Avishai Cohen and his New York Division played the Barbican last night. They took us on a musical journey that included stops at several of his albums - from the very first to his most recent, displaying influences from be-bop and classical music and ending with a series of songs in English, Hebrew and Spanish.
Over the years I have been to many of his concerts and every time there is something new and different. He has given us jazz quartets, jazz with strings, experimented with songs in a variety of languages and now we have the New York Division which adds three more world class musicians to his most accomplished trio. For slightly more than two hours last night our Avishai was accompanied on stage by Kurt Rosenwinkel on guitar, Steve Davis on trombone and Diego Urcola on trumpet, the line up being completed by trio members Nitai Hershkovits on piano and Daniel Dor on drums.
Entering the stage in darkness to cheers and applause it was straight into the music with songs from the current album From Darkness, including Ballad for an Unborn and Amethyst (and I think Signature as well?), a good long workout of Shuffle from the Colors album of 2000 and an even earlier piece from his very first album - Bass Suite #2 from Adama, released in 1998. I especially enjoyed this reference back to his early solo days which he played to open the second set, accompanied only by messers Davis and Urcola in a short but engaging interplay between the three instruments. Throughout the evening, there were clear references to classical music as well as middle eastern and other influences and for me there are echoes of both early music and the streets of Jewish Spain before the expulsion in 1492.
The second set/ lengthy encore (for which thanks!) included a vocal version of the old Nat King Cole classic Nature Boy (revived in the 1970's by George Benson- also a classic). Singing in English, it was an emotional reading of a mystical song and one which Cohen has yet to record. He teased the audience by saying he would - which was responded to with a cry of "do it". I hope he does. This was followed by my favourite track from his Aurora album - Alon Basela, sang in Hebrew and inspired by his father. The title means an oak tree in a rock and the lyrics are about staying firm through adversity. I like the tense, urgent feel of the song and the way his voice becomes an additional instrument in the performing of it. I loved the physicality of his performance of this song, with much drumming of fingers on the bass, providing his own percussion.
No Avishai Cohen concert is complete without at least one song in Spanish and or Ladino and we were treated to a salsa influenced piece with euphoric Latin influenced piano playing from Hershkovits and the sharpest trumpet playing from Diego Urcola. Urcola's playing was for me one of the highlights of the evening - I've already been on Amazon looking for his albums! Still in a Latin theme, we then had a solo from Cohen as he performed the Argentinian song, Alfionsina Y El Mar before the ensemble rejoined him for a lengthy and riotous reading of Gershon Beat from the At Home album, which I still think is one of his best. Each of the musicians were showcased in this final number including Cohen displaying little known percussion talents using drums ticks on his metal music stand to accompany drummer Daniel Dor. Dor stood out with a magnificent solo that left the audience cheering and him exhausted!
British audiences love Avishai Cohen and received several standing ovations, calls from the auditorium for favourites to be played and murmurs of recognition of most of the numbers and he can play an audience in a small intimate like Ronnie Scotts or a large auditorium such as the Barbican to equal effect. He is currently working on fusing jazz and classical music more closely and will premiere this work in Sweden in September with his trio performing with the Malmo Symphony Orchestra. Let's hope he brings this show to London soon, oh and Avishai - don't forget about recording Nature Boy too!