ALBUMS: Playing The Room With Two Of Israeli Jazz’s Finest Musicians

Avishai Cohen and Yonathan Avishai shine on the longtime collaborators’ first duo recording

Avishai Cohen/Yonathan Avishai Playing The Room, ECM 2019

Artist: Avishai Cohen/Yonathan Avishai

Album: Playing The Room

Label: ECM

★★★★ (4/5 stars)

Trumpeter Avishai Cohen and pianist Yonathan Avishai have been playing together for three decades, starting in junior high in their native Tel Aviv.

The pair have recorded together for twenty years, in the quartet Third World Love and in groups led by Cohen, including on the acclaimed ECM albums Into the Silence and Cross My Palm With Silver. Amazingly, despite such a deep and abiding musical and personal connection, Playing the Room marks the pair’s first album together without the aid of compadres.

Both men have a penchant for the chamber jazz ECM made famous. Add that to the lack of a rhythm section and the direction of Playing the Room comes naturally. Avishai’s classically-trained touch on the keyboard combines with Cohen’s plush, full-bodied lines to create an atmosphere of tasteful melody that’s almost sensual. Cohen’s “The Opening” (which does indeed open the record) and Avishai’s “Two Lines” stand as perfect examples. As the only two originals on the record, it stands to reason they would, and they sound as natural and relaxed as you would expect from two people who’ve made music together for thirty years. Even better is a take on John Coltrane’s “Crescent” that caresses the original melody like someone stroking a pet’s hair for the last time, savoring the sensation with almost exquisite melancholy. 

Avishai Cohen on trumpet, Yonathan Avishai on piano

The album isn’t all late night musings and early morning dawns, however. “Dee Dee,” from the catalog of free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, flits along at a jaunty pace, Avishai and Cohen trading lead lines with such a sense of play you can easily imagine the smiles on their faces. Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Kofifi Blue” gets even friskier, the pianist really showing off his chops with some tongue-in-cheek ripples. As might be expected, Milt Jackson’s “Ralph’s New Blues” exploits the genre in the title, with Avishai dipping into New Orleans stylings while Cohen bounds over the changes like Louis Armstrong fronting the Modern Jazz Quartet. Speaking of the pioneers, the duo also dips into the catalog of Duke Ellington via “Azalea,” swinging gently but firmly. Jumping a few decades later, Avishai takes the wheel for a lively version of “Sir Duke” – few combine melody and rhythm as skillfully as Stevie Wonder, and the piano player slips into the tune’s pocket with enough acumen that Cohen feels no need to cut in until the very end. 

The duo ends the record with music from their homeland. Composed by Israeli national treasure Sasha Argov, “Shir Eyes” pays tribute to their country of origin with a soulful, dignified reading, putting just the right amount of emotion into each keyboard stroke and trumpet blurt. By visiting the catalog of one of their country’s most beloved composers, Cohen and Avishai bring the record back to where they started. More about the pair’s inspirations than their own talent, Playing the Room demonstrates that heritage comes not only from national origin, but also a lifetime of discovery. 


VIDEO: Avishai Cohen/Yonathan Avishai “Sir Duke”

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Michael Toland

Michael Toland has been writing about music for various fan- and magazines since 1988, including Austin Chronicle, Blurt, The Big Takeover, Trouser Press Record Guide (online), Pop Culture Press, Amplifier, Sleazegrinder, Austin-American Statesman, Austinist, Austincitysearch, Goldmine, FHT Music Notes and, from 2001–2006, his own website, High Bias. As might be surmised by the number of times “Austin” appears in the above list, he lives in Austin, Texas.

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