Artist’s Choice: Avishai Cohen on Egoless Performances

From Ornette to Billie to Herbie, displays of generosity

Ornette Coleman image 0
Jimmy Katz

Ornette Coleman

At concerts or jam sessions, I always like witnessing moments in which generosity suddenly rises to the surface and you experience an egoless musical act: someone skipping his or her own solo if the tune feels too long, a more experienced musician encouraging a younger player to solo first, or a musician truly serving the music with his or her playing, to name a few examples.

You can also hear egoless moments on recordings. In this list I’ve chosen artists-some of the great masters of this music as well as younger musicians-who represent the meaning of egoless playing for me. These are artists who, when I listen to them or play with them, make me feel immediately that their playing only exists to support the whole creation, to be part of the bigger picture.

Ornette Coleman

“Street Woman”
Science Fiction (Columbia, 1972)

Ornette, founder of free jazz, is indeed free, in the deepest sense of the word. In all of Ornette’s music you can feel the truth right away, the truth behind every note. This feeling bursts out of the music and proves that there is something bigger than the musicians themselves. On this track, I love how the melody starts right away with a sense of urgency, as if the world depends on it. As in many of Ornette’s tunes, the melody is over in less than 30 seconds, then Ornette dives straight into his solo. He’s playing from the gut, screaming out his story, yet he manages to be very bluesy, melodic and clear.

Third World Love

“So”

(Yonathan Avishai, piano)
New Blues (Anzic, 2008)

Growing up with Yonathan Avishai, I can testify that his search for the truth was evident even at the age of 12. When he plays you can feel his patience and his admirable ability to play nothing but what the music calls for. On this track you can hear right away Yonathan’s affection for Duke Ellington. His solos always tell a story, and he isn’t afraid to be simple-very simple, in fact, as his chorus almost starts like a children’s song. The motivic development is beautiful, and within the heaviness of his self-restrictions he still manages to stay humorous, tuneful and soulful.

Jason Moran

“Kinda Dukish”

(Nasheet Waits, drums)
Black Stars (Blue Note, 2001)

Playing with Nasheet Waits over the years, I’ve found a musician who is connected to his truth at the highest levels. Every cymbal stroke is part of the big picture; every sound he makes is connected to the previous one, and to the next one. I’ve never heard Nasheet play any phrase that called attention to his chops. It’s always about the music. Starting with the drum solo, it feels as if he brings the music from a different world, as if it was there all the time and he just played it. This track is a great example of how seamless Nasheet’s playing is, switching quickly throughout the song between the open sections, the groove of the melody and the swinging parts. At no point do you hear the “brain”; rather, it’s all very intuitive and organic.

Billie Holiday

“I’ll Be Seeing You”

(Commodore, 1944)

For me, Billie Holiday is the ultimate example of singing nothing but the truth. You don’t hear thoughts, you don’t hear clichés and you definitely don’t hear ego. On this track, I love how, from the very first phrase until the last, each and every word is treated as if that’s the whole song. Just to hear her sing the words “café” or “wishing well” kills me. Singing at such a slow tempo must be quite difficult, but Lady Day makes it sound completely effortless.

Herbie Hancock

“Maiden Voyage”

(George Coleman, tenor saxophone)
Maiden Voyage (Blue Note, 1965)

My old teacher, the great Phil Wilson, used to say, “If you can’t tell your story in one chorus, you definitely can’t tell it in more than that.” I sometimes take this challenge and try this approach in my performances, only to find out yet again how hard it is. It always feels as if there’s more to say, and it takes humility to just “leave it at that.” I’ve been listening to Herbie’s Maiden Voyage a lot lately, and this solo by George Coleman gets me every time. Right away, from the brilliant opening statement, there’s a sense of patience about it, even though Coleman doesn’t necessarily hold back. Toward the end of the chorus you can definitely imagine him taking another chorus, but he goes to the final phrase, almost like he does it on purpose, sort of against the music, just to make a point.

Avishai Cohen is a trumpeter and composer whose next album, Dark Nights, the third by his Triveni project featuring bassist Omer Avital and drummer Nasheet Waits, will be released in November on Anzic Records.