Many musicians dream of making a record with a symphony orchestra, but few can afford to make it a reality. Thanks to an extraordinary ability to compose melodies that take root in his listeners’ minds and because he has, for years, patiently performed these compositions on stage to the point where they are practically a part of him, Avishai Cohen was well-positioned to execute such an ambition. As Cohen himself notes, his songs seem predisposed to adaptation at an orchestral scale, and the fact that they retain the same intensity that has provoked such widespread admiration demonstrates the vigour of his music.
Avishai Cohen had been dreaming of this experience for over a decade. Two Roses(Six Degrees Records, April 16, 2021) is the result of a long process, which began in 2013 when Cohen recorded his album Almah, with his trio and a small chamber ensemble of string quartet and oboe. Courtesy of his collaboration with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Alexander Hanson, Cohen proves that this foray into classical music was not a passing whim but rather a sincere expression of his desire to remain free from the boundaries of “genre” — a term he admits to loathing.
Cohen’s music is an intricate tapestry of global and historical influence. A master of Afro-Caribbean music, Cohen has absorbed its complexity to the point that it has had an enduring impact on the rhythmic designs he creates for his trio, and a lasting effect on his musical contemporaries. Equally affected by the melodies of Israeli folklore, and the complexity of their Sephardi, Ashkenazi or Yemeni heritages, he reintroduced some very old songs to his audience, such as the traditional Ladino “Morenika,” which dates back to the Middle Ages, as well as popular tunes from his native country, such as “Two Roses” (known in Hebrew as “Shnei Shoshanim”). Composed by Mordechai Zeira at Café Kassit, a landmark of Tel Aviv’s bohemian scene, with lyrics by the poet Ya’akov Orland, the song “Two Roses” lends its title to this album. The title itself works as a metaphor for the album’s adept fusion of jazz and the symphonic world. Cohen, a fan of jazz standards, which he likes to make his own through very personal arrangements — as shown, for example, in this record, with a version of “Nature Boy” loosely inspired by Nat King Cole — nevertheless remains a composer of themes in his own right. Some of his “classics” take their cues from North Africa, the Middle East, Slavic countries and Russia, revealing a whole world of colours and influences.
“Playing and singing one’s own music with a symphony orchestra is something special, it’s an experience that is as strong as it is specific,” says Cohen. And he has finally found an ensemble capable of providing this experience: the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.
For several years now, Cohen has been producing his albums in Gothenburg, Sweden, home of the Nilento studio of Lars Nilsson, a renowned sound engineer and producer with whom he has recorded most of his recent works. Nilsson directed the recording of the encounter between Cohen’s trio and the classical orchestra almost as if it was a live show. “Recording with an orchestra is an adventure in and of itself. It’s nothing like making a jazz record. Time is short, you have to be able to give what you have to as a trio while blending in with the orchestra. It’s a real challenge,” Cohen observes in retrospect. This recording feels right from beginning to end, and it’s easy to see how much the two entities have managed to become one. Cohen and his trio already had so many opportunities to perform this repertoire live, accompanied by different orchestras around the world, and to familiarize themselves with the “strange animal” that is a symphony. “An orchestra has its own rhythm,” he explains.
“Of course, 80 people won’t play a beat like two or three people would. There’s a kind of inertia, which you have to get used to, and you have to understand how they breathe. It’s like a horse, at once beautiful, powerful and delicate.”
And with this particular horse, Cohen chose a slow and steady pace, in order to travel far, in time and space.
“When you listen to this record, it feels like embracing a journey, entering my world, in a deeper and denser way,” he says. “For me, influences are something natural, they intertwine and become a cultural experience in itself.”
Cohen did not embark on this adventure alone. His trusted trio includes two musicians for whom he is full of praise. Azerbaijani pianist Elchin Shirinov, who appeared on Cohen’s previous record, Arvoles, plays with lyricism and clarity. And New Jersey – native drummer Mark Guiliana, with whom Cohen revolutionized the trio’s approach in the 2000s, protects the groove and rhythmic sharpness specific to Cohen’s music. And of course, there are the 92 talented women and men of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.
“I’ve basically devoted myself to the same songs my whole life,” admits Cohen without hesitation, “which hasn’t prevented me from writing and learning new ones… But these songs are part of my life, I have played them over and over again, in different versions. They are with me all the time. I tweak them a bit, or change their interpretation, but I never get tired of them, simply because I love them.” He explains that his arrangement in E major of “A Child Is Born,” by Thad Jones, now transposed to the symphonic scale, dates to the very beginning of the millennium on his fourth record ‘unity’, at the time of the International Vamp Band, in which he played primarily the piano, which may come as a surprise to many of his fans. Two Roses, however, includes new originals such as “When I’m Falling,” which testifies to the autobiographical dimension that his work has taken on in recent years.
“Some of the songs on the record date back hundreds of years and take you back in time. Hearing songs like ‘Morenika’ or ‘Puncha Puncha’ is like watching a movie, switching eras, finding yourself in a time when nothing is the same,” notes Cohen. The unfolding of Two Roses, in several respects, resembles the soundtrack of an epic film, at times tinged with nostalgia, carried elsewhere by a hectic and vibrant energy. This recording escapes stylistic distinctions and offers itself as a whole. On Two Roses, the only things that count are performance, emotion and the personal expression of a citizen of the world who sees music as his only true homeland.
New Album Features
Avishai Cohen Trio with
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Alexander Hanson
“Arab Medley”, single release March 5, 2021
“When I’m Falling”, single release March 19, 2021
“Two Roses”, album release April 16 2021
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