Avishai Cohen – Live at the Winningstad Theatre, Portland Oregon, 10/23/10
(Featuring Avishai Cohen – bass, vocals; Amos Hoffman – electric guitar, oud; Shai Maestro – piano; Itamar Doari – percussion; Karen Malka – vocals)
Avishai Cohen and his band delivered a rousing concert at the Winningstad Theatre this past Saturday night. Presented by the Portland Jazz Festival, the set, consisting of ten songs, had the audience cheering wildly. Concocting an eclectic blend of multi-cultural fusion, refined from jazz, Middle Eastern/Israeli folk, and a variety of Latin based motifs; a night of exultant, colorful musical expression was underway. The mix of Israeli music and black jazz fits in with the upcoming 2011 Portland Jazz Festival, Feb. 18-27, whose theme is “Jewish & African-Americans Playing Jazz Together.”
Cohen and his band mates offered selections from their current release, Aurora. Utilizing wordless vocals, and predominately Latin-infused rhythm arrangements, transitions in tempo and genre were executed with suppleness and lyrical verve. “Morenika” opened with a classical feel as Cohen began with a bowed bass, evoking a drifting Middle Eastern theme. Shai Maestro demonstrated a delicate touch on the piano and was joined with the first of several brilliant percussion runs by Itamar Doari. The pace suggested a folk cadence as Cohen and backup singer Karen Malke alternated lead and harmony vocals. The ensemble sparkled on “Lonely Tree’, an arrangement of a Yiddish story. With a classical/pop feel both piano and oud (Amos Hoffman) played a dual melody lead, highlighted by some crisp tempo breaks. Cohen explored the Semitic auditory theme on a discerning solo that segued into a dazzling improvisation. The piece was coalesced by a thunderous, climactic finish with piano, bass percussion, and guitar, building a textured “wall of sound” that permeated the dynamics of the quartet. This layered, crescendo filled approach energized the group throughout the evening.
Hoffman’s oud was featured on “In One”, as his graceful, classical guitar strumming set an emotional tone. This extended piece (nearly fifteen minutes in length) evolved into a Latin jam, driven by a phenomenal bongo drum solo. The band was at its vibrant peak when the solos were transformed into “group jams”. Vocal colorations (Ladino idiom) adorned with Brazilian-like vocalese, and chants, never felt intrusive to the musicality of the compositions.
Cohen is an innovative bassist [And not to be confused with trumpeter Avishai Cohen…Ed.] After soliciting a starting point from the audience (no less than Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony), he embarked on a scintillating six minute solo. His physical mastery of the instrument included lightning-quick fingering and ebullient body movements. This piece (“An Oak Tree And A Rock”), morphed into an electrified Sephardic folk dance that had the patrons bouncing and clapping in time. The first of two encore songs, “Alfonso Y El Mar”, allowed Cohen a lone interpretation as he delineated both bass and melody lines simultaneously with grace and precision.
His stature as a bandleader and showman was evident on the incendiary finale, a raucous Salsa number that blew the house away. At the end of the piece, Cohen slid onto the piano bench to bang out the rhythm chords as Maestro reciprocated on the bass (without a break in the playing).A packed house acknowledged the emergence of an influential cultural presence. Avishai Cohen appeared compelling in an instrumental surrounding, but added a charismatic touch with his affable banter. This groundbreaking approach to global music was fresh, yet accessible.
— Robbie Gerson