The new album by Avishai Cohen and his Triveni trio is an exercise in spontaneity. First off, the entire album was recorded in a single day. Second, the other members of the trio (contrabassist Omer Avital and drummer Nasheet Waits) hadn’t seen the pieces Cohen had composed before they walked into the studio. Third, the unwritten law that governed the recording session was that each piece would only be given two takes at most.
This situation could be very stressful or very liberating – depending on the quality of the musicians. Since Cohen, Avital and Waits are all premier jazz musicians, all one hears on “Dark Nights” are the beautiful, fresh sounds of freedom. This is a superb album. Cohen launched it with two performances in Israel in early December (with contrabassist Tal Mashiah and drummer Ofri Nehemya).
A listener and critic can also be spontaneous, and in keeping with the spirit of the album, I’m inclined to devote this whole review to one cut on “Dark Nights” – Cohen and Triveni’s version of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” by Charles Mingus. This cut, which I feel surpasses all the other (mostly very good) cuts on the album, serves as the emotional center of gravity for the whole album. It also has something extremely addictive about it that makes one want to listen to it over and over again, to the point of mild obsession.
One explanation for my obsession: It grew out of an initial aversion. When we end up loving something we hated at first, we love it all the more. At first listen, I thought that Cohen and Triveni’s version of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” was misguided, that it bordered on sacrilege. As Cohen writes in the liner notes, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is “one of the most beautiful pieces ever written, in any style.” This statement does not strike me as an exaggeration. It is truly a sublime piece of music, and part of its beauty comes from its very slow tempo (Mingus wrote it as a tribute to the saxophonist Lester Young upon his death), and the funereal pace doesn’t keep the melody from being interpreted with perfect elegance. Young was the embodiment of cool, in the deepest sense of the word, and Mingus knew that in addition to the profound sorrow, that comes through with every note, he also had to convey this quality. He succeeded magnificently, even with the creeping tempo.
But can “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” work when it’s even slower? It’s a risky gambit. Slowing down the already slow pace could ruin the whole thing. When Mingus himself recorded the piece again a few years later, under the new title “Theme for Lester,” he sped it up a little. Can a young Israeli jazz musician come along decades later and play “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” slower than ever?
At first listen, I thought the answer was “no.” I might even have said – “You’ve gone too far this time, my friend.” At second listen, I adhered to this view during the first statement of the theme, but I softened as Cohen improvised on it with a seemingly paradoxical and incredibly beautiful relaxed intensity. On third listen, I changed my mind about the initial melody. On fourth listen, I was entirely captivated by the super-slow version. On fifth listen, I thought I understood the motivation behind “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” It’s a musical farewell to a cherished person. The slow tempo is needed to express the deep sadness over his death, and stretching that slowness to the very limit is a way of underscoring how hard it is to say goodbye and of expressing the desire to keep holding on to the deceased even when it is no longer possible.
About three weeks ago, David (Dudush) Cohen – the father of Avishai, the saxophonist Yuval Cohen and the clarinetist and saxophonist Anat Cohen – died. I met David Cohen once, when I interviewed Avishai and Yuval in connection with the release of the siblings’ album “3 Cohens.”
A large part of the interview dealt with their childhood, which involved almost daily trips for the siblings to the music conservatory on the other side of the city. Dudush Cohen was the driver, and clearly, without the constant dedication he and their mother showed, the Cohen siblings would not have become the wonderful musicians they are. “They never sat us down and said, ‘Here, kids, this is Schumann,’ but there was a love for music, and the main thing is that our parents made it possible for us to do all that we wanted to do,” Yuval Cohen said in that interview. And Dudush Cohen’s habit of having several radios playing at once certainly didn’t hurt his children’s polyphonic hearing.
Avishai Cohen and Triveni’s new album was recorded before his father’s death, of course. When he decided to play “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” the way he did, he had no idea that when the album came out, his father would no longer be alive. In retrospect, his splendid version can be heard as a gorgeous farewell, bursting with love.