Interview: Avishai Cohen - Almah New Album Out Now

Avishai Cohen
Photo Credit: Youri Lenquette. All Rights Reserved


Rob Edgar spoke to bassist/composer Avishai Cohen about his new album Almah which was released in the UK on Monday 10th February. It features pianist Nitai Hershkovitz, and drummer Ofri Nehemya, a string quartet with a twist, and oboist Yoram Lachish.

Rob Edgar: Tell me about your musical background, I know you've studied both classical and jazz?

Avishai Cohen: People see them as different, I'm happy to say that I've always seen them as kind of the same. Like Duke Ellington said, “There's two kinds of music: good and bad!”.

In terms of musical education: everything was an education for me and still is. I pick up certain things and my memory chose to pick up on certain things more than others; I think that I'm quite a sponge. [..] I'm still trying just to listen and to learn to pick up on new things and things that matter. That's a lifetime, every day that I live, I have more information coming in. I picked up on classical from home (my mother played that music)...

RE: Do you come from a musical family?

AC: Musical, yes, my mother is musical, my father is musical but they have nothing to do with being a musician; I'm the only one.

RE: There are classical influences on 'Almah', the 'Overture 'Noam' Op.1' for example.

AC: I never have pre-thoughts or pre-plans for my writing. That's me, I can't do it, some people can. I usually write out of a stream that comes out: an inspiration or a muse (whatever you want to call it), and I've learned - with the tools – how to write, and with listening, I've learned how a piece is built. This [The overture] is one of my attempts at writing a through-composed classical - or classical-like – music. Of course, I've listened to those composers, and more, I've been influenced by them I know. It is what you say plus whatever else, but there's no intention: when I have an intention, that's the end of it and it goes out the window.

RE: How do you manage to compose music which is through-composed, but with a great deal of space for improvisatory freedom?

AC: I don't always do that, it depends. When I write pieces, I understand what they're made of, or I play with someone like me (who plays like me), and we improvise on what the basis of it is. Sometimes I write pieces which have no improvisation in it. The perfect combination though, is to have both, which on the record, there are a few great examples of where it is completely through-written and then BOOM: it dives into a piano solo or a bass solo and you think “wow” the music is really working.

RE: The orchestration of the album is quite unusual: you have a string quartet with two violas, and a cor anglais/oboe...

AC: About 10 years ago, when I started fooling around with string writing, I discovered that a lot of my writing is in the low register (relatively). I had the idea of trying to convey it with a different configuration than the usual classical string quartet because of its darker and lower character so I thought “hmmm, maybe two violas instead of two violins” and it just made a difference. I'm happy I did it because I think it's quite original in that way (which I like to be if I can).

RE: And perhaps with the addition of the Cor anglais / oboe, that fills the role of the 'missing' violin?

AC: That's very true: it balances it.

RE: You're an excellent recycler.

AC: With this format, I thought that revisiting a few things could be as fresh as writing a new piece, and it proved to be true on a A Child is Born, and on Hayo Hayta, Song for My Brother.

RE: What inspires you?

AC: The inspiration is never too clear, and I really hope it stays that way. I'm lucky because I get inspired when I'm with a musical instrument – usually a piano – I get inspired to play something and come to it from nothing [..]. That's as close as I can get to telling you where the inspiration comes from; it's never “oh I met this woman, or saw this animal”...or maybe it is, and it all is. Everything is an inspiration but to put my finger on it is very difficult because it's really not one for one in my case: I've accumulated so many thoughts and feelings, and I've stored so much music in me, once there's a trigger for something, I'll be able to get a piece out of it.

Rob Edgar: 'On a Black Horse' is taken from a song by the Red Army?

Avishai Cohen: Yeah, it's a Russian influence, a Russian composition. I picked it up because it's a melody that was brought to Israel by, I guess, Eastern European immigrants years ago, Hebrew words were put on it and it became an Israeli song but it's totally a melody from Russia, a Russian-heritage composition and you can hear it. I love Rachmaninov, and in general I love Russian-influenced composition and melodies, very strong, and the Red Army had great tunes like that so that's the origin of it.

Avishai is playing two more dates at Ronnie Scott's: tonight (Wednesday 12th Feb) and tomorrow (Thursday 13th Feb) with 'The New Trio'. Tickets are sold out but you can always try on the door!

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