On Devotion, Cohen, seasoned by two years with Danilo Perez and a year-plus with Chick Corea's Origin ensemble, ups the ante with an expanded tonal palette and more ambitious compositions. He wrote 11 of the 13 tunes, bringing a sophisticated sense of harmony and polyrhythm to near-Eastern modes, Sephardic melodies, Latin grooves, blues, and even the string quartet form (leavened with wah-wah bass and balafon).
It is perhaps Avishai's enduring love of his family and his land that ties all the varying musical components into one cohesive unit. His father, Gershon, is from an Ashkenaz family and his mother, Ora, descends from Sephardic settlers who emigrated to Palestine from Greece and Turkey at the turn of the century.
"Growing up in Israel, you're exposed to many influences which create that special sauce," Cohen says. "It's in the music, the culture, the skin tone, everything. My mother is an artist, and while she worked she listened a lot to classical music, from Mozart to Chopin to Bartok. We'd have Friday night dinners in the house she grew up in, where my grandfather would sing religious songs. And my parents had parties in the house when they were younger, where they used to play '70s Euro Disco-Funk, and then you'd hear records by Middle Eastern or Sephardic singers. There was a piano in the house; I'd hear my sister take lessons, then I'd try stuff and come up with little melodies -- I'd mark the keys with shells, and that's how I remembered them."
When Cohen was 14 his parents moved to St. Louis, and he took up the electric bass. His teacher introduced him to Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke, which, he says, "changed everything. Right away I started transcribing Jaco's solos -- which was hard! -- and soon got pretty good. I also listened to Ray Brown and Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson, and started developing a jazz vocabulary. When we moved back to Israel in 1986, I enrolled at the Music & Arts Academy in Jerusalem, where I met Amos Hoffman. We took a workshop with Steve Horenstein, an American living in Israel, who is connected with Bill Dixon. He got us into Charlie Parker, Monk, Mingus and Coltrane, who are for me the strongest sound of jazz to this day -- the records had such truth in them. At 16, you're a rebel, and we felt we were in a movement. I'd get calls for gigs, working a few nights a week mostly in Tel Aviv, learning a lot of tunes. Later, in Army bands, where I had to back singers,
I more fully understood my role conceptually as a bass player, the necessity of providing foundation, a skeleton of groove for the entire band.
"After the Army, I continued to play professionally with the electric bass, but something seemed to be missing, and I became interested in exploring the upright. A friend sent me to a wonderful teacher, Michael Klinghoffer, who was into Jazz. He took me step-by-step from the fundamentals to the Bach Cello Suites that are transcribed to bass. I practiced incessantly and progressed very fast. At a certain point there was this talk about New York, and before I knew it, I did the move in 1992.
"I went to the New School briefly, where I met Brad Mehldau and Adam Cruz. There was a good vibe between us and the music and so we played together for a period of time. I also worked with great players like (tenorist) Grant Stewart or (guitarist) Peter Bernstein -- a few nights a week of playing standards with people who really know how to play that music. Ralph Peterson sat in at one of those gigs, which was the first time I'd played with a really serious drummer, and he began to call me. I met Jorge Rossy on sessions and on gigs with Brad's trio; he sensed my interest in Latin music, and later introduced me to Danilo Perez.
"During my first year, which was very emotional and hard, I listened all the time to an Eddie Palmieri record which got me way into Latin music. I was so eager to play with Eddie that I got in touch with Andy Gonzalez for lessons. I'd go to his pad in the Bronx and listen, tap the clave, learn how to form bass lines within it; I also went to see the Fort Apache Band and Libre whenever I could. Andy is my favorite living bass player. During that time I met Ray Santiago, a pianist, and Abie Rodriguez, a conguero, who play the religious and folkloric Cuban music, totally in the spirit of Eddie. I've been playing with them for about five years; they're maybe my favorite musicians. I try to keep in touch with this band all the time, because everything I learned about Latin music is from them.
"I'm always writing, and records for me are about the length of time that I live and compose in. I collect what I do, what I think is me now, and record it. I haven't had the experience of making a record with a particular sound or concept in mind. I'm influenced in my writing by the sounds and ideas of people that I play with, which I recognize."
Devotion begins with "El Capitan and the Ship At Sea," named by Jeff Ballard, Cohen's rhythm mate in the Danilo Perez and Chick Corea bands. It's based on a 32-bar bluesy groove and dedicated to Horace Silver. Ballard is one of the rare drummers who combines fly-speck reading chops with deep interpretive abilities. "Rhythmically, Jeff answers all my questions -- and more," Cohen enthuses. "He hears me and contributes love and poetry to the music in a way that's beyond words. He makes complex pieces sound simple, imparts to them that quality of a living thing."
