Yonathan Avishai’s Joys and Solitudes

cover artFor such an economical package — at eight tracks and just 55 minutes, it’s practically an EP by today’s jazz CD standards — Yonathan Avishai’s Joys and Solitudes is brimming with musical riches. On the strength of this album, the Israeli-French pianist may no longer be best known as a member of Avishai Cohen’s ensemble, although the work he’s done with his chum from school days is considerable.

The bookends here are among the joys. It opens with the only cover, a stately take on Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” that highlights not only Avishai’s marvelous way of painting tones in economical but lush strokes, but also shows off the contributions of bassist Yoni Zelnik and drummer Donald Kontomanou. The closer, “Les Pianos De Brazzaville” is a world away in mood, heavy on rhythm, a rumba-based excursion inspired by a couple of trips to The Republic of the Congo. It’s a nifty tour through sounds and rhythms of Africa and the dispora, with Avishai almost casually tossing off hints of Cuba, New Orleans and Chicago, among other elements of blues and jazz.

Getting from Ellington to Brazzaville is a lovely trip. “Song For Anny” starts out as a parlor etude and opens up into warm tunefulness with hints of Evans-like voicings. “Tango” takes inspiration from Dino Saluzzi and Anja Lechner’s album Ojos Negros. It’s spare and yet romantic, hinting at but not attempting to be an actual tango. “Shir Boker” (“Morning Song” in Hebrew) is lovely and warm. “Joy” is the most melodic of all, and its counter-melody sounds like a sunny love song from that musical theater production — you can’t quite remember which one — before the trio breaks the counter-melody up in little pieces and after a skittering solo by Kontomanou, reassembles it as the original melody for a brief coda. “Lya” is bouncy and breezy, even carnivalesque at times with hints of Latin rhythms and some Monk-like key bending.

Where’s the “solitude” part? Ah, that’s in the longest track, “When Things Fall Apart.” It follows right on the heels of “Lya” and the contrast couldn’t be more stark. I’m glad the one-sheet from ECM noted that, in addition to its name being borrowed from the title of a book by American Buddhist writer Pema Chödrön, the music itself is inspired by the music of none other than Avishai Cohen.

“It’s actually a direct response to Avishai’s composition ‘Into The Silence’,” the pianist says. “Even though I’m part of Avishai’s band, and have participated in the shaping of the music, the way in which that piece develops is a little mysterious, and I like the emotional result. Many of the things I write are melodically simple, and often in 4/4, but with ‘When Things Fall Apart’ I wanted to experiment with a longer form, with spaces for improvising, as Avishai often does.”

That prompted me to go back and listen to that piece by Cohen, the title track to his 2016 release, which was a meditation on the death of Cohen’s father. It was well worth the time and effort, revealing as it did the key role the pianist Avishai plays in that ensemble, and some of the stark beauty of that album that may have eluded me at the time. And then come back to Yonathan’s piece here, and contemplate its subtle moods and the high-level interplay among these trio players.

The takeaway? “Mood Indigo” for its hip but never glib nod to Ellington’s genius; “Brazzaville” for its bravura tour through the shifting moods and colors of African-based music; and “When Things Fall Apart” for contemplation of life’s simultaneous offerings of joy and solitude.

(ECM, 2019)

About Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.