Avishai Cohen Moti Milrod

Israeli Jazz Trumpet Virtuoso Creates the Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence

A new album by Avishai Cohen, one of the jazz world's prominent trumpeters, grew out of mourning for his father and his addiction to Rachmaninoff.

Avishai Cohen’s new album, “Into the Silence,” was created in a period that the trumpeter says was “perhaps the most difficult in my life.” In November 2014 Cohen’s father, Dudush, passed away, and “Into the Silence” was begun right after his death.

“I didn’t sit and say to myself: ‘Now I’ll write music that will reflect the sadness I feel. It’s simply what emerged,” says Cohen, emphasizing that the album’s musical spirit stems not only from the mourning for his father but from other things that have influenced him in the past two years – for example his incessant listening to Rachmaninoff’s etudes.

Moti Milrod

Cohen is one of the best Israeli jazz musicians in the past generation, and also one of the only Israeli musicians who succeeded in becoming a part of the top echelon of trumpeters on the international jazz scene. Evidence that Cohen is in the first rank of jazz trumpeters is the invitation he received in 2009 to join the San Francisco Jazz Collective, an ensemble that includes only top American jazz players. The previous trumpeters who played in the collective were Nicholas Payton and Dave Douglas. Very big shoes, which Cohen filled successfully. He played in the ensemble for five years, until 2014.

It’s interesting to hear from Cohen that he thinks of his career as a “slow burn.” It doesn’t necessarily look that way from the side. Cohen was only 19 when he came in third in the prestigious Thelonious Monk competition, which made his name on the New York jazz scene. His first solo album, which came out when he was 25, was highly praised by The New York Times. Why does he speak of a “slow burn”?

“Maybe because I didn’t have a start at playing in the ensemble of a big name,” says Cohen. Other Israeli jazz musicians, like his namesake Avishai Cohen the bass player and saxophonist Eli Dejibri, played in ensembles of the greatest jazz players (bass player Cohen with Chick Corea, Degibri with Herbie Hancock). It didn’t happen to Avishai Cohen the trumpeter.

“There weren’t many gigs for trumpet,” he says. “Don’t get the impression that I’m sorry about that or that I was jealous of those who did it. I wasn’t. Being the sideman of a star doesn’t guarantee anything later on, and because I wasn’t there I could grow together with people of my own age and create a scene with them. That’s a wonderful thing.

“When I say ‘slow burn,’ I also mean that I didn’t receive dramatic offers from important record companies,” continues Cohen. “If 12 years ago Blue Note Records had signed me up, that one event would have taken my career to a different place. It didn’t happen and I’m not complaining about that either. The closest thing was joining the San Francisco Jazz Collective, but it’s not the same thing.”

Now Cohen can tick off being signed up by a famous record company. His new album is being issued by ECM, one of the most prestigious and high-quality jazz recording companies of the past 45 years. Producer Manfred Eicher, founder of ECM Records, was impressed by Cohen’s playing on the album of saxophonist Mark Turner, which was produced by the company, and made him an offer to record an album under his name at ECM.

At first Cohen thought about creating an album by Triveni, the trio that he has led in the past 10 years, but he changed his mind and chose music he wrote after his father’s death. “It’s quite ECMish,” he says. ECM has an identifiable style, atmospheric and restrained, which is less suitable for Triveni’s swing-filled improvisation. The name of Cohen’s new album, “Into the Silence,” is reminiscent of ECM’s famous motto: “The most beautiful sound next to silence.”

Cohen says that Eicher, who is known as a very dominant producer, barely intervened in his artistic choices. “I knew that nothing I would do, even the most abstract thing, would sound overdone to him. He’s produced 1,600 albums. After hearing (the great trumpeter) Don Cherry in 50-minute chants, nothing can scare him.”

For the new album, which will be launched this week in three performances in Israel (on February 23 at Zappa Herzliya, on the 24th at Zappa Tel Aviv and on the 25th at the Yellow Submarine), Cohen formed an outstanding ensemble, which included pianist Yonathan Avishai, saxophonist Bill McHenry, contrabassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits. The recordings were made in the south of France, almost without rehearsals.

“I like this freshness,” says Cohen. “Sometimes you record music that has been played a lot, at home or in performances. On this album everything was new to us. The old-time records, the ones we love so much, were made that way. Miles [Davis] would come to the studio and say to the players: ‘Here are the selections.’ There are players for whom that’s the greatest nightmare, but I like it. You have to know how to let go and commit yourself to not knowing.”

In that connection Cohen tells of an inspiring encounter he had last summer with the great saxophonist Wayne Shorter. “He knows who I am, and every time he sees me he smiles and does this with his hands” – Cohen makes a motion of playing a trumpet – “but I’ve never spoken to him beyond ‘Shalom, shalom.’ In the summer I was in Japan and he performed there in a duo with Herbie Hancock.

“I thought it could be an opportunity to ask him how he manages to be so free in his playing. The performance was marvelous, and afterwards he was surrounded by a lot of people. I went to eat and when I returned after half an hour he was sitting alone in the dressing room and packing his things. I asked, ‘Mr. Shorter, can I come in?” He invited me in and we spoke for 20 minutes. I asked him about letting go when playing. He has a complicated way of saying things, but he answered that clearly. He said: ‘Play what you dream.’”

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