The beginning of the "The Gift" is based on an Israeli melody called "All The Stars." "The ancient Sephardic melodies I heard as a child fuse easily with Latin or 6/8 type of things -- it's all connected, and I think it worked out as one of the best tunes on the record. Jimmy Greene's soprano solo here is a good example of his contribution to the date; the way I hear it, he doesn't just play the music; he has an opinion about it. And Steve Davis is probably one of the few trombone players who could play this music-- and he does it so beautifully. 'The Gift' is dedicated to Chick, just for my appreciation of what he has done and does for me."
"Bass Suite #3, Part 1" puts a blues connotation on a classic feeling. It begins with Cohen's rich arco sound, transitions to the pizzicato bass against a dreamy flute-trombone refrain, then morphs into a solid, Ballard-backed African groove. Part 2, which ends Devotion, features an electric bass vamp ("a bluesy weeping-over-girlfriends thing") overdubbed by live horns.
Of the dramatic "Ot Kain," Cohen says, "It evolves from the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. My friend Shay Yemini, a wonderful poet, brought me this poem and asked me to write music for it -- I was totally inspired. And as I was writing the music for it, I slipped out of the poem, made it into a tune for the band and put it on the record."
One section of the poem reads, "I scatter about, Abel, my brother, I scatter," a diasporic theme that resonates deeply with the young Israeli. "Musicians are wanderers of the mind and the world, and I feel close to that wandering person. I have been away from my country seven years now; I miss my family and my friends and my land. It's a hard part of what I do. But I have to think positively; New York is such a melting pot for the music I am involved in, that I have to be here and I have to sacrifice that.
"Angels of Peace" features Avishai on piano with Jimmy Greene on flute and Steve Davis on trombone. ãIt comes from the melody my grandfather sang on Fridays."
"Ti-Da-Do-Di-Da" is a stirring string quartet that begins with a classical section; on the second section the strings are joined by Cohen overdubbing on wah-wah electric bass, along with Jimmy Greeneâs flute, Steve Davis's trombone, Jeff Ballard's drums and Danny Freedman's balafon. It was the first time in my life I wrote a string quartet," Cohen smiles. "I wrote it at home, brought it to the guys, and it worked fine."
"Linda De Mi Corazon," featuring Cohen's rich arco tone in duo with the exceptional singer Claudia Acu–a, is a traditional Ladino song that the bassist learned from his mother.
"'Negril' is a West African influenced groove that Cohen was inspired to write after listening to a tape of a great West African band. It was a trip to Negril that inspired him to write the piece.
"Musa" begins with a duo between Amos Hoffman on oud and Joshua Levy on nai (an Arabic flute) and then goes into a melodic vamp with a Near Eastern modal feel. It's named for Hoffman's son. Cohen comments: "I often write for the oud to play with the bass, so the sound of a lot of the music is the oud and the bass combined together, which is different ö like a low end and high end together. If I took the oud out, you would know. Amos is a beautiful, mature, very unique and modest musician. The way he plays guitar reminds me of Monk; he is the closest guy to Monk that I have heard; it's just my interpretation of him. The music that Amos writes is beautiful; it has to do with Monk, too, I think. He puts a great stamp on my music."
Of Jason Lindner, composer of the ebullient "Candella City," based on a serious Latin bass line, Cohen says, "Jason is my right-hand man. We make things happen for each other. He knows how to play between the cracks of what you write rather than just play it verbatim."
"Jazz is a lot about improvising, but improvising in and of itself has a place of its own that precedes Jazz to me," Cohen concludes. "It was the thing I knew about way before I developed my skills. I think Jewish people are very free-spirited, wandering, scattering, never settling, and their spirit goes with that music. Whatever culture you're in, if you go with your feeling, with what you have inside, it can come out very rich. I'm happy that my music is accepted, and I think it should be. It's what I feel, what I am right now, and it would be a shame if it didn't have a place on the music shelf. The improvising and the rhythmic component is probably what remains jazz about it. Jazz is an international and accepting type of music, and it always took stuff from many different places -- Duke did, Bird did, all of them did."
Even ten years ago, Devotion would have sounded exotic; now it sounds at one with the zeitgeist. It's right where the music is.