Double exposure

With nothing but piano and sax, Yuval Cohen and Yonatan Avishai render The Art of the Duo at TA Jazz Festival.

Yuval Cohen, Yonatan Avishai_390 (photo credit: Courtesy Arbel Communication)
Yuval Cohen, Yonatan Avishai_390
(photo credit: Courtesy Arbel Communication)
Jazz, as an improvisational art form, requires a degree of risk-taking. The purists would say “the more the merrier,” and it looks like Yuval Cohen and Yonatan Avishai will be out on a limb for much of their concert on the first day of this year’s Tel Aviv Jazz Festival (February 21 at 8:15 p.m.).
Performing with only a saxophone (Cohen) and a piano (Avishai) does not leave much in the way of a safety net. There’s no rhythm section – bass and drums, at least – to keep the tempo substratum in place, and the harmonies have to be snug. There is no escape route.
“You are very exposed in a duo format,” says Cohen. “It is a very demanding combination for two reasons – technically and musically. Technically, you are completely exposed in the sound you make and the quality of the sound and intonation. Everything you touch on your instrument goes out straight; there’s none of the hullabaloo you get in bigger combos. And musically, you’re talking about brainstorming of two instruments. The interplay is very fast and immediate. It’s a constant dialogue and exchange of ideas. You are never on your own doing your own thing,” he explains.
The Cohen-Avishai synergy at the festival goes by the title of The Art of the Duo, but Cohen denies any pretensions or intent to make any definitive declarations about just how a jazz twosome should sound.
“We have absolutely no intention of claiming that Yonatan and I are going to show the world the way things are [for a jazz duo]. Absolutely not,” Cohen says unequivocally. “That’s not the way we treat life or the music itself. It is just a matter of our understanding of the way we should play the music together and has nothing to do with the way anyone else might approach the music.”
That live and let live ethos, says Cohen, will come across at the show. “You’ll hear it in the music. It will be very melodic, minimalistic and delicate. We won’t be setting off fireworks and pyrotechnics.”
This is not the first time Cohen has hooked up with a pianist. A few months ago he released an album called Song without Words, on which he joined forces with pianist Shai Maestro. The CD came out on his younger sister, saxophonist-clarinetist, Anat Cohen’s Anzic Records. Anat has been one of the mainstays of the New York jazz scene for some years now.
In fact, the upcoming date in Tel Aviv won’t be the first time that Cohen and Avishai have done business together on stage as a duo or in a larger ensemble. Cohen regularly performs with sister Anat and trumpeter brother Avishai Cohen, as The 3 Cohens, with Yonatan Avishai behind the keyboard. But their first professional confluence on their own happened a long time ago.
“It was around 20 years ago at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat,” Cohen explains. “[Pianist and then festival curator] Danny Gottfried played a concert with his band, and he asked me and Yonatan to do a spot of about 25 minutes in the middle of their gig.”
Considering the pair were still in their teens, that must have been quite an experience. “At that age, you don’t feel any fear,” continues the reedman. “We had also played together, jamming and stuff, many times beforehand, so we were already pretty comfortable with each other. But that was a different lifetime.”
The latter observation is not just a matter of metaphorical ornamentation. Fifteen years ago, when he was 23, a graduate of Berklee College of Music and starting to make a name for himself on the New York jazz scene, Cohen began to feel some pain in his neck. The pain gradually increased until it became unbearable, and a hastily arranged medical examination revealed a benign tumor near the top of his spine. The ensuing surgery was successful, but Cohen had to start all over again.
To begin with, he couldn't walk or move any part of his body, and even when he began to regain his motor abilities, it took quite a while before he could use his left hand again. That, naturally, put his musical development on hold, but he says it has been an epiphanic experience.
“It was like hitting the Reset button of the whole body,” he recalls. “I still had the memory of the music and what I’d played, but I simply couldn't do it anymore.”
While he endured the long recovery process, he studied law at university but eventually resumed his playing career although, naturally, it was hardly business as usual.
“Before I got sick, I played alto saxophone; but after that, I moved to the soprano. My left hand still doesn’t have the same sensitivity I had before, but the memory of what to do came back.”
Cohen says that when it comes to his twinning with Avishai, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
“We each bring our own very different influences, and I think that enriches what we do,” he observes.
The repertoire for the Tel Aviv gig will be a combination of original scores by each of the two players, plus a jazzy arrangement of “Be’eretz Ahavati,” written by Ruhama Raz to words by Leah Goldberg.
Increasing numbers of local jazz artists dip into the Israeli Songbook for inspiration, and Cohen will perform a program of jazzed-up Israeli songs at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem at the end of February. “I’d listen to these songs on the radio as a kid, so it is a part of me,” says the saxophonist.
“Many old Israeli songs are so lyrical that they lend themselves to jazz arrangements. I like doing that stuff; it is deep rooted.”
As Cohen says, there may be no pyrotechnics in store at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque on February 21, but his concert with Yonatan Avishai is sure to pull a few heart strings.
For more information about the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival: