Avishai Cohen has been working since he was ten, when his job was to stand on a soap box and play trumpet for a big band. Raised in Tel Aviv, the youngest of three jazz prodigies in one house, his music is persistently lyrical, often sublime, and intensely playful. Cohen stands out on stage in a way that’s athletic: his lead’s to follow. What the body has to do with the soul can be heard in the tone of his trumpet, that strange precise math of breath and spirit. On Dark Nights, the third and latest album from his trio Triveni—with Omer Avital on bass and drums by Nasheet Waits—Cohen’s tone is clearer than any voice. The songs all go slow but never keep you waiting to find out what they’re trying to mean.
This interview took place high above Broadway Avenue in Manhattan, one afternoon before Cohen played three sets through midnight with the Mark Turner Quartet. We sat talking on a broad windowsill and shared a good view of a neighbor’s balcony garden, still blooming big in September. About halfway through the conversation, Cohen pulled out his trumpet case to show first the silver mute he uses to practice on airplanes, then a series of four mouthpieces cut into heavy pendants. At concerts and in most photographs, you can see Cohen wearing one of these things, tied long around his neck, falling somewhere to midchest. Not just oddly beautiful, they are apparently good for buzzing, and are much his own invention, tools of the trade to keep his lips in shape.
For over two hours, Cohen was cheerful, generous, but exhausted, having just arrived from Tokyo two days before. It was early yet in a two-and-a-half-month tour, a long time to be away from his family in Tel Aviv. On this tour, there would be more Triveni, more Mark Turner Quartet, in addition to mini-tours with the all-star SF Jazz Collective and The Three Cohens—that’s Avishai, his sister Anat, and brother Yuval. Under one roof, these three were born golden-throated, which seems impossibly rare. But even more striking is they all knew what to do about it.
Jesse Ruddock: How did it come into your heads, all of you, to play so much music?
Avishai Cohen: I’m from a house of music. My sister Anat was the first one to play. She played the organ. She was studying that when I was five or six years old. But as far as horns go, my brother Yuval started that up for us and joined the conservatory. Then my sister and I joined. She was eleven, I was eight, he was thirteen. And we all naturally had it from a young age.
JR: You could tell?
AC: Playing in a section, you realize it. The conductor says, “Let’s play,” and I get it right away but everyone else is struggling with the rhythm.
JR: How do you get it?
AC: You feel that you know what’s going on. By seventh grade, I moved to an art junior high school, and me and my friend Eli Degibri had a tour with the conservatory band. We went to the United States and we were a week late for our new school, both of us, because we were on tour. That way of life started then. It was at that point I knew: this is what I’m doing.
JR: That’s a lot to know.
AC: I used to be jealous of people when they would say, I want to go and study this or that. I was amazed they could choose what to do in life.
JR: But to be good at something, that kind of confidence, you carry it with you all the time.
AC: I say that I used to be jealous but not really. It’s interesting for me. People don’t know what they’re doing and when they are twenty, twenty-two, twenty-four, twenty-six, they choose. I never chose. I knew music is my life, and jazz too. I did some classical stuff, but it was never natural like this.
JR: What was your house like as a kid? Did the three of you have your own rooms for practice, or did you crowd the kitchen?
AC: We each had a room. My brother was the oldest and his practice was organized. He’d warm up, do long tones and all that. My sister was in between us. I just liked to play and mess around. My brother was the one with self-discipline.
JR: Did he discipline you?
AC: My sister and I would fool around and play bullshit. Yuval would tell us no and to play scales. And it was true, he was right, but playing, bullshitting around and just having fun is a big part of practice. It should be equally important. I remember watching TV in the living room, wasting my time, and I would hear my brother practicing. I’d say to myself, OK ten minutes, twenty minutes, half an hour, then suddenly it would be time for me to play too.
JR: And your parents?
AC: My dad used to walk home from work and give me a look. He would see if I had a red mark from the mouthpiece, and he’d say, “Ah, I see you haven’t practiced,” and that was it. He wouldn’t say, “You should go practice.” He just noticed if I played my horn or didn’t.
JR: The name of your band, Triveni, refers to the sacred Triveni Sangam at Allahabad in India, and to the meeting of the three rivers there?
JR: What does that image mean to you?
AC: It means the waters come together and you don’t see anymore what was the other river. It is the Ganges, the Yamuna, the Saraswati. The third is the mythical one, it doesn’t really exist. What I had in mind is, I’m the Ganges, Omer is the Yamuna, and Nasheet is the Saraswati. Omer is the known, we have that history together. And Nasheet is the mysterious force for me, on my side. He’s unpredictable, always changing what exists and what doesn’t exist. There’s always surprise in his playing, so he’s that one.
