Avishai Cohen has played all sorts of music, from Latin jazz to Israeli rock, but he is best known as a musician whose driving bass lines have graced recordings by pianist Chick Corea, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, singer Nnenna Freelon and others.
But with his latest album, Aurora, the Israeli-born bass player blazes a path that is truly his own. Singing, as well as playing bass, he draws on Israeli folk tunes, American pop and his own musical experiences to create songs that transcend barriers and borders, a sound he will be introducing to Canada when the Koffler Centre of the Arts presents him in concert at Toronto's Isabel Bader Theatre on Tuesday.
FINDING HIS VOICE
"I've been singing at home for a few years. More than a few years," Cohen says over the phone from his home in Tel Aviv. "Since I came back to live in Israel, I've been singing more in Hebrew and some in Ladino, which is from my mother's side of the family, the Greek-via-Spain side."
As for why he decided to sing on record, he says: "It would be a lie to put another instrumental album out without acknowledging the thing that I do at home all the time, which is to sing and play, not only play. It brings more of a personal side. So it's a daring record in that sense, because there are a lot of emotions, and stories that are real."
FINDING HIS BASS
Cohen started out playing piano as a child. "I was into Bach and into classical music, although I found it very difficult and annoying to practise it," he says.
It wasn't until his family moved to St. Louis, Mo., that the teenaged Cohen started playing bass. "I was in the jazz band at school, and started getting into jazz," he says. Returning to Israel, he enrolled in a music and arts high school. "Then I served in the army in an army band, where I played rock, Israeli rock."
But that was all on electric bass, not acoustic. "It was only after the army, when I was 20, that I bought an upright bass and decided to take jazz all the way."
It wasn't easy, but Cohen was willing to put in the time. "What one would usually take five years [I managed]in one year," he says. "I took it very, very seriously." So seriously that he moved to New York, and within a few years caught the ear of Chick Corea, who hired him to replace bassist John Patitucci.
FLYING HIS BASS
Even though he plays both electric and acoustic on Aurora, it's clear which is Cohen's principal bass. "If I bring the electric, it's in addition to the upright," he says. "The upright must be there. It's my real sound, my identity."
Unfortunately, travelling by air in this post-9/11 world with something as cumbersome as a double bass is, as Cohen puts it, "a nightmare."
"But life is about going down to go up," he says, and laughs. "For someone like me, who is recognized by his bass playing, I have to bring my [upright] bass. It's not fair not to."
THE OTHER AVISHAI
In addition to the bass-playing Avishai Cohen, the jazz world has another who plays trumpet. This Cohen also has a new album, a trio recording called Introducing Triveni.
"There are people who know there are two of us, and there are people who are new to the jazz scene," the trumpeter says over the phone from his home in New York. "But some people always confuse us.
"I just finished a performance last week in San Francisco, and there were two flyers outside, one for my upcoming release in San Francisco and another for the other Avishai saying he was performing at Yoshi's. You see the face clearly - it's not me. And someone picked it up, looked at the flyer, looked at me, and said, 'I'll see you at Yoshi's.' "
He laughs. "People sometimes are just stuck in their mind."