Israel's jazz legend owes it all to his mum

Bassist Avishai Cohen says his mother’s Ladino singing was a huge influence. That and Chick Corea.

By Anthea Gerrie, April 22, 2010

A gothic chapel in Islington may seem an odd place for a Jewish boy to play his double-bass, but for Avishai Cohen the north London venue for his concert next week could not be better.

"I've had nice offers from Ronnie Scott's, but I don't play clubs anymore," explains the 40-year-old who has become a huge presence on the Israeli jazz scene. His music has become so spare and unplugged, churches and concert halls - where the acoustics are such that every note can be heard perfectly - are the only spaces where he feels comfortable performing.

Also, he prefers the reverential hush of a place of worship. "I hate people eating and drinking while I play - it disturbs my concentration," he says, acknowledges he may be over-sensitive because his new album, Aurora, is the first to showcase him as a singer.

"I've dabbled with my voice before, but I've had to practise a long time to learn to sing and play bass at the same time," he admits. For this purist, there is no taking advantage of the one-man-band alchemy modern recording studios make possible: "I don't use any effects or other tricks - not when I record, and especially not when I play live."

Given that he has waited some 20 years to launch his vocals on the world, he might be flattered to be compared to that more famous Cohen, although it is not Avishai's voice that is drawing parallels with Leonard, but rather the plaintive, hypnotic tone of his compositions.

Besides, Avishai has help with the vocal duties on this European tour in the shape of Karen Malika, who, like the rest of the band, is Israeli. Although Cohen is an accomplished pianist himself, he dictates his piano compositions note by note to Shai Maestro, who then takes uses them as a base for improvisation. Itamar Doari's delicate percussion - bells and tinkles rather than drums - and Amos Hoffman on guitar and oud complete the line-up.

He may now be Israel's greatest native jazz musician, but Cohen had to go all the way to New York to get discovered. He worked on building sites to fund an apprenticeship with Latin bands, eventually getting adopted by the worldwide jazz legend Chick Corea, with whom he spent six years playing bass.

"I was fortunate to have made an impression on him, and to have learned so much from him about being a bandleader as well as a musician."

Cohen, who was born on a kibbutz in northern Israel, stayed so long in the USA - 12 years - that he now considers English his first language. But inevitably, he got homesick and moved back to Tel Aviv in 2004.

"I wanted my life off the road to be as different as possible. As a real Middle Easterner I missed not only my family, to whom I am very close, but the year-round sunshine and the food I love," he says.

Aurora is a vivid celebration of Cohen's return to his roots. "It's about everything I am," he says of the mix of Hebrew, English, Spanish and Ladino tracks. Most are his own compositions, one or two what he calls "simple pop songs"; others, like Morenika, traditional folk songs.

"They don't write songs like that any more," he sighs. "Morenika is a very famous Ladino song I grew up hearing my mother singing round the house.

"Her family came from Greece and Turkey via Spain, and she is very knowledgeable about her heritage. I've been so influenced by her rendition of that song. In fact my mother has been an enormous influence on me - the biggest, apart from the sound of my bow. We made an album of Ladino songs together for friends and family, and I've done a track with her on one of my albums, though she only ever intended to sing for her own pleasure."

The Hebrew numbers, underpinned by distinct Middle Eastern cadences, show the influence of Cohen's maternal grandfather, who used to sing at the Shabbat table: "Music flows throughout my mother's family," he says.

With a new album to tour, there will be plenty of opportunities to see Cohen in Europe over the next few months, starting with the London gig on April 29 - volcanic ash clouds permitting of course, although the concert's promoter is confident Cohen and his band will make the trip.

But he has pressing duties at home, too, as the musical director of the Red Sea Music Festival in Eilat, a responsibility he takes very seriously. "I took it on for the first time in 2009 and agreed to stick with it for a total of three years," he says. "Eilat is the one really major opportunity to draw international crowds to Israel through music.

"I believe because I'm widely known out there, I've been able to attract innovative acts from all over the world to play."

Avishai Cohen will play from his album, 'Aurora', at the Union Chapel, London N1 on April 29. Tel: 08444 771 000.

Last updated: 12:30pm, April 22 2010