A unique synthesis of chamber music, folkloric traditions and jazz, the acclaimed bassist and composer Avishai Cohen talks about his latest album, Almah, in this exclusive interview

Following on from 2012’s Duende that saw the 43-year-old Israeli bassist joined by pianist Nitai Hershkovits who also now features on Almah as part of the core jazz trio along with the extraordinary young drummer Ofri Nehemya plus a strings section and the oboe/cor anglais of Yoram Lachish the new album is Avishai “with strings” in essence. The strings sound that bit different with the inclusion of two violas rather than one adding a lower register.

Speaking on the phone from Jerusalem after a run of extensive touring, the bassist, a huge influence on such new bands as the internationally acclaimed UK-based Anglo-Scandinavian trio Phronesis, explained just why it had taken three years to write what has become Almah. “Well, being that it’s not a trio or more of a regular configuration of jazz combo it’s something that I’ve had in my mind for a long time to try and do more of a chamber classical thing because of some of my writing and what it hinted for and what it kind of wanted to be,” he says.

“Everything I write I can always do in a piano trio; it’s never a problem to do that. But sometimes the music states its own desires, meaning what it wants to be dressed with. And a lot of what I have been writing in the last 10 years some of it I’ve put aside because I knew that there would come a time when it’ll suit a chamber or even an orchestral situation. And finally I tried some things with this configuration with two violas, one cello and one violin, and an oboe added to a piano trio and things have started to shape into something that made sense and became a cohesive sound that wanted to be something. It took that long to put it together just because it’s a new concept and a new orchestration and way of thinking. Because of what it is it couldn’t just be put in place with a piano trio like I do and sound good; it had to be nurtured. I had to try things back and forth and make sure the orchestration was at its best. So it’s a long process and a great process, and also working out with classically trained musicians to understand uneven rhythms and things like that. Before it was really ready I didn’t want to take it out or record it, that’s why it took so long.”

Cohen says the album was premiered in Essen in Germany some 18 months ago. And as he speaks the bassist’s baby daughter gurgles in the background. “That’s Almah,” Cohen says, who the album has been named after. Cohen has recruited a new drummer for the record, Ofri Nehemya, who played in a London club for the first time in the spring when Israeli sax star Eli Degibri made his debut at the Pizza Express, the club that Cohen himself first played at in London starting out. Degibri, Nehemya, and pianist Nitai Hershkovits make up his current quartet.

The bassist heard Ofri first three or four years ago. “I was directing the Red Sea Jazz Festival,” Cohen says, “and there was a day that I went to listen to young bands in order to pick a few to play outdoors in little stages. So he was there playing with one or two of those bands. He’s now 20, but he was like 16 or so. I noticed his fluent rhythm and in general I noticed that there was something about the way he swings, and his feel, that really attracted my attention. I kind of marked him, you know, thinking that he’s very, very talented maybe not ready yet, as he’s too young to tour and needs to get a few things together; and I’ve never forgotten. And there came a time about a year ago that I was looking for a new drummer and sure enough I said maybe I should call him and I called him and we got together and started rehearsing, and it felt really nice and I knew that he was the one.”

The “strings project” as Avishai refers to Almah later in the conversation predated working with pianist Nitai Hershkovits on his previous album Duende. “I started working on the strings project with Nitai much before Duende so the strings project has been behind the wall like nobody knew about it. And that’s part of the reason that Duende came about because I spent so much time on that project that it became apparent to me that he should be a part of this strings process. Some times when I play with musicians they get into my writing process, they get into my creative process, so it feeds each other. It’s hard to say what comes first, but it kind of intertwines. Being inspired by a pianist that I play with could inspire me to write more rhythms or be more Romantic. With Nitai it always fits. Definitely there is more Romantic and classical music that is part of this project.

The classical inspiration in the background to Almah evidently runs deep. “I have been listening to classical composers for as long as I know myself. Whether I want it or not it’s in me. I have been listening a lot to Brahms and Rachmaninov, and Mozart, and Bach, and Mendelssohn, all these things are part of this, I can’t put my finger exactly on what, it all blends with some jazz influences as well of course and some folkloric influences. Altogether it became what it is. But definitely the classical side of things is in there just naturally you know, part of what I hear.”

Yet the compositions on Almah are mostly Cohen’s, including a piece composed in memory of a cousin of his who died in an accident while serving in the army; and ‘Hayo Hayta’, which appeared on Cohen’s 2011 superb Blue Note album Seven Seas. “On Seven Seas,” Cohen says, “you can hear the whole composition as it is but with this ensemble it made it come out more with the fact that certain sections are played only with three string players and becomes more of a tutti in the whole ensemble and makes a crescendo. It was a piece that I had no choice but to do it with this project again as it comes to life more. It’s more about what it is now.”

