As Randy Jackson has often said on American Idol, “When you’ve got it, you’ve got it”–or something like that. Sure, extraordinarily talented bassist Avishai Cohen has nothing to do with Fox’s aging singing competition, but the Israeli bassist certainly has “got it”, a fact he continues to flex on his latest album Duende. This particular effort adopts a more minimal approach in a couple of respects, finding Cohen working in the duo format with a pianist. Of Israeli pianist Nitai Hershkovits, his 25 year-old compadre for Duende, Cohen states his rationale for recruitment as follows: “Right away I noticed the magic he had in his playing, the kind of spark I have only heard from a few musicians in my life…he was swinging so hard I was left with no choice; I had to play with him”. Indeed, duende, or spirit, is permeated throughout this superbly creative affair.
Opener “Signature” shows a brilliant relationship between piano and bass. Hershkovits’ piano-playing covers the angular melody with Cohen’s bass complementing and accentuating. Cohen particularly shines when he digs in, plucking the bass strings with more aggressiveness, signifying passion. Throw in the horns near the close, and “Signature” truly leaves its mark. On a creative reinterpretation of Thelonious Monk’s classic “Criss Cross”, Cohen takes to his bow, initially providing a timbrel contrast from the pizzicato approach on the opener. In true jazz fashion, he switches from arco passages to the swinging plucked walking bass line accompanying a brilliantly soloing Hershkovits. More than a selfless role player, Cohen takes a solo that is nothing short of impressive given his technical abilities. “Criss Cross” proves to be a perfect creative outlet for both players.
“Four Verse / Continuation”, like portions of “Criss Cross”, has some clear cut classical music elements. Gorgeous, the beginning once more finds Cohen bowing. The sound is incredibly pleasing to the ear when he ascends into the often less utilized upper register of the instrument. Continuing to oscillate stylistically, Cohen’s plucked, athletic soloing signals the return to pure jazz. On “Soof”, the piano opens by centering the tonality in a minor key. Structured yet with some license at first, “Soof” eventually evolves into an ultra-rhythmic abstraction, with both Cohen and Hershkovits consistently showing they become some kind of juggernaut as a duo.
After covering Monk with exceptional results, Cole Porter becomes the next legend to receive the utmost treatment. “All Of You” is naturally more straightforward than “Criss Cross”, but that doesn’t hinder Cohen or Hershkovits from putting their stamp on it. Hershkovits particularly “stamps” here as he arranges this particular number. Throw in a fine piano solo that includes plenty of colorful notes outside of the tonality in playful fashion, and Duende continues to impress. A John Coltrane number–“Central Park West”–makes things even better. The duo brilliantly captures the spiritual presence that the legendary saxophonist evoked throughout his performances. Perhaps “Central Park West” isn’t the album’s most exciting number given its quiet and calm energy, but it easily ranks among the most musical and touching moments.
Duende closes out with three consecutive Cohen originals in “Ann’s Tune”, “Calm”, and “Ballad For An Unborn”, though only “Ballad” is newly composed. “Ann’s Tune” is centered around G minor, but its adventurous harmonic progression certainly doesn’t restrict nor confine it. Slightly minimalist in the sense that Hershkovits’ pianist role seems to be a consistent loop of sorts, Cohen’s role is to add extra color with his virtuosic bass happenings. Hershkovits is allowed his own freedom during the second half of the song, with Cohen flip-flopping roles before the head returns. “Calm” plays true to its title, sounding serene and simply beautiful. Closer “Ballad For An Unborn” finds Cohen trading the bass for piano, in which he both emotionally and musically delivers.
Ultimately, Duende is a marvelous set, no questions asked. Brief at just 34 minutes, all nine selections pack a solid punch and serve as fine representation of top-echelon musicianship. A jazz vet and the up-and-coming generation fuse remarkably well on this stellar, memorable set.