Members of bands that stay in business for a long time – and they are generally few and far between – often talk about having a sense of kinship. That includes the squabbles as well as the closeness and the shared creative nous.
Jazz trumpeter Avishai Cohen and his cohorts in this evening’s closing slot of this year’s Jazz at the Opera series certainly share a great deal of empathy, sympathy and, yes, even love. For Cohen’s principal collaborators in the 3 Cohens concert are sister Anat, who plays tenor saxophone and clarinet, and soprano saxophonist Yuval.
Each of the siblings has been busy forging successful solo careers for some years now. Avishai and Anat are long time New York residents, and all three attended the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. Yuval relocated back here after experiencing some health-related issues – thankfully, all is well with him now – while the other two have continued working from their stateside bases, making forays over here and elsewhere around the world.
While the Cohens have worked together more frequently in recent years – their shared discography amounts to just three releases in 11 years – it took a while before they found the time to join genetic and musical forces. This, says Avishai, was not by design nor were they trying to circumnavigate the clichéd family group scenario.
“We weren’t concerned about what people might say about three siblings performing together,” he says, “the idea simply never came up.”
While it may going a bit far to cite the “familiarity breeds contempt” saying, there is a grain of truth there.
“You know you often don’t appreciate the good things you have right under your nose,” says the trumpeter. “The first time we played together, even before we made our first record, was at Berklee. It was Yuval’s last year there, and my first, in 1997. It was a recording session for the best students at the college and they put us together to record a couple of numbers with a rhythm section.”
By all accounts the student session went well but, at the time, that was that.
“None of us gave too much thought to working together,” recalls Avishai. “We weren’t interested, then, in developing our careers. We just wanted to improve as musicians.”
They have certainly done that. Their recordings and concerts, as individual leaders and as a family lineup, generally attract across-the-board kudos.
Each has furthered his or her own career to great effect. Avishai has halfa- dozen albums to his name as leader, and he has performed and recorded with the highly popular Third World Love quartet of bassist-oud player Omer Avital, American drummer Daniel Freedman, and pianist Yonatan Avishai. The latter and the trumpeter have been playing together since they were 10-years-old, and the pianist will be on duty at the Opera House this evening, as will bassist Reuben Rogers and longtime friend and professional colleague drummer Jonathan Blake.
When Cohen hit the New York scene, after a couple of years at Berklee, he spread his musical net far and wide. He played with mostly Israeli avant-garde band Lemon Juice, hooked up with some Cuban-oriented jazz outfits and got into the scene at the Smalls jazz club in Greenwich Village where he frequently shared a stage with Avital.
“It’s funny that people were surprised when they heard me playing straightahead jazz back then,” Avishai recalls, “but that has always been my thing, and that is what I am developing with my Triveni band now.”
Avishai got an early start to his musical career. By the time he arrived in Boston he wasn’t exactly a novice.
“I had been playing for quite a few years in Israel,” he says. “I was playing bebop at the age of 14. I played with [saxophonist] Eli Degibri [artistic director of the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat]. We could play.”
That gave the trumpeter a head start when he made it to the homeland of jazz.
“When I got to Berklee, I didn’t really feel the need to prove myself.”
That glowing self-appraisal is corroborated by the fact that, just one year after moving Stateside, Avishai placed third in the Thelonious Monk competition, the most prestigious contest in the jazz world.
“The first two placed contestants were in their 30s, and I was a 19-year-old kid from Israel,” says Avishai. “I hadn’t expected to make it to the final. I hadn’t even prepared any numbers to play in the final.”
Doing well in the Thelonious Monk competition is a proverbial door opener, as Degibri himself discovered, when he placed second in the contest and subsequently found himself playing alongside iconic pianist Herbie Hancock.
Avishai quickly found his feet after that, and forged ahead with defining “his own voice” in the jazz idiom and the jazz world.
Over the last decade or so, jazz artists from here have increasingly fused their sonic endeavor with material from the Great Israeli Songbook. It is not so rare to find material written by the likes of iconic Israeli tunesmiths Mordehai Ze’ira or Sasha Argov on CDs released by Israeli jazz musicians. But Avishai generally eschews the local beat.
“It’s okay to do that, but it has never been a major part of my approach,” he declares. “I have always been something of an outsider, even when I lived in Israel. I never really sat around listening to Israeli music. I listened to jazz.”
Even so, the trumpeter found himself at the epicenter of the Israeli pop-rock scene at a very young age.
“When I was 17, I played on a Shalom Hanoch record [‘Erev Erev’]. I spent a whole month in the studio with him while the rest of the class prepared for the end of year party. I didn’t really know much about Shalom’s music before that. Today, I am a bigger fan of his work than I was back then.”
The trumpeter played on CDs of a whole slew of leading members of the local pop and rock fraternity, like Ehud Banai, Assaf Amdursky and Eviatar Banai.
There was an early sibling synergy when Avishai teamed up with Anat for a gig at the jazz festival at Shefayim.
Today, Avishai is more open to going with all kinds of musical flows. One of his projects is the Big Vicious band with an intriguing lineup of two drummers and a pair of guitarists.
“I listen to everything and I am very open now,” he says. “I listen to flamenco and Radiohead. The main problem is time. I am so busy and there are all kinds of things I don’t get around to.”
Thankfully, he has found time to play with his sister and brother.For tickets and more information: (03) 692-7777 and www.israel-opera.co.il.