Review Summary: When making a jazz album as a bassist, you'd better have some good musicians with you. Or you'd better be Victa Wooten.
When listening to a jazz CD with a bassist as bandleader, there are times that I cannot help thinking of Chris Bosh on the US National Basketball team in the Beijing 2008 Olympics. We knew he was a good player, but he functioned so wonderfully in this team. Hey, he even reminded us that he can play defense. But then at the end of the summer he went back to Toronto, he went in the spotlight and was forced to support a team. Sure Jose Calderon is talented, and his teammates may have a good night every once in a while, but Bosh cannot escape the fact that he is the superstar on a very mediocre team.
Bassists have a very set role in music, keep everything flowing. Support the rest of the band. Maybe they’ll get thrown a solo now and then, but they are primarily meant to maintain the background. Of course, colossal names in jazz like Wooten and Pastorius would go against this. And sometimes listening to their music, I feel very strongly that an interesting and engaging album can feature the bassist as bandleader. But each and every bassist (however amazing, however skilled) making his or her own CD must face the same fundamental question: how am I to tackle the spotlight?
As you may have guessed already, Avishai Cohen is a bassist, an unbelievably talented bassist. He has played with Chick Corea, he has been named one of the one hundred most influential bass players of the 20th century by Bass Player Magazine. I figured I would check out his CD. I expected some nice bass solos and a decline in quality songwriting as Avishai went on his power trip. But listening to Gently Disturbed, the music was so organic. Cohen and his pianist, Shai Maestro, do not compete for solo time. At one point Shai will play, at another Avishai will play. At times they will play together, drummer Mark Guiliana drumming away in support. But always, the trio is working to create a song. And I was left gently disturbed. Haha, that’s the album title.
Each song is going somewhere, each song has a distinct feel to it; something I find rare in jazz. This is apparent from the moody, contemplative piano (from Shai Maestro) introductions on such songs as “Seattle” and “Lo Baiom Velo Balya.” The themes are beautiful and quite catchy, especially “Chutzpan” “Gently Disturbed,” and “Eleven Wives.” And these themes lend themselves to solos that are not merely demonstrations of music theory in action. Of course, there are times that one wants to stand in awe of pure musical ability. But the solos on Gently Disturbed never break the mood created by the piano, and never overextend themselves. Sometimes the trio leads more to a mood than to a song (and thus losing my interest midway through). And at times, the piano is too simple and repetitive, at times the bass solos start to unravel, at times the drums feel out of place (very rarely), but throughout the CD the trio generally maintains a laudatory level of discipline, emotion and creativity.
The fact that Cohen is a bassist does have some very important implications for the album. For one, there are no walking bass lines. The trio is too busy pushing away from 1 2 3 4 time into a wonderful mixture of syncopation and straight out unconventional drumming (my favorite kind, though you must forgive me for not being able to describe drumming better). And that means when Shai Maestro solos, I take particular note. The other two band members do not just clock out while he works, they react to him. They try to see where he is going, not just in terms of key changes.
And Shai Maestro shines most during those solos, he plays so beautifully against the thoughtful work of his band mates. He has strong moments outside of his solos, especially during “Chutzpan,” easily my favorite song. But at times, especially during slower songs, he can prove unimaginative and even a little boring.
Naturally, Avishai Cohen gets to solo as well; his solos are often wonderful, though I prefer the piano solos. The solos emerge from the rest of the song in an ethereal manner, mostly because the upright bass sounds so different from Maestro’s majestic piano. He does a good job of supporting his two band mates. Whether this means letting them play without him or putting in a powerful bass line with his dexterous hands, it doesn’t matter. He is wonderful at supporting. Ah, a bassist.
This is jazz with feeling, with a definite sense of soul. And yet separated from smooth jazz by an astounding sense of musicianship. The old jazz form is there of course: a theme, solos, theme, more solos. But somehow, Avishai Cohen’s trio is able to make its music so focused, at times so beautiful, that it is at times impossible to believe that this is jazz, with a form and a history, rather than pure emotion and beauty. The reason Avishai Cohen is not Chris Bosh is that he has chosen two very capable players to work with him in an effort to make beautiful music. The eleven songs on Gently Disturbed benefit immensely from quality composition, undeniable musicianship and a level of intensity that I have rarely witnessed in jazz.