Cohen's cultural comeback

Jazz bassist Avishai Cohen returns to Israel and turns to pop vocals

Avishai cohen 88 (photo credit: )
Avishai cohen 88
(photo credit: )
Whichever way you look at it, renowned jazz bassist and emerging pop singer Avishai Cohen is a phenomenon. It would not be hyperbolic to argue that, at the age of 38, the world is Cohen's oyster. Considering his principal artistic line of work, Cohen's success on the global - and now local - stage is truly amazing. He may not be filling stadiums a la rock bands, but he maintains a very busy jazz performing and recording timetable, and he probably spends more time globetrotting than at his seafront Tel Aviv home. Cohen appears to have discovered the Midas touch. Starting from scratch in New York of the early 1990s as a jazz student, he embarked on the Big Apple's gig circuit with bucketloads of youthful zest. He soon began to make his mark with various Latin-oriented bands, including a berth in Panama-born pianist Damilo Perez's trio, and his impressive evolving playing technique eventually brought him to the attention of stellar pianist-bandleader Chick Corea. Afte that, there was no looking back for Cohen. He became a founding member of Corea's high-profile Origin sextet and stayed with the pianist when the latter formed his New Trio. However, for the last five years, Cohen has been entirely his own man. Based back in Israel since 2004, after 11 years in New York, Cohen often lives out of a suitcase, recently put out his ninth jazz album, Gently Disturbed, in just 10 years, and his first release as a vocalist - on the pop-oriented Sha'ot Regishot (Sensitive Times) - is due out later this month. Add that to last month's announcement that, as of next year, he will also be in charge of the artistic program of the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat - the country's premier jazz gathering - and the fact that he runs his own Razdaz record label, and you get a highly impressive burgeoning CV. Cohen says it is the latter that provided the catalyst for his new vocal release. "I actually started singing in 2000, although the first time I sang on a record was on [2003 release] Lyla. Having Razdaz gives me the freedom and incentive to do what I want." While some might think Cohen is taking "the easy way out" of the generally less lucrative jazz sector to reap the more readily available financial rewards of commercial areas of musical endeavor, the bassist-cumvocalist says he takes his new line of work very seriously. "Some people might say I'm selling out, but that doesn't bother me," Cohen declares in a typically forthright manner. "I worked with a pop singer for a year and with a New York rock band called Gadu [which features Cohen's drummer Mark Guiliana]. I was always very busy with jazz, but I was also involved in a small rock scene in New York. It was a lot of fun." For Cohen, Sha'ot Regishot is a major part of his return to these shores, in a cultural and emotional sense. "Since I've been back here - although I spend so much time on the road - it has become more and more natural for me to sing in Hebrew. Over the four years since I relocated to Israel, I began connecting with Hebrew lyrics, and writing some of my own." The cultural homecoming may have been smooth, but the switch from instrumentalist to vocalist involved dealing with some considerable psychological obstacles en route. "It's a different kind of exposure to playing bass," Cohen notes. "It took me a while to open up to that. To begin with, I couldn't understand what was stopping me from singing. You need to take time to get to know your own voice and to get to know yourself. It's quite a process." Cohen is evidently making rapid progress along that growth continuum. So does Cohen now feel like a singer? "I don't feel like a singer, just like I don't feel like a bass player. I'm just a musician."