Admittedly, it’s hard to get excited about the tonal possibilities of the upright double bass—unless Israeli jazz virtuoso Avishai Cohen is playing it, in which case the emotional superlatives quickly go from mere excitement to shock, astonishment, fascination, wonder, awe, and delight, in roughly that order.
Playing last night at St. Paul’s Jewish Community Center, fresh off a weeklong gig at the Blue Note in New York, Cohen was in town to play for Jewish Independence Day, or Yom Ha’atzmaut, and to celebrate the worldwide release of his latest CD, As Is, Live at the Blue Note. Cohen isn’t particularly well known outside of jazz circles, but in the small universe of jazz bass aficionados, he has become somewhat of a flaming comet for the many ways in which he extends the reach of an instrument whose proper role, in many people’s eyes, is thump-thump-thudding behind a bluegrass band. Last night’s show was so lightly publicized that bassists around town were getting frantic calls from their friends two hours before the show, alerting them that the amazing Avishai Cohen was in town, so they’d better drop whatever they were doing and get down to the JCC (where?!) before it was too late.
Those who made it were treated to two tight, brisk sets of world-class jazz from a trio completed by nineteen-year-old Israeli phenom Shai Maestro on piano, and New Jersey’s Mark Guiliana on drums. Playing all original material—some from the new CD, some from past efforts, and some from upcoming projects—this group, formally known as The Avishai Cohen Trio, displayed a level of technical virtuosity and musical inventiveness rarely seen even in the best jazz clubs. Scene-followers on the lookout for the next young whiz with jaw-dropping chops will want to take note of pianist Shai Maestro, a kid from Jerusalem who has liquid lightning in his fingers. But Cohen is clearly the heart and soul of the group. And, unlikely as it sounds, his prowess on bass does ultimately steal the show.
Regularly referred to in jazz publications as a “genius” or “visionary,” and often discussed in the same breath as the great Jaco Pastorius, Avishai Cohen doesn’t just play bass—he embraces it, he dances with it, he slaps it, he strums, pops, pounds, bows, and bangs it, pulling every imaginable sound out of it, including speedy legato improvisations and inventive chordal textures that one doesn’t normally hear from the monster of all instruments. He can reach down and play a delicate melody on the upper register, then lean back and meet up with his band-mates in an instantaneous explosion of jazz-funk fury, flailing so fast sometimes that you’d swear he had six hands. All three musicians have a beautiful soft touch as well, which gives the band a tremendous dynamic range. Cohen is always in control, though, and plays onstage between the piano and drums, where he bridges the two and always keeps things in perfect balance.
Cohen’s compositions and arrangements are also worth mentioning, because they tend to be both musically adventurous and accessible at the same time. Some of the most interesting pieces played last night have yet to be recorded, but draw heavily from Cohen’s cultural heritage in Israel and Eastern Europe. Because this was a concert for Yom Ha’atsmaut, Cohen played quite a few numbers derived from traditional Jewish folk songs, but he always adds a jazzy, infectious twist. He even sang a couple of tunes, and his voice is as pleasingly mellow as his other instrument.
At the end of the show, Cohen reminded the audience that the music they just heard was “the sound of freedom.” Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in that crowd who didn’t agree that freedom, in the musical world at least, is in mighty good hands.
Note: Avishai Cohen’s new CD, As Is, Live at the Blue Note, was released today and is available at Avishai Music. For those who missed Monday night’s performance, don’t worry—the CD comes with a full-performance DVD that will explain what all the fuss is about.