JR: Where did you meet him?
AC: New York. I had a gig at Fat Cat. We played and I remember, from the very first note, I thought, Oh, what the fuck is going on. I didn’t understand it, and I liked it. It was more something to feel than to understand. He played some 3/4 thing and that was it. The beat was different.
JR: Does Nasheet invent that mystique?
AC: That’s his natural thing.
JR: Sometimes I think music is all timing.
AC: I think about it a lot, the time element. I went to a market in Thailand and saw a t-shirt: No Music, No Life. At first I read it and thought that’s cool, I should get it. And then I thought the other way and that it’s not true because music is part of life, but life is bigger. For me, I have my kids and my family. Then I kept thinking about it, and it’s an impossible scenario. There is no life without music. You just said timing, and if I walk and someone walks next to me and I hear the steps, a song comes out. There’s the rhythm of our steps. I bought the shirt, actually.
JR: I would struggle without music.
AC: Don’t worry, it’s impossible. It cannot be. Forget how you would feel without it, good or bad, it doesn’t matter. There’s time so there’s music.
JR: Such slow tempos on this album and no crowding. I praise the drums for that.
AC: I didn’t realize it was going to be a slow album when we went to the studio. We recorded other things, much faster, but they didn’t fit. I put the song order together and some of the fast songs stayed through mixing. Then we mastered the album with them, but I took them out.
JR: How did you choose the track order?
AC: I wrote everything on cards, slips of paper, and moved them around, instead of writing on a big piece of paper and having to erase it. People are not listening as much to whole albums these days. It’s a one-track, single mentality. It’s a shuffle mentality. But I continue to make albums, it’s still what I do.
JR: I think albums have more power to influence other musicians and anyone.
AC: I was thinking about my brother and influence this week, and I’m realizing more over the years how much my brother influenced me. I didn’t have a collector’s mentality, I still don’t. Sometimes I don’t listen to any music. Sometimes I get into one thing and I listen to that forever. Eventually I started too. You get a tape, duplicate it, and you write on the back. He was very good at that, at getting tapes from friends and labeling them really well. So we had hundreds of tapes. We had a lot and that’s how we listened to music, and that’s how we got into jazz. I listened to many, many things.
JR: You have often said you grew up listening to records but you meant cassettes?
JR: Where was your brother getting them?
AC: Friends or radio. We had one show on the radio we used to record that played a lot of Bird, Dizzie, and stuff like this. One friend of Yuval’s was a really good collector, so Yuval used to take everything from him. Somehow it was in the house. By myself, I don’t know, but that’s what is good about having my brother and sister.
JR: As the youngest, what’s different?
AC: They do the hard work, then you find your own way. It’s a little more effortless. They do everything but we get to choose and just thank them.
JR: What do you think about your new album right now?
AC: Once it’s done, I never listen to it.
JR: Did you record in Brooklyn?
AC: Yes at Bunker. We recorded with no separation. So it’s like a live thing, with no room for editing. The only thing I did was add. I added overdubs to three songs but also in a very live manner, meaning that we would finish the track, then they left the room, and without listening back or planning my overdub, the engineer would press play. I would kind of remember what I did, but not exactly. There is no editing on the album, but what you can do is choose, as opposed to a live concert recording, you can choose the take. The whole idea of making a recording like this is to get as close to a live performance as possible. The rule of the day was no more than two takes.
JR: Did you wear headphones?
AC: No headphones. In one room, you don’t need headphones to hear the bass, to hear the drums. Usually in studios, we have separate rooms and you’re attached to your headphones and create your own mix if you need a little more drums or less trumpet. When you play live, all the little adjustments must happen inside the music. If you don’t hear the bass, you have to play quieter then he’ll start to play louder. It’s natural like this and allows us to play more free. With headphones, you are more blocked in your own world.
JR: If there is no editing, are there mistakes?
AC: The mistakes that happen with this setup are not necessarily wrong notes, which do happen by the way. They are not a technical thing, where you try to play a note and it just doesn’t happen because maybe you don’t breathe right or maybe my chops hurt from too much playing, but that all does happen too. Or you count wrong. Technical mistakes happen, but the main thing that I’m dealing with is—mistake is not the right word. I’m concentrating on the vibe, and for me I can play wild or whatever it is, but I’ll see a place where I was less concentrated, where I was listening less, or I was preoccupied in my mind with something else, and I wasn’t really there in the moment. And for me, that is a mistake.
