Once you start to play the music, all that you prepare at home is irrelevant: Israeli saxophonist Yuval Cohen
Ahead of his performance at the NCPA International Jazz Festival, Israeli soprano saxophonist Yuval Cohen spoke to Firstpost about his experience of being in India, his influences and composition and improvisational processes, and the Israeli jazz scene.
Yuval Cohen is currently in India to perform in Mumbai as part of the NCPA International Jazz Festival, with the Yuval Cohen Sextet.
Cohen has carved a niche for himself in the jazz world through his masterful compositions and for him, composing is all about the journey.
His compositions stem from a unique set of influences: the jazz tradition, classical music, and Israeli music.
“I love India. I just love the people, the colours, the good vibes, the spirituality in the air, I’m so much in love already,” says Israeli soprano saxophonist and composer Yuval Cohen. The virtuoso musician has been exploring the country, having already visited Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, among others. Cohen’s interest in India stems not only from the vibrant culture, but also the spirituality embedded deep in the country’s roots.
He explains how part of the country's allure for him is being at the birthplace of Buddhism, which he is trying to practice. “This strength, this spiritual strength in this country,” he marvels. It’s to this strength that he attributes the positive atmosphere he has witnessed. “I see people from all backgrounds, there’s so many financial backgrounds to people here. But you always see people smiling and you see people grateful and I think that there is strong spirituality here that I admire and [am] trying to learn from. Being here now is super special for me.”
Cohen is currently in India to perform in Mumbai as part of the National Centre for Performing Arts’ International Jazz Festival. “My band members are terrific Israeli musicians, you’re going to enjoy them so much, they’re really great,” he says. Performing as part of the Yuval Cohen Sextet, he’ll be accompanied on stage by cellist Maya Belsitzman, trombonist Yonathan Voltzok, pianist Guy Levi, bassist Gadi Lehavi, and drummer Jonathan Rosen.
Cohen’s interest in jazz music first stemmed from attending music school at Tel-Aviv, along with his siblings Anat and Avishai. “We just had teachers that directed us to this music,” he says, after which they started playing with other students and bigger bands. “We started to fall in love with this music because when you do it a lot with others and everybody is into it, then you just want to be there more and more and you want to get better and better.”
Now, with all the siblings being critically acclaimed jazz musicians, the trio has also formed a jazz group together, called 3 Cohens. Tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Anat and trumpeter Avishai join Yuval on the band, whose album releases include One, Braid, Family, and the most recent, Tightrope in 2013. While their music has received positive critical reviews in general, listeners are especially swept away by the genius of the siblings’ improvisational practices. “3 Cohens is really about conversation and improvisation is basically a conversation too.
"Of course, you practice and you work on so much material and ideas and directions. But once you start to play the music, all that you prepare at home is irrelevant. You just have to go with what’s happening right now. With my brother and sister, we just have this, we feel very comfortable together and we’re easily able to listen and react. And this interaction is what makes 3 Cohens a very special thing,” he explains about their chemistry onstage.
Personally as well, Cohen has carved a niche for himself in the jazz world through his masterful compositions. For him, composing is all about the journey. Sometimes, “you search and you look and you think [about] where to bring the materials.” And other times, “the music just comes up to your mind and then you just go with it. Sometimes that’s the nicest stuff and I always start with the melody and then take it from melody to harmony,” he adds.
Cohen's compositions stem from a unique set of influences: the jazz tradition, classical music, and Israeli music.
Among his jazz influences are revered artists like Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. His classical influences include primarily the Romantic composers, including Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schumann. And about Israeli music, the music of his country, he says “I was growing up on its knees as a kid,” making its influence inevitable. He describes the resulting music as a unique genre of jazz. “My music that you’re going to hear in Mumbai is going to be, I would say, a new genre that I call chamber jazz music,” he explains.
Today, Cohen is among the contemporary Israeli greats. He graduated from the Berklee College of Music, has a Masters from the Manhattan School of Music and a Masters in Composition from Jerusalem’s Rubin Academy for Music and Dance. He was awarded the Landau Prize for jazz performance in 2010. Among his albums are the debut Freedom, 2010's Song Without Words which is a duo with pianist Shai Maestro, and 2013's Hakol Zehavi, an intensive rendering of the work of Israeli composer David Zehavi. While with his music Cohen has given jazz a new, individualistic flavour, it seems like a microcosm of the larger Israeli jazz approach, of taking a foreign music tradition and infusing it with one's own culture.
This Israeli jazz scene, which has been around since the mid-90s, first started to flourish in the 1990s. “So Israel is a very small place. But musicians, from really the beginning of the country, were great jazz musicians. And they were really spreading [the word about jazz].” Now revered internationally for its diversity and quality, jazz musicians in Israel still don’t receive much support from the government and the music doesn’t fit comfortably with the country’s cultural narrative. “The government in Israel is supporting [jazz] very, very little. The culture in general, they don’t support jazz. We do it by ourselves,” he says.
However, he’s heartened by the nevertheless fledging contemporary jazz scene, which he has particular insight into, being a leading figure of Israel’s jazz education and in charge of running the Centre for Jazz Studies at the Tel-Aviv Conservatory. The best thing about the scene are his students, he says. “Our students are really sought after in the United States. They get big scholarships and they go and do amazing work. We’re really, really proud of them.”
And about his approach to education, which then produces such brilliant students, he highlights the importance of a strong base. “We really put emphasis on the tradition of jazz. So people know where the music is coming from,” he says. The faculty strongly believe that “If you know where things are coming from then you really learn the root of the music. You learn swing, and you learn Bpop, hard pop; and really get all this stuff together. Then you have the right tools to seek after your own sound, your own individuality.
But individuality without history is a bit light, it’s not deep enough. [If] your roots are really short, then this tree might fall,” he concludes.
The Yuval Cohen Sextet will perform in Mumbai on Sunday, 13 October, as part of the NCPA International Jazz Festival. More details here.
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