An Interview with Virtuoso Avishai Cohen - Ahead of the Jerusalem Jazz Festival

Written by
Jennifer Greenberg

Unusual pairings and daring international talent return to the Israel Museum for a cultural cauldron of jazz

A man walks into a bar. Only it’s not a bar, it’s a museum. And its halls aren’t filled with just art, either; they are filled with whispers — faint overtones, a distant hi-hat, glimmers of a melody, a turnaround, improvisation.

“These are the festival’s floating voices,” says Artistic Director Avishai Cohen.

Nearly four years since its birth, we caught up with Cohen on a train from Berlin to Poland – a jazz ballad in the making – to learn how he managed to increase intrigue, yet maintain intimacy at the Jerusalem Jazz Festival (JJF).

As a cultural melting pot, Israel’s jazz musicians draw from quite the stylistic spice rack. Do you fear that in incorporating so many influences, the local scene could lose its jazz core? 

Jazz is a wide notion. It’s hard to define. It’s not really a style; it’s a feeling, an essence. It means different things to different people. Of course, if you talk to Wynton Marsalis, he would have a very specific idea of what jazz is (“it must swing”), but it can also include hip hop, folklore, avant-garde. It will never lose its core because there’s no such thing really. Jazz is evolution. Since it’s always moving, if we tried to stop it at any point, then we’d be going against what jazz truly is.

© Courtesy of PR

Was that the attitude you adopted when assembling the festival program?

I wanted a varied program that could stretch the audience’s understanding of jazz. I did so by incorporating music that might not necessarily be considered jazz within the context of other jazz shows. For instance, injecting Arabic music into the mix. I also focused on incorporating many cultural backgrounds this time around. I was curious to hear different languages bouncing off the gallery walls, which already cover an eclectic mix of artistic influences.

What effect does transplanting musicians into a museum setting have?

The Art of Jazz festival offers an added value in the fact that the experience is bigger than the show itself. The “experience” involves walking into the Israel Museum and feeling a certain atmosphere from the art before the music. This space is then filled by “floating voices” – improvised unwritten duets happening throughout the evenings.

Tell me about the origins of the featured Non-Standards fixture.

It’s a vital part of the festival. Part of what we gain from our partnership with the Yellow Submarine [jazz club] is the permission to use their ensemble to create a special show with arrangements by Tomer Bar, one of the most talented young arrangers in the country. This year, we are hosting Assaf Amdursky, who is celebrating a decade since the release of “Harei At.” He wanted us to do something together since I had played on that album, which is when we decided to not only include the album, but to reinvent it for the festival. That’s definitely going to be one of the more exciting shows.

© Shahar Malkin

The first few years of any festival require a learning curve. Do you feel that the JJF has finally come into its own?

I absolutely do. People already trust us. They trust that we are going to bring quality artists, that we will create a one-of-a-kind environment to go and explore. That even if they don’t know an artist by name, they are eager to come see what they’re all about.

Why choose this jazz festival over Red Sea or any other?

It’s cheap! You can see so many shows for the price of falafel and a movie. That alone should be good incentive to come and experience the festivities. Not to mention all the beautiful interactions that take place throughout.

Jerusalem Jazz Festival, Dec 12-14. The Israel Museum, 11 Ruppin Rd, Jerusalem

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