There is something to be said about a jazz trio
that can sell out a 1,450 seat venue. Most are happy to play
in clubs that draw a 100 during week days.
Jazz is a huge category, with many genres and
subgenres, and it has a long history. For the purposes of
this review, I am dividing jazz into two general groupings:
pure and transitional, with major emphasis on the importance
of the latter in cultivating an appreciation of jazz.
Learning jazz is like learning a new language:
it is a step by step process and there are no short-cuts.
Like with any learning curve in life, skipping steps or trying
to cheat the curve more of than not ends up being anti-productive,
and may permanently alienate the listener.
What every jazz lover knows is that one doesn't
wake up one morning suddenly liking jazz. Transitioning from
rock/pop/hip-hop to jazz is for most a long and arduous progression
or evolution. The ear has to familiarize itself with more
complex harmonies and negotiate the shift in emphasis from
composition to improvisation.
the spirit of full disclosure, I'm not a fan of transitional
jazz, and was for the most part unimpressed with the Avishai
Trio that played to a packed Theatre Maisonneuve during the
Montreal International Jazz Festival.
Most of their playlist was from "Shifting Sands,"
released in 2022.
But for the drummer -- more on ‘her’ later --
there were no surprises and far too many extended, repetitive
sequences that quickly turned monotonous, even though in and
of themselves, in terms of pure melody, they could be described
as beautiful, or soothing, or uplifting. Much of the trio's
music washes over ‘body and soul’ like warm bathwater.
For this primary effect, a nod (not to be confused with nodding
off) must go to pianist, Elchin Shirinov, who from one song
to the next didn't miss a note or effect.
It goes without saying that my personal indifference to the
music is the least interesting thing I can say about it. The
more interesting question is what attracts large audiences
to it, perhaps an audience not particularly acquainted with
jazz. And why has the Avishai fan base increased exponentially
during the past five years? Based on the applause and adoration,
what they do, they do giddily better than well.
Not unlike England's Neil Cowley, Avishai Cohen
is a bridge builder, and as such, he plays a key role in educating
tentative audiences to the possibilities of jazz. Unlike Cowley,
whose rectangular product fuses rock and jazz, Cohen wins
over his audiences not through the hard beat we associate
with rock, but through melodies that are very accessible and
supported by well-defined, interval-friendly bass lines.
Shirinov’s melodies are hummable, and
it wouldn't surprise me if he counts Chopin among his influences.
Rather than evolve his melodies into more complex forms of
jazz, which is what usually happens in jazz (think The Standards:
Coltrane doing "My Favorite Things"), he instead
flips, inverts, spins and then turns them upside down; but
the motif, which anchors the music, remains the same, providing
an easy ear-grip for an audience looking to cultivate an appreciation
of the possibilities of improvisation. Shirinov’s improvs
are at once soothing and safe, and if you don't pick it up
on first listening, you'll hear it, however slightly altered,
again and again. Cohen’s thudding bass provides perfect
melodic counterpart; he wisely stays away from playing clusters
of notes in the lower reaches. And while the music never challenges
the listener, it whets the appetite to further explore the
What arrested my attention big time was the
percussion provided by 24-year-old Roni Kaspi. If piano and
bass were playing it safe, it devolved to Kaspi to mix things
up with the unexpected that felt right at the moment. If sometimes
it sounded like she was experimenting with unusual flourishes,
inflections and counter accents, when she got it right it
was exhilarating, such that her instrument became the main
focus. Compared to piano and bass, she allowed herself carte
blanche in respect to dynamic range; her accents were
mostly well placed, sometimes behind, sometimes ahead of the
beat. Through her daring and at times madly inspired invention,
she gave legs to music that was mostly static.
Later in the festival, Kaspi presented her rock/fusion
trio that featured original compositions. Her unique approach
to percussion was the highlight of the concert.
Roni Kaspi is young and will be a major player
in jazz for the unforeseeable future. Avishai Cohen’s
challenge will be to provide her with the space and freedom
to pre-empt accepting invitations to play with more musically
evolved jazz combos or leading her own group.
Either way, stay tuned.