The overall impression I got of New York-based Israeli-born trumpeter Avishai Cohen’s playing when I saw him in Portland, Ore., a few years ago was of control. The young man is capable of many levels of nuance, but he seems always to keep a tight rein on his horn’s expressiveness. It’s a great pleasure, then, to hear him channel his inner Louis Armstrong on the jaunty “Kofifi Blue,” midway through his splendid and relaxed duo outing with his longtime partner, pianist Yonathan Avishai.
I found sonic riches in the early 2019 trio release Joys and Solitudes by Yonathan Avishai who was in Cohen’s band on that West Coast tour. This is the first duo recording by Cohen and Avishai, who began to explore jazz together as teenagers in Tel Aviv and have played together over the years since then.
The album title is a reference to the space where it was recorded. Of course “playing the room” is a show-biz term for adapting each individual performance to the space where it’s taking place – which usually implies a reaction to the audience. If the crowd is reacting to your upbeat numbers, you might deviate from the setlist to stir things up a bit, but if they seem in a pensive mood you might slow things down and play more ballads. In this case, it’s a reference to the warm, wooden-walled recital room at the Stello Molo auditorium in Lugano, Italy, where this date was recorded. As it happens, that’s where Yonathan’s Joys and Solitudes was recorded in 2018, and at one point producer Manfred Eicher remarked “Avishai [Cohen] should play this room.” And so it happened. What a great choice, too. Eicher’s seldom wrong about things like that.
Playing The Room is in some ways a playful record, too. It opens with one serious composition each by the two players, Cohen’s “The Opening” and Avishai’s “Two Lines,” both modern pieces with lots of room for improvisation; and it closes with “Shir Eres,” a lovely lullaby by Israeli composer Alexander Argov. In between, the two riff and improvise on the jazz songbook, starting with a stately and heartfelt cover of John Coltrane’s “Crescent,” the title track from the saxophonist’s highly regarded 1964 album that featured McCoy Tyner on piano. Big shoes to fill, and these two honor the tune rightly. Then they have a lot of fun with Duke Ellington’s “Azalea,” Cohen going all Miles with the Harmon-style mute and Avishai elegantly chording through some wicked and witty changes. That playful run through Abdulla Ibrahim’s “Kofifi Blue” is up next, and if this doesn’t have you flaneuring up and down the boulevard with your walking stick as you hum this tune, I don’t know what it’ll take.
And the hits just keep on coming! Ornette Coleman’s “Dee Dee” is a syncopated joy with some absolutely killer harmonies – which you’d expect from Coleman, of course. The piece where I most notice the presence of the recording space is on the Modern Jazz Quartet’s “Ralph’s New Blues,” (by Milt Jackson) where a lot of the action seems to take place down in the lower registers of both instruments. When Cohen’s improv moves up higher as the piano remains down low, it just echoes warmly forever and you can feel the sense of space.
Avishai plays most of Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” as a piano solo, Cohen only coming in with some muted sustains in the final chorus. This one, too, is playful, almost a kitten-on-the-keys style but with a slight melancholy edge to it, so it’s both homage and elegy to Ellington and the other players Stevie name-checked.
Playing The Room is a superb nine-song chamber jazz recital. It’s a testament to the power of a close musical and personal relationship in the crafting of high quality improvised music, and to the prescience of a producer who could hear in his mind’s ear just how good this duo would sound in this space.