Israeli jazz virtuoso Avishai Cohen jives against pandemic

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Jerusalem (AFP)

Israeli jazz trumpeter Avishai Cohen has played since he was eight, honed his skills on the New York club circuit, then took a four-year break from it all to practice yoga and meditation in India.

A master of improvisation whose style has earned him comparisons to Miles Davis, Cohen this week pulled off another surprise -- defying the coronavirus to stage the Jerusalem Jazz Festival.

"It's very moving to see the artists and the public come together, and it's not to be taken for granted in these times of pandemic," said Cohen, the festival's artistic director.

To stage the event despite the Covid-19 crisis, Cohen moved it out of the halls of the Israel Museum and into its sculpture garden, where musicians and fans could maintain social distancing.

The concert kicked off Tuesday just as 40 Israeli cities and districts went back into partial lockdown due to surging infections in the country with one of the highest case rates in the world.

Pandemic or not, Cohen said, the show must go on, declaring proudly that "Israeli jazz dares".

Since returning from his global travels last year, Cohen, 42, has become enamoured with Israel's local jazz scene, which blends Arab, Ethiopian and eastern European influences.

The scene has grown in recent years -- signified by the fact that Avishai Cohen has a name-sake who is a jazz bassist and fellow alumni of the New York club circuit.

"What is special here is the number of musicians in relation to the population," Cohen, the trumpeter, said about Israel.

Cohen himself performed at the festival, leaping onto stage in the evening twilight of a lush summer's day before some 500 fans, his beloved instrument pressed against his lips.

"We're going to improvise," he told AFP before joining drummer Dan Mayo for a duet, the audience captivated by the music and stage presence of the tattooed trumpeter with the unruly beard.

- Let the music 'run free' -

Born in Tel Aviv, Cohen began to play the trumpet at age eight and just two years later performed in a concert, before joining the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

At 18, he went to study at Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music, winning third place in the Thelonious Monk Jazz Trumpet Competition before releasing his first album, "The Trumpet Player", in 2003.

In New York's jazz clubs, he collaborated with renowned artists and absorbed especially African musical influences.

"In New York, you try to find yourself, to build yourself, to build your career," Cohen said. "It's an endless quest; everyone goes to New York for the same reason -- to succeed."

In 2016 he released his international breakthrough album, "Into the Silence", followed a year later by "Cross My Palm With Silver", which The New York Times hailed as one of 2017's best jazz albums.

He then left the Big Apple for his four-year stint in India, to seek "calm and serenity" through yoga and meditation.

This year Cohen released "Big Vicious", the album of his eponymous quintet, a departure from his usual fluid and sober style for a more abrasive, rock-and-roll and psychedelic sound, which one critic likened to the spirit of Miles Davis' fusion album "Bitches Brew".

The album was released in March, just as the novel coronavirus hit, forcing sweeping lockdowns in Israel as elsewhere.

"Personally, it was an opportunity to take a break, to stop running and travelling and moving all the time, to simply be at home, with the children, to cook," he said.

Deprived of the stage for months, Cohen said he was able to refocus, spend time with his loved ones, and to let the music "run free".