An Interview with
by Steve (thelil) Lillienstein
It was a nice, warm, late May evening when I visited Adrian Cohen to chat in the relaxed, boho atmosphere created by his funky back porch in the Center Square neighborhood.. Before I could even begin running tape, Adrian and I started casually discussing the current worldwide jazz scene. Luckily, I remembered to start the tape, a couple of minutes in ...
Steve Lillienstein: You were saying you have a love of jazz but you don't really follow the current jazz scene closely, and sort of listen to wherever your ears take you?
Adrian Cohen: Yeah. I love certain current jazz players like Brad Mehldau and Jason Moran, but I've never been a person who really keeps up with the current jazz scene. I don't have a large number of jazz records in my collection, although I love to listen to it.
SL: How did you become well versed in different styles of jazz?
AC: Growing up, my mother and father played a lot of jazz records around the house; you know, a lot of really great pianists like Phineas Newborn, Jr., Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson. I grew up listening to that music so when I started studying jazz I kind of had an intuitive knowledge about what to do. Of course I had to study more - by no means did I think I had a mastery of the vocabulary.
I've just gotten to the point over the last year, by doing the weekly gigs at the Larkin, where I've been able to put enough of that stuff together. I'm able to actually be expressive and explore, on a rudimentary level, both rhythmically, harmonically and melodically what these other players kind of communicate. Basically I'm past the hump where I have to be worried about forms and stuff and I'm understanding how to interact creatively, which is, obviously, what I've been looking for.
SL: Before coming here tonight, I listened to 2 cuts of yours off the internet, one on your site and the other on Brian Patneaude's site. The first I listened to was "Time Warner" which was what it was called on Brian's site. I think on your's it was called "Fifths and Fourths" ...
AC: We called it Time Warner because it was like a joke because the station was using it as a theme. I don't usually name my jazz tunes because I haven't had a lot of performing bands.
SL: I was going to say that on the song "Time Warner" - to my ear - you were the most rooted in jazz, bringing it back to classic Blue Note jazz, while the other guys were doing their other things a little bit. From that I was under the impression that you were jazz trained. Then when I heard the lyrical beginning of the track "Northwest Passage" I was thinking, OK, this guy's classically trained. Is that true?
AC: Actually neither is true, really. I never took piano lessons until the year before I went to the Berklee School of Music. I just took them so I could learn major scales and get some form of technique down.
SL: So you were never a classical pianist?
AC: No, I was self-taught until I got to Berklee, and then I studied with Bruce Barth, who has played with Terrence Blanchard. He's really a great classical player and a great jazz player, and you know he did a lot of folk stuff - he's really a cool guy.
SL: I've seen him a couple of times and I've told him how much I like his music and he seemed like a really terrific guy.
AC: He was really, really cool as a teacher. Remember, I'm coming to him and I had never really taken piano lessons. I took piano lessons for like 6 months with this guy Maury Hall, who I've recently rekindled a relationship with. When I studied with Maury in Delmar, New York, I was not the best student nor did I really care. I was like "Get me through this and I'll go to college and be fine". I'm sure he didn't think anything was going to come of it.
It was great when about 6 months ago Maury showed up at one of our shows at the Larkin. Afterwards he came up and he was really impressed and psyched. I got to tell him that what he did for me really mattered even though it seemed like I was just another jackass kid. I use all the stuff he taught me when I teach other kids.
Then when I went on to Bruce, not having studied with a teacher before, and not really being really interested in being a great pianist yet, I asked if we could try a diffrent approach. Instead of going through the regular role of "you show me stuff and I practice it and bring it back next week", how about we just hang out and talk? I'll take notes as you give me all of this information so that when I have time, when I get out of school, I can hit it hard.
He was just really cool about it and said ok. So I'd just go over and we'd talk and he'd play stuff for me and write notes and tell me stories. It was cool, although we really didn't work on piano playing that much.
All the things I know now, in terms of voicing, I learned from Bruce. In terms of my rhythmic stuff - I worked that out on my own. Melodically I'm very influenced by Bill Evans, Phineas Newborn and Oscar Peterson and Keith Jarrett a lot. Herbie Hancock too, definitely.
SL: Every era of Herbie Hancock? Blue Note?
AC: Primarily the Blue Note era. And the VSOP album he put out in '77 with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, that was one of the first albums I listened to that was not "mainstream jazz". I couldn't believe how cool it was. I felt that this was what I wanted to do.
SL: I don't want to try to tie everything back to the two songs I'm familiar with but I heard some Miles/Shorter era influences in "Northwest Passage"
AC: Actually that whole era is just a huge influence on me.