JR: You play music with your family and friends a lot.
AC: Almost only.
JR: That makes sense to me for indie rock or punk rock but not jazz.
AC: It’s not obvious. First of all, I think I’m lucky to be able to do it. I can choose my gigs, and not everyone can choose. Sometimes it’s work and you have to take the work. Even in the SF Jazz Collective, put together by an organization, still everyone is a close friend. If they are not, they become it. The mentality is very close. On tour, after a month together, we get to the hotel and ask who’s going to lunch and sometimes everyone comes. In other bands that’s not the case. People ask about soundcheck and then you never see their face. I’m very lucky. Not to mention I love the music. This is success to me.
JR: It might be why you’re able to tour so many days of the year? Because you’re with your people?
AC: I would have to do it anyway. But it’s easier this way.
JR: I imagined that if you could play your instrument at your level, you would hear people and want to seek them out.
AC: What I do is slow burn. Most of the people I play with, I’ve been playing with for over a decade. Music takes time. We are collecting the fruits. What do you call that?
JR: A harvest.
AC: We’ve done the hard work, yes. Now it’s harvest time.
JR: I saw The Three Cohens at Carnegie Hall. I love it when you guys surprise each other with something you play. Your sister, for example, doesn’t hide her surprise. I see her looking at you hard and happily.
AC: The opposite of cool.
JR: To know someone so long and to be surprised by them, that’s a good definition of cool.
AC: Sometimes I’m thinking, how do I surprise myself?
JR: Did you not surprise yourself last night at the Standard?
AC: Sometimes I’m thinking of a mission for a specific show, solo, or moment. But, really, once I have an idea in my head, if the idea is not fresh, then my way to deal with it is: next. You take it out of the way. I am trying to stay as far as I can away from preconceived ideas, even if the language is the same. I’m not inventing the wheel every time I play, but I’m trying to stay in the moment, and you can be surprised, if not by yourself, then by the other musicians. I’m trying to stay in the moment and to stay more true.
JR: Waiting for a solo, are you thinking of ideas or things you want to reference or quote?
AC: That’s exactly what I steer away from. I used to do more of that as a kid or coming up. You plan because you have less vocabulary, less language, less knowledge of how to just do it. Some people stay with that mentality. That is exactly the stuff—the idea that I’ll come into my solo this way, or that I’m going to come high energy or very cool, or that I’ll take it this direction in half time or double time—all those thoughts, they happen, but that’s exactly what I want to take out of the way to see what comes next. I’m trying to keep it as immediate as possible. If the idea has been there, it’s hard to measure it. Two seconds is a long time, that’s already old. So it might be a second. But actually a second is a long time, I might let that pass. I don’t know how you measure it. Sometimes I am not thinking about what is going to be the next idea, I’m just worrying about not playing the preconceived thought. If I play that, it might not be connected to what is going on in the moment. I can think, Oh what’s happening now is so cool and double time would feel really good, but if it has been a few bars already, and I stick with that, I might not realize that the drummer already changed the vibe, and now if I’m coming in with the double-time feeling, it will be there for the sake of the idea only.
JR: An idea has limits. If you hold an idea, then the world can fall away and you’re stuck with those limits.
AC: For me it’s an ongoing battle. I deal with this every time I play. It’s not like you find a way to do it and that’s it.
JR: It’s like meditation.
AC: Yes it’s the same. I see a thought and think now I have to do something with that thought. I don’t have to actually play it just because I thought it. Same with writing. I used to think that all writers probably know what they are going to say, then I realized more and more that it’s the same. You figure out what you’re thinking as you write or by writing.
JR: It helps to be playful. Mark Turner admires your playfulness, or your sense of humor.
AC: Mark is very serious. His nature is quiet. If you sit with him, you don’t have to talk but you can. He’s an amazing human being, a good friend, very smart, gentle, generous. Also very organized, which is unusual. That’s why I like playing with him. His execution on the horn, he worked this out for years, and it’s a very specific sound. He’s going for it and he’s one of the people who is not bothered by anything else, like how we are perceived.
JR: You both keep the history of jazz.
AC: He’s a source. He has gentle power. Still he has to put his set list together.
JR: I like it when you two are trading solos but when you hit together, it’s voodoo.
AC: People react to it. I think it’s a combination of us being generous and egoless. It’s not about outplaying each other. There’s a balance between meshing our lines while each can also be in his own world. We’re very different but there are some similarities in our sense of harmonic freedom. And I think as we play together, we influence each other. I don’t know if I influence him, but he influences me. There’s a lot of openness and every time we play there are new things. The songs are shaped a bit differently every night.
