Three Siblings of Israeli Jazz

Three Israeli siblings who made it all the way to Carnegie Hall try to explain how so much talent could grow up under one roof.

Anyone who has been following Israeli jazz over the past 20 years has come across the outstanding sibling trio of Yuval, Avishai and Anat Cohen. The three wind musicians play mostly individually but sometimes together.

Their current concert tour attests to their international credentials. Earlier this month saxophonist Yuval Cohen and trumpet-player Avishai Cohen flew to New York, where they met up with their sister, saxophonist/clarinetist Anat Cohen, who lives there. The siblings then embarked on a concert tour last Saturday in Florida, playing in a sextet on Friday to a sold out audience in the 800-seat Zankel Hall located in legendary Carnegie Hall.

The obvious question is what was it about that house that raised such a crop of incredible musicians? The Carnegie Hall concert was a good reason to ask the trio just that.

“The truth is that there’s no special story here,” says Yuval, 40, who is two years older than Anat and five years older than Avishai. “We were raised as completely normal children. There’s music in all children; the question is whether they get the right push. We got it. Anat, started playing at age 6. I wanted to play drums and our parents took me to the music center in Jaffa where they said: “Drums no, but the mandolin will really suit you.” So I started playing the mandolin but I was jealous of the other kids who were playing wind instruments. I wanted a saxophone and I finally got it. When Anat heard me playing, she said: ‘me too, no organ.’ That’s how she got to the clarinet.”

Avishai interrupts his brother to say that he also wanted to play the drums, “but they told me I was too small. So I said the trumpet, and they still said I was too small. But I insisted.”

The Cohen factor

When a family produced three kids who are all jazz wind musicians, you would immediately think that they were raised on a diet of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. But Avishai Cohen says it wasn’t like that at all. “We had music in our house all the time, but it was usually radio ... Dad likes to listen to. There was not a single moment that five radios were not on at the same time,” he says.

There was a love of music, Yuval says, and mainly there was the fact that Bella, the mother, is a rhythmic teacher and David, the salesman father, let their kids do what they wanted musically. Just as important, the parents drove them where they needed to go. “Three times a week from home [in a north Tel Aviv suburb] to Jaffa and back," recalls Avishai. "Classes, with teachers Abraham Felder , Albert Piamenta and others, were five hours each, bringing them back home at 9:30 P.M. Friday was rehearsal time for their big band. It was crazy devotion,” Avishai says.

Yuval adds: “I deal a lot with music education and I see kids today. Something’s changed. There are fantastic kids who play wonderfully, but it’s all the time, ‘I have a test’ or ‘I’ve got something else happening.’”

Yuval started down the path that his siblings would follow: Thelma Yellin High School, the Israel Defense Forces Orchestra, then studies at the Berkeley School of Music in Boston (Avishai went to Boston right out of high school).

Yuval and Avishai say that Berkeley held a dinner for them a few years ago, where one of their teachers said that the school was seeking “the Cohen factor” in every new student.

The next stop for the three was New York, where each in turn went after completing their studies. Yuval’s New York period was cut short in 1997 when he was diagnosed with a tumor on his upper spinal cord and returned to Israel for a long period of rehabilitation, during which he had to relearn how to use his fingers.

Anat got into the Brazilian scene in New York and later earned the “clarinetist of the year award” in a poll of readers of Down Beat magazine. Avishai got great reviews from New York Times Jazz critics and appeared frequently in Israel as well, with the Third World Love Quartet, with Shlomi Shaban and Keren Ann, and with his own Jazz ensemble. Last year, Avishai won the Mifal Hapayis Landau Prize for artists who make a significant contribution to Israeli culture. Yuval won the same award two years earlier.

The idea to start a family ensemble came up 10 years ago when Yuval was on tour with the Quartet East ensemble in Poland and invited Anat and Avishai to join him. “On the stage in Poland, when we saw the audience’s response, we understood that what had been obvious all along [to us], that we’re siblings and we play music, is in fact not obvious at all," says Yuval. We understood that it’s interesting. It’s not a gimmick. Well, maybe it is, but that’s not what’s important.”

He adds: “There’s a kind of tranquility when you’re playing with your siblings, that doesn’t exist in another ensemble. Not that I’m pressured in another ensemble, but when the three of us are on stage it’s like being in a bathrobe and slippers. It’s just natural.”

When asked whether there are things they cannot say to other musicians but they can say to each other, Avishai responds: “It’s not so much what you say but how you say it. If you want to comment on something to someone who’s not your brother or sister, you think twice so as not to hurt them and so they’ll accept your comment. When it comes to your siblings, you say things straight out: ‘It’s really irritating that you’re doing it that way.’ You’re used to it from home. It’s like saying ‘pass the salt.’”

Jimmy Katz