SL: I thought that was really nice, and I like how the band used space on that, and that's what reminded me of Miles/Shorter.
AC: Those recordings are the kindergarten version of those tunes. I wrote those for the date because I had the opportunity to do it, and it was against my better judgment to do it on some level. Brian was saying I should wait, but it was really kind of perfect timing for me to get there, so I just said "we're gonna do it." It actually turned out well and I was really psyched with it.
SL: There's a wonderful sound quality on the recording
AC: Yeah. Chris Graff of Time Warner. He runs Big Saucy Sound in Delmar. Chris is meticulous. He does a good job.
SL: On the net I came across a really well-written article about whether Albany was a (musical) "scene" or just a group of friends who just happen to love all kinds of music and play at the same places.
AC: A lot of that article was done here. John Rodat wrote it.
SL: So without quibbling about terminology, what is special about the musical people you’re interacting with, or the "scene" or whatever you want to call it?
AC: We’re all coming up together. We’re all learning from each other. I didn’t even play jazz out, publicly, until recently. I used to live in Oregon and I tried it there and I failed miserably ... horrible - I couldn’t keep a form - it was just a nightmare. I kinda gave that up for awhile and I came here and played rock and country and everything else. Then my friends George Muscatello and Eric Johnson, who were playing together in a trio at the Lionheart Café on Lark Street were really encouraging and very cool. George and I would get together now and again and he kind of helped me get the courage up and invited me to come sit in to play with him for a gig - that was really great. I had always wanted to do it but I never had the courage.
I was also kind of developing an attitude that a lot of guys get like "I don’t really want to play jazz and I hate those jazz guys" but I was really saying to myself "I’m scared to go play with people because I know I’m going to suck for awhile. And then I went and I really didn’t suck that bad. I really liked hanging around with them and being onstage with people who were striving to do good things.
SL The fact that a bunch of you were as you say "coming up together" - age-wise and development-wise - do you think that created an environment where people were really getting better fast? My connection to you was that we both know Brian Patneaude, a really fine young sax player in the area who plays with you in your band that has a regular Thursday night gig at the Larkin. Since I’ve been following Brian the last 3 or so years it seems to me that he’s improved by leaps and bounds...
AC: Even over the last year he’s gotten a lot better. I’ve always liked Brian’s playing. I felt that he was really thoughtful, he was really trying to be a good musician, not just a sax player.
SL: He’s not riffing, he’s playing ideas?
AC: Sometimes he's riffing - I mean we all are - but sometimes he's mainly playing ideas. Brian has a tendency to get down on himself, like we all do, but he sounds a lot better than he thinks he does.
SL: Do you feel that a lot of the players were growing by leaps and bounds because of the scene and the opportunity to play with one another so often?
AC: Sometimes yes and sometimes no. I think everyone has little periods of growth spurts - like when you cut a tree down and you see that certain years there were growth spurts and there were like 5 or 6 years it was like stunted - it’s probably the same thing with a lot of jazz players, it depends on circumstances. But I think for the most part with people like Brian, George Muscatello , myself, and a lot of other players like Pete Sweeney, Diallo House - those are the other guys in my quartet - bassist Ryan Lukas, all sorts of drummers, pianist/organist Ian McDonald - it’s a burgeoning jazz scene here, but unfortunately there aren’t a lot of places to play and we just do what we can. I think everyone’s kind of influences each other. It’s kind of funny, there’ll be a scene, like in New York City, there’s a lot of ethnic scales, a lot of odd time signatures, it’s kind of avant garde down there, and that’s kind of what makes that neighborhood. We don’t have that kind of scene here…
SL: We don’t have a Lower East Side
AC: But we’re trying. I’ve done what I’ve done at the Larkin in order to help get a jazz scene happening here, to help get a local music scene. I’m also working over at Justin’s with Joe Palma a couple of nights a week, and it’s going to go to three nights a week in September. He’s a very, very supportive guy ... maybe we can get some other places that can have jazz, and we can get a scene happening.
SL: Is jazz now your major - or only - focus?
AC: No, definitely not
SL: I know that some of the guys that I know of locally as part of the jazz scene are doing more. Matt Loiaconno for instance, I’ve seen Matt when he was a drummer with Brian’s band awhile ago and I liked him as a drummer. I was reading that he and some of the other guys were now into a totally different, like folk or acoustic oriented things...
AC: Matt’s the kind of guy that dabbles in a lot of instruments and he dabbles very well, very artistically. He’s a smart guy, he’s not a fool. He doesn’t take up an instrument and say I can play really well right away. He’s taken up mandolin, banjo, he can play a little bit of guitar. He sings. He’s got a very good understanding of ... basically he’s just a very talented guy. He can learn all these instruments and actually do a pretty good job on all of them.
