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discover: Avishai Cohen

By Anthony Garone

Genre-defying jazz-ish art in the form of music.

Who is Avishai Cohen?

Avishai Cohen–the bassist, not the trumpeter who is also named Avishai Cohen–is an Israeli jazz musician and composer. He frequently employs uncommon time signatures, exotic-sounding scales and chords, lyrics sung in multiple languages, and incredibly-talented supporting musicians playing a variety of instruments.

What makes Avishai Cohen Weird?

Avishai’s music blends influences from blues, rock, middle-eastern, electronic, free-form jazz, minimalism, and many other genres. His lyrics span several languages because he feels that the sound of each language suits songs differently. He has a wonderful sense of harmony and makes heavy use of harmonic major and harmonic minor scales. In traditional jazz instrumentation, this kind of music has a very unique flavor.

Where you should start

Andy West played a song for me called Chutzpan from Cohen’s 2008 release, Gently Disturbed. There were so many musical elements hitting me simultaneously as I listened for the first time: an uncountable time signature, virtuosic bass ostinatos, complex chord substitutions, improvisation, energetic performances, and atypical melodies and harmonies. I soon purchased the album and found it full of joy, oddity, and beauty. So much of Cohen’s music captures these exciting elements.

Each of his albums is unique and captures a different mood. Some of my favorite songs are:

  • How Long and Lyla from Lyla
  • El Hatzipor, Aurora, and Leolam from Aurora
  • One for Mark and Smash from Continuo
  • Seattle, Chutzpan, La Baiom Velo Balyla, and The Ever Evolving Etude from Gently Disturbed
  • Dreaming, Seven Seas, and Halah from Seven Seas

His Approach

In an interview with Oregon Music News, he talked about the song Dreaming:

[There’s] this one tune in 13/8 that’s very challenging to play, to improvise on. Opening it up is another thing. I have no one to study that from. I don’t know anybody who really does it so I have to invent my own ways, and my piano player has to invent his own ways of learning a whole new way of improvising fluently on 13/8 with the movement of chords and everything. It’s not easy. That’s a new challenge.

This quote highlights one of my favorite aspects of weird music: As you learn it, you’re exploring uncharted territory. Chances are that very few people have done anything similar and there’s no mentor to guide you through the learning process. You have to persevere through practice, experimentation, and self-exploration. Dreaming and Chutzpan are songs unlike many others and require a different way of thinking for the composer and the performer.

Weird music doesn’t have to sound “weird”

The weirdest aspect of Avishai’s music, however, is how accessible many of his compositions are despite the abundant experimentation with and utilization of song structure, harmony, rhythm, and mood. It’s the kind of music I can enjoy and be creatively and intellectually stimulated while my wife and children can also listen and enjoy. The music doesn’t sound particularly weird until one begins to dissect it. It’s clearly infused with international influences that rests within the jazz genre, but at times it can be electronic, progressive, polyrhythmic, hypnotic, aggressive, tender, or dizzying.

One thing it isn’t, though: boring.

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