There has long been a melodic accessibility and keening romanticism to the work of Israeli bassist and composer Avishai Cohen. His tendency to sing along with his own melodies has lead some hardcore jazzers to dismiss his work as twee or affected, but this is perhaps missing the point. There is plenty of extemporisation and expression in his work, it is just that this is always inspired by his rich, enthralling themes. He remains immersed in the folk traditions of his homeland, and his melding of such ideas with the traditions of western jazz often seems relaxed and effortless.
Seven Seas is a more than worthy addition to his catalogue, beautifully produced and executed with customary grace by a trio of Cohen, pianist Shai Maestro and percussionist Itamar Douari. Vocalist Karen Malka sometimes joins in and there is also the occasional guest front line player. What is most interesting about Cohen’s work is how he builds momentum and intensity without ever sounding forced or self conscious. That he is also not averse to directness and simplicity is very much to his credit. The title track is a clever exploration of rhythmic ideas, with an insistent piano figure that calls to mind Italian house music of the early nineties as much as it does contemporary jazz. That figure is then elaborated and deconstructed in fiercely creative ways, but always with an atmosphere that keeps in touch with Cohen’s melancholy creative disposition. It is taken at a furious tempo, yet it seems completely relaxed.
The interaction between Cohen, Maestro and Douari is impeccable, and each plays complementary ideas that help them never to obstruct each other. Douari creates a sort of hybrid kit from his various instruments, creating a sound that blends brilliantly with Maestro’s playing, both when at its most languid and its most rhythmically exciting. The group achieve a joyful playfulness on Ani Aff, which is bolstered by a crisp, exact horn section. Cohen himself gets to demonstrate individual virtuosity with some impressive solos, notably on the breezy Two Roses. By way of contrast, on Staav, there is a palpable sense of sadness and reflection.
The group pull off a number of delicate balancing acts throughout Seven Seas, matching Cohen’s peerless melodic sensibility with the impetus to stretch out more. Even the most rigorously controlled pieces have a certain beauty and power though, especially the wonderfully lyrical Hayo Hayta, which seems largely through composed. There’s always a strong sense of narrative in Cohen’s compositions and, for all his melodic accessibility, this music is also richly idiosyncratic and distinctive.