JR: Did you meet him with the Collective?
AC: No, but that’s when we first toured together. I played with him on Omer’s album. We played some shows in New York and other places. But as far as touring, that happened with the Collective. I spent a month on the road with him and I saw him before shows, his dedication, how he’d do his yoga, running, and practicing. I’d be next door to him and hear him practicing to the last second. If lobby call was noon, at 11:59 I’d still hear his practicing. One time I remember a show in San Francisco. He didn’t get to run that day. We finished soundcheck at 7:00 and the show was at 8:00. We all went and had dinner and he went running. He came back at 7:55, switched clothes, and was ready for the gig.
JR: How much of a sport is playing for you?
AC: It’s very physical. The more I do it, the more I realize that it’s part of my job to sleep. Stretches, yoga, all that is important. It’s about muscles.
JR: You just said muscles and touched your lip.
AC: Playing is muscle work.
JR: I never think of lips as muscles.
AC: They are delicate and small. You have to take even better care of them. I didn’t think of them as muscles either, but then you get hurt. The athlete attitude is very connected to playing the trumpet, more than other instruments.
JR: Of all players, people love to compare you to Miles Davis. What does that mean to you?
AC: That’s a humbling thing. Miles is one of my biggest inspirations and one of the people I look up to the most. I don’t know. When people say it, I’m happy, but I’m trying not to think too much. I’m not trying to sound like him, but maybe it’s about the essence of how you approach music. I don’t know. I don’t know what to think about it.
JR: How many songs do you know?
AC: Hundreds if not thousands of songs.
JR: When you teach, do you have your own set of fundamentals to share?
AC: You can go to a teacher who has something to offer, take it or leave it. I’m never decided. I have to see who is in front of me, if he’s a beginner. Or you see what they’re not thinking about. The fundamentals for trumpet are first the sound. For any instrument or with any singer, you have to deal with the technicality, the craft. That’s why Miles is Miles. To create this sound you know what the technique must be.
Sound and time. No matter what’s going on, I end up talking about these two things. And then melody, and usually today in the jazz world, all the emphasis is on harmony. I leave that for last since everyone is talking about it anyway. And what about rhythm? Sound and rhythm are connected because your articulation is connected to the way you produce the sound but also to your timing.
How do you play that note? There are a million ways to play a quarter note. How thick, how soft. How do you swing a quarter note? If you haven’t checked out Louis Armstrong, you wouldn’t know. You don’t know. People worry about eighth notes. How do you swing that? People think it’s harder because it’s faster, but it’s harder to swing a quarter note. It’s very hard to do.
JR: You’re teaching notes but you’re teaching the silence too.
AC: It’s part of the music.
JR: Your new record knows what silence is.
AC: The first track, when I play it live without the overdubs, there’s more room, more space and I love it. This week I am really dealing with this question at the Standard. I am leaving a lot of room for Johnathan. There’s a new drummer with us this week, Johnathan Blake, and he caught me right away. He understood, when I left space in my solo, to take over. The more we play, I can play less and less and he is there.
The more you wait, by the way, the more weight there is to the next phrase. So it’s nice but it’s also hard. If you take a short break, it’s fine, but take a long break and you start to anticipate, asking what’s going to come next. If you’re waiting, you can’t just come in with nothing. There’s all this tension. That’s why it’s not that easy to do, to take space. It means new responsibility for the next phrase.
JR: What motivates you when you’re making all these small and quick artistic decisions? Does motivation matter?
AC: Absolutely. It can be frustrating how we make music but we also make a living out of it. What motivates me when I make music is to make it in the highest and most spiritual way possible. But that said, I do need to tour with what I write.
JR: Do you think business actually changes your music? Has it ever?
AC: No, I am doing what I want.
JR: That’s what I thought.
AC: I want to do everything I’m doing. I’m enjoying it. And tonight, maybe we’ll get to a new thing.
AC: It’s endless.
Avishai Cohen is a world-renowned jazz trumpeter and composer. He leads the trio Triveni, featuring bassist Omer Avital and drummer Nasheet Waits, and records and tours with numerous groups, among them The 3 Cohens Sextet, Third World Live, and The SF Jazz Collective. As a sideman, he performs with the Mingus Big Band and Mingus Dynasty ensembles, and has recently appeared in headlining acts led by Kenny Werner and Mark Turner. Cohen teaches at Siena Jazz and holds masterclasses around the world.
Jesse Ruddock edits for Seven Stories Press and is a freelance photographer. She lives in Greenpoint.
Banner image courtesy of Nelson Corsino.