In the 2019 DownBeat Critics Poll, Avishai Cohen did not make the top 20 on his instrument. Yet very few living trumpet players have made as many excellent records as Cohen.
Playing the Room strips a Cohen ensemble to the minimum, a duo, which provides maximum focus on his specific creative resources. They begin with his trumpet sound. It is brilliantly brassy yet human as breath, and uncommonly capable of nuanced emotional expression. The stark duo format also highlights a special musical bond. Cohen has been playing with pianist Yonathan Avishai since they were teenagers in Tel Aviv. In the open spaces between Cohen’s striking lines, Avishai adds spare, graceful asides that complete Cohen’s thoughts. It’s postmodern chamber music.
The repertoire here is mostly lesser-known works by great jazz composers. John Coltrane played his “Crescent” as a dramatic sweeping ascent. Cohen slows the 16-bar melody and lingers over it in his free, flaring trumpet language. “Dee Dee” is one of Ornette Coleman’s little sing-songs, like a nursery rhyme. On At the Golden Circle, Volume One, it launched his trio into vast outpourings. Cohen and Avishai celebrate the song by staying within it as Coleman never did, and by finding myriad new ways to think about its simple, obsessive melody. “Ralph’s New Blues” is another tune that has already received a definitive interpretation by its composer, Milt Jackson, with the Modern Jazz Quartet. Cohen and Avishai enlarge it, even historically, all the way back to New Orleans. They are a duo that functions orchestrally.
And speaking of nursery rhymes, the album ends with a cradle song, “Shir Eres,” by Israeli composer Sasha Argov. It is right in this duo’s sweet spot: lyrically pristine, perfect for Cohen’s trumpet glow, gentle but not soft.
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