Of the non-originals Thad Jones ‘A Child is Born’, the longest track on the album, a waltz-time ballad recorded by the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra that originally featured on the 1970 Blue Note album Consummation, is a main talking point. “I don’t even know when and where I first heard ‘A Child Is Born’. What happened with that is it’s a standard that was in my mind like many other tunes that I’ve learned during the years in New York and before New York, just being a jazz lover and musician. It’s one of those tunes that I’ve known and one day many years ago in New York it all came about from the electric bass and I was just playing electric and I wrote this arrangement on electric bass in E major because of the open string on the electric. It all started with that and I did this arrangement in a different way on the International Vamp Band’s Unity [2001], a record where I played piano many years ago in New York, this was conceived already but in a different tempo in a different ensemble. It’s another tune that I said I have to try with this ensemble and I have to say that this is one of the jewels of this project; with this ensemble it sounds huge, it sounds like an epic, it’s so, so beautiful in the key of E major a specific key as the tune’s not written in E major. I recycled more than one or two tunes of mine because this ensemble is so different and so distinct gave me the OK or the intention or the actual need to try and take the former compositions of mine and try and dress them huge. It all proved to make sense. So ‘A Child is Born’ is another recycled tune.”

Cohen first made his name internationally beginning in the late-1990s playing with the jazz piano great Chick Corea in Origin and the New Trio appearing on such records as Live at the Blue Note; Change; the groundbreaking Past, Present and Futures; and Rendezvous in New York. That time understandably made a big impression on Cohen. “The time spent with Chick was very influential most of all because he was very interested in my composition, and my companionship as almost like consigliere and we were very close; and it wasn’t just playing bass with him, we talked about composition and shared composition and he used a composition of mine and it was a very creative time, composer-to-composer. Before it was a bass thing. He heard my music and decided to make a record for me so that’s how it all started and it kept being that kind of relationship which was much higher and deeper than I would ever imagine just being a bass player for him. And then of course playing bass for him was extraordinary and very good for my growth, as well as a bandleader as I was starting my way as, studying with him, and learning how he handled that bag was very, very important for me. He is a very accomplished and inspiring bandleader.”

Cohen is wary of defining jazz. “Jazz is a way of connecting a community of improvisers that we are of many kinds and ways; and I think that jazz today only means that you are as open as you can be as a musician more than most other genres. But to me it’s the musicians themselves that you can talk to me about that I can tell you what I feel but not the word: the word is too vast, which is a good thing as well, but it means that you can’t really put it in one word any more.”

Almah was produced by Lars Nilsson and Cohen, and the bassist recalls how he hooked up with the Swede for the first time. “I found out about him since I was asked to play, I can’t remember the year exactly, some time in the 2000s, like [200]5 or something. I was teaching in Vallekilde, in Denmark, there’s a jazz school during the summer there that brings mainly teachers from New York. I was there with Roy Haynes and Kenny Garrett and a few others. It’s like a week with pretty accomplished young musicians or older ones in jazz from Denmark and Sweden; and in my group there was a girl, Malene Mortensen, a very talented singer. And then a few months after we were done with that she called me to ask me if I was willing to play on her record that a record company was doing for her, and I said yes. And the record [Date With A Dream] was done in Nilento studio with Lars, which I’d never heard of. I just got there, and suddenly I find myself in Gothenburg with Lars and I had such a great time making this record that I talked to my manager and said that we should consider recording my next record there. So we did. Lars is something between an engineer, a producer, and a musician. He plays trumpet and knows music very well and he’s a very sensitive and far reaching person and he cares so much about what he does and his studio is so smart and so well built there’s nothing you can’t do.”

Almah also features among the album’s 10 tracks a Red Army theme, Moshe Vilenski’s ‘Southern Lullaby’ and an ‘Arab Medley’ featuring melodies by Lebanese singer Samira Tawfik. The tracks are mostly quite short with folk songs from the Sephardic tradition, and it’s also very melodic and lush, opening with ‘Overture (‘Noam op 1’) originally composed for a double bass concerto, and Cohen’s extraordinary metrical facility is heard on ‘Shlosre’, again a link to the joyful abandon of Seven Seas.

Cohen will play four nights at Ronnie Scott’s in London from 10-13 February during the week of the album’s UK release. “Ronnie Scott’s of course is a special place for me but actually my first appearances in London were at the Pizza [Express Jazz Club] when [former manager] Peter [Wallis] was there it was at its peak, a very special place. I was booked at Ronnie’s a long time ago by John Ellson a great guy and promoter from England that I met when I was with Chick in Argentina playing this festival and we talked and he was very nice and he booked me for Ronnie’s. I remember the old Ronnie’s which I liked very much. A bit funkier, you know, but there was something very true to what it was and I’m glad I went through the old school Ronnie’s. Since it was renovated Ronnie’s has stayed very cool even better in some ways and it feels like a certain kind of home for us travellers. It’s always important because the more you can feel at home the sweeter it makes it.”

Stephen Graham

Almah is on Parlophone
Avishai Cohen, above
Photos: Youri Lenquette