SL : I assumed that when he plays those instruments he’s not playing jazz. Is that correct?
AC: No he’s not playing jazz. I mean Matt’s not really playing much jazz anymore, from what I know. But the thing is he did for awhile, he was really getting into it and trying, you know, to learn the language and get involved with the scene and that was a stepping stone to other stuff that he’s doing now, and he’ll probably change and change again ...
SL: I remember reading about "Totfinder" the local "Supergroup" of which you were a part, and it didn’t sound like it was jazz. Aside from jazz, what are you either dabbing in, or exploring or enjoying playing?
AC: I’ve got tons and tons of singer-songwriter things that I do for myself, that I don’t let people hear. I do lots of home production ... writing, recording ...
SL: Any local musicians that you haven’t had a chance to play with yet that you’d like to, if everything works out?
AC: I don't know. There's a lot of people I'd like to play with. Honestly, I'd like to do a lot more of the pop, rock and sort of alternative stuff. I'd like to play keyboards with those kind of people. That would be really fun. I enjoy doing that a lot. Jazz-wise, not really, I've already played with the people I'd be psyched to play with. Actually, I'd like to play with some of the older generation of players - not that they're old guys , just older than me - like Otto Gardner, a great bass player, guys like that.
SL: Rich Syracuse?
AC: I've played with Rich. Actually, if I need a sub I call Rich and we have a really good time, He's a lot of fun. He's really into it. He really puts his all into it.
SL: Seems like a nice guy, too. Another guy - I'm just throwing out the name - another musician who used to be on the scene - I understand he's moved to the City (NYC), I was wondering if you know Keith Prey?
AC: Oh, totally. I played on his last album "Rhythm of the Blues" which is on Prey Nation records, his own record company. Keith has got a really good style. He's really laid back, but he's also very aggressive. He's real sharp. I mean, he's right there working with you.
SL: I heard Keith play a few years ago, thought he had a Dolphy thing going on - a really good "outside-inside" thing ...
AC: Keith is, well he's an alto player so he's got a lot of the Cannonball Adderly influence, but also he's got the modern saxophonists ... I know he's into John Zorn. Keith's definitely a very intense guy. Driven, works real hard. Good player. Real smart saxophone player. He's fun. I played with him just a few weeks back, had a great time.
SL: Where was that?
AC: 9 Maple Avenue in Saratoga.
SL: Great place
AC: It's a great place to go, but a notoriously hard place to play.
SL: The louder you play - the audience escalates their volume by twice as much!
AC: Yeah, there's that and also the musicians are marginalized there. Judy Siriani, who runs it, she's nice and she loves jazz and she wants to help out. She's always really cool but I think it's just the nature of the room. It's so small. There's no dedicated space for the musicians. You show up and just try to fit in as best as you can.
SL: But at least you're by the street (window) where you can draw them in. I guess that's the theory.
AC: I personally have a good time when I play there. But it's hard with the crowd noise. I like to try to respond to that, like: OK - you're gonna be loud? Well, we're not gonna play loud, but we're gonna play our asses off and just have fun.
SL : I guess it's hard to remember, but even when it's an unruly crowd, there are people there who appreciate the music. It's a strange mix of jazz fans and people who want to just be "on the town" ...
SL: OK. Let's get back to something you said that interested me. You said you'd like to get into more playing with rock or alternative or more styles of music as a keyboardst. I was wondering whether there were any rock keyboardists who influenced you.
AC: When I was first coming up I didn't have any jazz influences, but I was WAAYYY into Genesis . I always loved how they incorporated the keyboards. Steve Hackett was the guitar player up until about 78, and the way he and Tony Banks would interact and kind of like make compositions roar, it was really awesome and it had a very very heavy classical influence. That was my classical training I guess, listening to Genesis. I would also figure out Bach stuff by ear and I would play it over and over and figure out all the parts. I'm sure I had a lot of it wrong, but still it was really fun.
SL: Any current rock or alternative keyboard or piano players that catch your ear?
AC: Not really. I'm not really that up on the scene. The closest thing I can think of would be the keyboards in Radiohead, who I think are completely brilliant.
SL: You never seem to read an interview with a musician who doesn't seem to love Radiohead.
AC: Yeah. And why wouldn't you just love Radiohead. The're so melodic . I mean it's just completely great music. Even their weirdest stuff - stuff that isn't their best songs - is just so great to listen to. It's just got that feel. That's what I'm looking for, why I want to stray out of just jazz. What's missing is the lack of a band's sound.
SL: That's probably because jazz musicians don't get a chance to play much in the same band, don't you think?
