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Music Review: Avishai Cohen Flood

With contemporary composers utilizing such a wide range of instruments, and drawing upon so many different sources for inspiration, is it still reasonable to differentiate between them and the modern jazz musician? As both genres continue to explore forms of composition and musical styles that extend beyond the boundaries previously associated with them, the space dividing them has narrowed considerably. In fact, judging by some of the music I've heard recently, jazz musicians seem to be the ones doing the most to expand music's potential to express ideas and emotions.

This was brought home to me again listening to the latest release on Anzic Records by trumpeter Avishai Cohen called Flood. Flood is the second recording in what he's titled The Big Rain Trilogy, and while the CD is a description of a flood along the lines of the one experienced by Noah, Cohen describes it as an attempt to tell the story from the point of view of nature, where death is a part of the natural cycle and is actually crucial for nature's survival. As he says, "Nature does not lament the flood nor resist it, but rather accepts it as its own." With the trilogy he is attempting to build a picture of the life that exists before, during and after the flood; nature's strength and beauty, and humanity's search to improve itself in the hopes of preventing another flood.

Flood is divided up into seven sections with each one representing a different stage in the life of the flood from its very beginnings as rain ("First Drops"), to the earth's renewal after the waters have receded ("Cycles: The Sun, The Moon, And The Awakening Earth"). With Cohen's trumpet, only being accompanied by band-mates Yonatan Avishai's piano and Daniel Freedman's percussion it's difficult to see how they could create the range of sound one presumes would be needed to fulfill his objective with the music. However, after listening to the composition for the first time I realized that Cohen was utilizing more than just the sounds of the instruments to achieve his desired objective, there was also the manner in which the sounds were played to be considered, and of course the various rhythms utilized and their inter-relation.
It's the piano that opens the piece, and Yonatan Avishai's playing captures the sound and feel of rain drops falling to the ground. At first its very relaxing, almost trance inducing, like listening to the sound of a gentle rain on a peaceful summer afternoon, and even as the rain intensifies with the addition of percussion and trumpet, you never are given the impression of being at risk, as the sound continues to wash over you. Gradually though a certain level of discordance creeps into the music with both the piano and the percussion starting to increase in tempo. However, instead of the trumpet becoming more shrill or intensifying in some way to match them, Cohen continues to play with the same smoothness that marked his entrance into the piece.

Nature doesn't panic when it rains, that's a human thing. So, although I found myself initially wanting the trumpet to reflect the anxiety I would feel because of an increase in a rain storm's tempo, Cohen's trumpet reminded me that this wasn't about humans, but about nature. The smoothness of the trumpet, and its repeating the same patterns all the way through the opening piece, establishes that nature accepts the flood and all its consequences without reacting like we would.

Talk about making best use of minimal resources. With only three instruments not only does Cohen manage to create the atmosphere and sound of rain falling so that we know the flood is beginning, he establishes the point of view that we will be seeing everything from for the remainder of the piece. Finally, he also sets the precedent for what each instrument will represent throughout the course of the music; the piano will describe the events as they occur, percussion will accent and colour the events adding to their flavour and giving them depth, and the trumpet will give sound to the voice of the natural world.

As we progress through the various stages of the flood Cohen tries to capture the feel of the world being covered by an endless expanse of water with the two pieces "Heavy Water: Prologue" and "Heavy Water". The former is a short trumpet solo that sets the stage for the piece following it. Slow and extended notes, with just the tiniest amount of reverb added on, create an image of a vista of water stretching as far as the eye can see. We jump into the main body of "Heavy Water" without a break, but with the sudden addition of the piano and percussion increasing the tempo of the piece. It's as if he's reminding us that just because all we can see is water doesn't mean there's no life or that everything is as monochrome as one might believe from seeing a huge body of water.
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Of course flood waters aren't just going to sit there idly doing nothing even if they cover the whole world. Sure there aren't as many beaches as there were before for the tide to come in and out on, but that doesn't mean that its not moving. Perhaps a mountain top or two break the horizon and the water ebbs and flows around their peaks? Or what is the weight of the water doing to whatever lies underneath it? How is the world being reshaped by the flood - what will be born out of this chance of rebirth?

To be honest I wasn't sure what to expect when I went to listen to this disc, and I was surprised by the depth of feeling and vision that Cohen and the other two musicians were able to generate with only the three instruments. Over the course of listening to Flood you gradually get a feel for what they are doing as Cohen does a good job of establishing how the music is presented and its major themes. Interestingly enough I don't normally find either trumpet of piano the easiest of instruments to listen to, but there was something about the way their sound was being used during these pieces, and knowing what it was that they were trying to communicate, that made me almost forget the instruments and focus only on the music.

I don't know if you would call Flood a jazz recording or not, I guess it depends on how liberal you are with your definition of jazz, however, no matter what you call it, there's no denying that it is a compelling and powerful piece of music. Close your eyes, lay back, and listen as the flood waters first cover the world and then gradually recede leaving behind a chance for a new beginning.

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