a movie soundtrack.

The Cohen original “When I’m Falling” is more rhythmic and features both his bass and his multi-tracked vocals. It’s an actual song, with an English lyric, which is given additional musical and emotional heft by the presence of the orchestra. Guiliana’s drums also help to drive the music forward and Shirinov weighs in with both piano and electric keyboards.

“Song For My Brother”  begins as an orchestral tour de force, again rich in terms of colour and texture, with the rich voicings of the orchestra later superseded by the more intimate sound of the trio, with Cohen’s virtuoso double bass solo augmented by Shirinov’s economical piano chording and the busy rustle of Guiliana’s brushed drums. Later orchestra and trio combine effectively, with the piano briefly coming to the fore.

“Two Roses” (or Shnei Shashanim”) is a popular Israeli song,  the theme stated first by the trio with piano and bass augmented by the distinctive patter of Guiliana’s hand drumming. The introduction of the orchestra, allied to Cohen’s soaring wordless vocals gives the music an undeniable power and grandeur. The orchestra then step aside as Shirinov delivers a sparkling piano solo, brilliantly supported by busy, but not intrusive, bass and percussion. The GSO then return for a rousing final section that also sees a reprise of Cohen’s wordless vocals.

Cohen’s arrangement of “Nature Boy” features him singing the lyrics above a lush orchestral backdrop. For the majority of the album the orchestral arrangements are genuinely powerful and dramatic and manage to stay just on the right side of schmaltz. Despite the presence of Shirinov and Guiliana they overstep the line here, a problem exacerbated by Cohen’s somewhat mawkish vocal. One suspects that this is a piece that would work better in a live environment where its full emotional impact could be best appreciated. Not for me, but many listeners will no doubt love it.

More to my liking is an arrangement of the Cohen tune “Emotional Storm”, which originally appeared on his 2006 album “Continuo”. Guiliana featured on that record alongside pianist Sam Barsh and oud player Amos Hoffman. The “Continuo” album saw Cohen exploring his Middle Eastern influences and this piece sounds very different without Hoffman’s oud. However the new arrangement is undeniably vibrant and colourful with the imaginative orchestrations augmented by fine performances from the members of the core trio, with Shirinov’s piano approximating the exotic timbres of the oud. Guiliana also shows up strongly and delivers a dynamic drum and percussion feature towards the close.

The traditional “Puncha Puncha” appeared on the “Gently Disturbed” album as an instrumental piece. This new arrangement features Cohen singing its lyrics in the Judeo-Spanish language Ladino, and doing so soulfully and effectively. His emotive vocals are well served by a sympathetic orchestral arrangement. The trio eventually come in towards the end, with Shirinov’s lyrical piano solo supported by the rich purr of Cohen’s double bass and the delicate sounds of Guiliana’s brushed drums. The piece concludes with a short vocal / orchestral reprise.

“Arab Medley” represents another evocative exploration of Cohen’s Middle Eastern influences and features some virtuoso double bass playing alongside the rousing and colourful orchestration. There’s also another dazzling solo from the consistently impressive Shirinov, aided and abetted by Cohen and the ever inventive Guiliana. Everything seems to come together here, making the performance something of an album highlight.

Cohen’s E-major arrangement of the Thad Jones tune “A Child Is Born” dates back to the time of the leader’s International Vamp Band and the album “Unity”. Although expanded to symphonic scale it’s essentially a jazz ballad performance featuring the leader’s outrageously dexterous double bass playing and a typically classy piano contribution from Shirinov.

“Alon Basela” is another piece to feature Cohen’s vocals, with the Hebrew lyrics sung in rousing fashion in a vibrant and dramatic arrangement that also includes an extended drum feature from the brilliant Guiliana. The piece is a Cohen original, but has the feel of a traditional tune.

Indeed, Cohen’s career has seen him exploring the folk music of his native Israel and the various streams that feed in and out of it – Sephardi, Ashkenazi and Yemeni, plus the music of the wider Middle East, North Africa, the Slavic countries and Russia.
Here he sings the traditional Ladino tune “Morenika”, his unaccompanied vocals subsequently joined by a highly effective orchestral arrangement. Cohen’s adaptations of such material, and his emotive vocal readings of of it, are far more convincing than his Nat King Cole inspired crooning on “Nature Boy”.

The album concludes with “Nature Talking”,a largely orchestral piece that combines grandiosity with intimacy, and which has something of a valedictory feel about it.

“Two Roses” is an intriguing piece of work. Cohen is something of a musical polymath and one can’t help admiring his sense of ambition, his breadth of vision and his sheer musicality. This collaboration with the trio, Hanson and the GSO expands his ideas to an epic scale, in the main very effectively.

This is music that is rich in terms of colour and texture and the contributions of the orchestra and the jazz trio are skilfully blended together, and although I’d have liked to have heard more from both Shirinov and Guiliana their performances are consistently excellent throughout.

The orchestral arrangements are possessed of an epic sweep and effective use is made of all the sections of the orchestra – strings, woodwinds, brass etc. A sense of nostalgia imbues many of these performances in a collection of material that represents something of a ‘career overview’ and there is also a strong cinematic quality about many of the arrangements.

However, for all its admirable qualities this is ultimately a recording that I feel I don’t like quite as much as I should. Ultimately it’s just a question of me preferring to hear Cohen’s music in a small group, essentially jazz, setting so I’m more likely to find myself returning to albums such as “Arvoles”, “Continuo” and the mighty “Gently Disturbed” rather than “1970” or “Two Roses”.

In a sense there are ‘two Avishai Cohens’ (this is not a reference to the trumpeter of the same name) in much the same way as there are ‘two Neil Youngs’. Although they come from very different genres both have polarised musical personalities – loud, electric, Crazy Horse Neil is very different to gentle, acoustic, ‘singer songwriter’ Neil and I’ll take the electric version every time, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and “Ragged Glory” over “Harvest”.

With Avishai I’ll take the bass playing, small group version over the vocal or orchestral incarnation. That said Avishai is probably less schizophrenic than Neil and “Two Roses” is an admirable and very genuine attempt to tie the many different strands of his musical persona together. Maybe Neil tried to do the same with “After The Goldrush”.

I guess it’s just a question of ‘horses for courses’.

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