Bereavement can reduce an artist to silence or inspire works that, while mourning the loss, also rejoice in the life spent. The death 18 months ago of Avishai Cohen’s father led the Israeli jazz trumpeter and composer to create Into the Silence, a deeply reflective album that takes the listener on an emotional ride from grief to fierce pride, love, and joy.
“The time for writing was from December to July,” says Cohen, reached in New York City, where he lives and works for part of the year. “I had a deadline to do an album anyway, and that happened to be the same period. As I was writing, I really felt the need to concentrate on what was going on, without verbalizing to myself what every tune is or means. Everything is about life for me during that period of losing the person I love most in the world.
“It was difficult, but the process was very honest. I was careful not to pick up any tunes or parts of tunes already written that might possibly work for the album, but to make sure everything is current, and celebrating not only the death but life as well, and having had him in my life. Joy, not just mourning. It was a great experience, and we played the music for the first time in the studio.”
Neither Cohen’s father nor his mother was a musician, but they were passionate music lovers and fostered the enthusiasm of their children. “My elder brother and sister took that path—and I followed them. It was such an obvious and natural thing that we all played music—and I think we had a natural talent. We loved it, and at no time did we think to stop. That’s the crucial thing. You see a lot of kids playing, and at one point they stop. It’s not just about individual practice, it’s the commitment to three times a week in the conservatory and long hours in school. I remember knowing already at the age of 12 or 13 that this is my life. Growing up knowing what you want to do is a beautiful thing.”
Cohen had a long list of inspirations as a young trumpeter—Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Dorham, Clark Terry, Don Cherry, Thad Jones, Art Farmer, Chet Baker, Lee Morgan, and Clifford Brown spring to his mind. In 1997 he moved to the U.S. to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston, graduating in only two years. Soon afterward, Cohen moved to New York, where he revelled in the diversity of music and performance opportunities available to him.
“I’ve done fun gigs playing reggae, Latin, South American music. I played in any circumstances—not just to get by financially, but musically speaking it’s important to do everything. It sets up flexibility and knowledge of what music is, and different cultures and different representations of what it can or should be. I was always connected to different kinds of music. From age 14 I’ve been recording pop and rock ’n’ roll and singer-songwriters.”
In addition to his work with the quartet, Cohen is artistic director of the Jerusalem Jazz Festival. He also plays in the band Big Vicious, “more of a rock ’n’ roll outfit”, with two drummers and two guitarists. And as a member of 3 Cohens he continues to perform with his siblings, saxophonists Yuval and Anat. Somehow, Cohen also finds time to be a family man. “My family is in Tel Aviv, and they come with me—though not so much to New York. They sometimes go on tour with me in Europe, and we spend time in India as well. Having kids and being a touring musician is a challenge, and one of the hard things about this life. But other than that, it’s pretty great.”
The Avishai Cohen Quartet performs at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre on Saturday (May 7) as part of the Chutzpah! Plus series.