Lucid Culture


Avishai Cohen Brings His Pensive, Mysterious Middle Eastern Jazz to Highline Ballroom

Avishai Cohen is on a roll. The Israeli jazz bassist specializes in moody, often haunting compositions which draw equally on Middle Eastern and western classical music as well as jazz. Like another brilliant Israeli jazz bassist, Omer Avital, Cohen has gone deeper into the Middle East lately, although Cohen takes less of the spotlight than Avital typically does, and tends to be more compositionally than improvisationally-inclined. His most recent album, Almah is a blend of Middle Eastern and contemporary classical music and features both oboe and a string quartet. Like Cohen’s two previous efforts, Duende and Aurora, the lineup also includes brilliant third-stream pianist Nitai Hershkovits, who’s joining Cohen along with drummer Daniel Dor for a trio show at Highline Ballroom on June 22 at 8 PM; tix are $30.

Over Cohen’s past three albums, you can see a trajectory unfold and a distinctive, individualistic style continue to evolve. Cohen’s intimate, straightforward, emotionally direct songs without words often take on a Spanish tinge throughout Aurora, which is basically a trio album featuring Shai Maestro on piano with occasional oud from Amos Hoffman and vocalese from Karen Malka. There are plenty of tricky time signatures, generous amounts of rubato, and dynamics galore. Duende, a duo album with Hershkovits, is more rhythmic, swings more and relies more on blues-based tradition rather than the apprehensive chromatics of Aurora – other than the gorgeous theme-and-variations that comprise the former’s opening tracks. Almah has a starkly orchestrated overture, a little minimalist indie classical, austerely rhythmic Arabic melodies, an uneasy lullaby, a couple of bracingly acerbic, chromatically-fueled waltzes, and a bitingly rhythmic, rather ferocious piano feature for Hershkovits that might be its strongest track.

Since Cohen is playing this show with the trio, you can most likely expect lots of stuff from the two older albums and maybe material from even earlier. Settle in, wait for the lights to go down and let the suspense begin.

June 15, 2014 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Omara Portuondo – Gracias

Still going strong at 78, the iconic Buena Vista Social Club singer offers a heartfelt “thanks” here a la Keith Richards’ “glad to be here/glad to be anywhere.”  This new cd mixes vintage Cuban style romantic ballads and laments with a decidedly tropical feel, produced with taste and restraint by Brazilian 7-string guitarist Swami Jr., who also plays throughout. While Omara Portuondo didn’t write anything on the cd, she doesn’t have to look far to find a legion of A-list players lined up and ready to work with her, a global cast including percussionist Trilok Gurtu, Israeli-American jazz bassist Avishai Cohen and pianist Roberto Fonseca.


The cd opens with Adios Felicidad (Goodbye Happiness), imbued with a frequently characteristic, stoic, restrained beauty. The Sunny bossa number O Que Sera (a Flor de Terra), a duet with Brazil’s Chico Buarque, gets just enough beautifully minimalist salsa piano and congas to give it sway and bounce. The big, dramatic, piano ballad Vuela Pena (Fly Away, Pain) shows Portuondo’s voice undiminished as she reaches for a big crescendo, evoking a “terrible pain that poisons” and “turns a princess into the oldest queen.” Then she brings the drama up even higher on Cuento Para un Nino (Childrens’ Story), a hopeful ballad for future generations that impressively manages to avoid being cloying. The coy Amama Como Soy (Take Me As I Am), a tribute to her late, lamented contemporary Elena Burke is a swaying dance number again spiced with piano and congas. Rabo de Nube (Break in the Clouds) reverts to a hopeful, tropicalia feel with pensive bowed bass, followed in the same vein by the title track, a duet with Uruguayan candombe crooner Jorge Drexler.


Pretty much everything here has considerable, frequently minimalistic beauty. The album’s one misstep is a schmaltzy a-capella duet between Portuono and her granddaughter: by and large, unless you’re Lou Reed and you’re making the Berlin album, musicians should keep their brood away from the mic til they’re old enough to realize how cheesy it is to record them before they’re grown. Otherwise, if there’s any other criticism of this cd, it’s that it’s so tasteful and so impeccably done that a fan of this kind of music might well hear a conga break where Cohen takes a subtle little run up the scale, or might imagine a blazing horn chart in place of those synthesized strings. But those are matters of style: at 78, Portuondo is entitled to do whatever she wants. And if Obama makes good on his hint that the US might soon normalize relations with Cuba, it would be great to see her here. Til then, great to see her anywhere. 

December 10, 2008 Posted by | Music, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment