The Psych Jazz Experience

In'Beats, Not Words,' the new album by the potent drummer Aviv Cohen, the best segments are those where we hear the dialogue with the other musicians.

Some concerts stick in the mind not because of their overall impression, but because of one sound. That was the case a few years ago in a performance by the trombonist Avi Leibovich at the Israel Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv. Leibovich generally conducts an orchestra of 15 musicians, but in this case he led a core jazz ensemble of five or six instrumentalists, which was different in one way from the usual combo: there were two drummers. That’s a rare phenomenon in jazz (if anything, the drummer is joined by a percussionist), and more’s the pity. The presence of the two drummers generated an infusion of power and drive, and the double clang of the cymbals – that’s the sound that was filed in my memory – recalled the intimidating rhythmic maelstrom that can be heard on old recordings of great jazz drummers such as Max Roach or Art Blakey.

My memory of that potent sound was triggered when I listened to the new album by Sol Monk (the drummer Aviv Cohen) who plied one of the sets of drums in that performance by Leibovich. The album cover, which evokes covers of old jazz records, but not in an offputting way, shows Cohen in action. He’s hunched over his drums, eyes looking at the camera behind de rigueur shades, his hands holding the drumsticks in a way that gives the impression of being tight and loose alike. So, he can either hit the snare drum with precise power, or caress the cymbal softly. Or, best of all, he can hit and caress at one and the same time, in order to achieve the marvelous unity of opposites that is swing.

This is the first solo album by Cohen, who is a member of the jazz-electronic trio LayerZ (the regular backup for the singer Marina Maximilian). The spirit of the album is intimated in its title, “Beats, Not Words.” The word “beat” is used here in both its senses: the traditional sense of pulsing rhythm (representing, perhaps, Cohen’s jazz roots), and its newer meaning taken from the worlds of hip-hop and electronic music. In the latter sense, “beat” denotes a song’s entire musical foundation; or, in the case of instrumental music, the whole piece – rhythm, base, melody line and all the other colors of the sound picture. The beat is the be-all and end-all.

There are no fewer creators of beat than there are guitarists in the contemporary music world, and quite a few in Israel, too. (One of the leading names in this connection, Rejoicer, produced Cohen’s new album.) Most of them, though, lack deep and intimate acquaintance with beat in its traditional sense. They are not drummers, and they sample the drums with their beats. Cohen is a marvelous drummer and live playing is an important element of his work. What’s hinted at in the album’s cover photo is 
realized time and again, in diverse and creative ways, in the numbers themselves.

There’s plenty of jazz on this album, but it’s not a jazz album. The jazz is intertwined with electronic music, hip-hop, soul and an intimation of psychedelia. We might call it “psych jazz music.” The live-drum base is overlaid by sneaky synthesizers, floating electrified trumpets, bass or contrabass, occasionally a guitar, a few singing or rap bits (despite the album’s title) and all kinds of sampling. The general atmosphere is loose and improvised. Most of the cuts are short and sound more like parts of a fluid jigsaw puzzle than autonomous units. The result recalls the work of the American 
producer Flying Lotus, the best-known name in the psych jazz field.

The best items on “Beats, Not Words” are the ones in which we can hear the mindful, creative dialogue between Cohen and the accompanying musicians and singers. That happens in “Catch Your Tears,” on which the guest artist is the American soul singer Jarvis; on “Albi Goes to India,” which spotlights the gentle electric guitar of Jonathan Albalak and the melt-in-the-mouth bass of Beno Hendler; in “Stupid Wind,” with the rapper Mo Rayon and the synthesizer of Rejoicer; and in “Trumpet Galore,” which features the splendid trumpet of Avishai Cohen.

Not as good, in my view, are the pieces in which the jazz dynamic of live collaboration between several musicians doesn’t stand out. In these numbers, which tend more toward beat in its new sense, Cohen does not come across as a top-notch creator of beats. The swing of his musical imagination is less stirring than the concrete swing of the drums. As a result, instead of being drawn into the overall vision of the album as one whole unit, I found myself reveling in the numbers I’ve noted, enjoying some other ones, but less, and waiting in vain for interesting developments in others. Which means that “Beats, Not Words” is very fine psych jazz, but not an addictive substance.

Listen to the album and/or buy it here.