AC: The reason is that we don't get to play in bands. Even when you reach the levels of a Kurt Rosenwinkel or a Jason Moran, you're still going to have a hard time making a living. I mean, how long until your record company drops you?
Jazz doesn't sell that much. Unless you're a guy like Brad Mehldau, who's really managed to forge a great concert and recording career, it's tough. I'm not saying I'm like Jason Moran or Kurt Rosenwinkel - but guys on my level, who aren't necessarily striving to be full-time jazz musicians but like it and want to do it more - you can't really make a living doing it. You have to just do pick-up gigs a lot to make a living.
You might be able to have a band and keep your band working all the time, but because of the very nature of what you do, economically speaking, you have to work. So, you know most guys aren't into the promotion, they don't really care because they spend all their time practicing. It's like this weird catch 22 - a lot of the jazz guys spend all of their time working on their instruments, working on learning the vocabulary, but they don't spend a lot of time promoting the business end of it. They can't work as much with their own groups so they have to take side gigs. Therefore the band vibe, the sociological aspect of Rock 'N' Roll - you're buddies, you're playing in a band - doesn't happen as much in jazz.
SL: Well, as someone who has gone from being a rock guy to a jazz old fogey, I would ask - don't you think that rock and roll has more of a sociological appeal nowadays, as opposed to a musical appeal?
AC: That's an interesting question. I definitely think rock and roll has a musical appeal as well, but the bottom line is that if some guy is alone in his car cranking Limp Bizkit or whatever, he's cranking the music he's interested in.
SL: OK. I'll play devil's advocate. Since you did say Limp Bizkit, isn't that guy partially interested in getting his car to vibrate like a giant boom-box as he drives down the road.
AC: That's an individual question. You can't really say.
SL: I mean, isn't that part of the appeal I'm not knocking it - isn’t the sociological appeal a large part of rock and roll? The "Look at Me" ...
AC: Yes and no. I guess people could say the same thing about Led Zeppelin, or the Clash or other bands. Limp Bizkit for example ... Limp Bizkit is not a great band, not the kind of band that's going to appeal to someone really interested in listening to the music, but someone will still listen to that and know that it's music and still respond to that.
What it comes down to is that regardless of the simplicity of the music - it's primal. It's got a beat, and people respond to it on some level. It has to be loud and it has to be in your face, because that's the only way it can get any power across. It can't get any power from the compositional qualities or the harmodies or the melody or the rhythm. It's just in your face, and that's what gets you . You have to have a good loud stereo system. A lot of people possibly said the same thing about Led Zeppelin. Where obviously we've all been very influenced by Led Zeppelin. I listened to some Led Zeppelin and was very moved by it, and a lot of it is great rock and roll. It's a funny thing to judge the quality of the music of your era, especially the music that's getting maligned by "true musicians". There is some music that is just bad: badly performed, badly conceived, rough around the edges, but I really love it. I listen to it and I get satisfied by it.
SL: Wanna give an example of that.
AC: There's a band out of Seattle, out that way, called Versus. It's very laid back. They're obviously kind of amateur musicians on a level, but they write some really nice songs and they're fun to listen to. There's another band called Built to Spill. They used to be a lot rawer. Doug Martsch, the guitar player, he's really grown into quite a composer and producer, but I used to listen to their more raucus stuff and it was great - really satisfying. Elliot Smith is another guy. He's not a major musician but his stuff is really moving. You don't find that a lot in jazz. It's not respected to be sloppy in jazz, just by it's nature, so you can't lose that edge.
SL: Do you think in rock that it's just that sloppiness doesn't matter, or is it that it's sometimes even intended and helpful?
AC: It's not that sloppiness doesn't matter, it's just that in jazz the majority of the people who are listening to jazz are people who are performing jazz and people who are looking for good players. Rock and roll is really more readily consumed by the masses. As we said before, the sociological aspects of rock may be behind that, but in a way it's kind of a good thing and I wish jazz had more of that. I wish that there was a jazz band that people would get excited about ...
You know Medeski, Martin and Wood, although by no means jazz, with that ensemble, it's kind of cool, you know, that they bring certain jazz elements into what they do. And, you know, they've got a vibe.
SL: And they bring a lot of people into jazz for the same reason. Like Charlie Hunter does ...
AC: Yeah. Exactly. The thing about rock is people don't go to judge the notes, judge the players for the skill level, all these methods of qualification but, they're just listening to it for the emotional appeal. Rock, really, what it comes down to, is that people like the vibe of the band. They also like the scene that surrounds the band AND they get moved by the music in some way.
That's what jazz is missing. I mean, jazz is weird. It's so insular. Ultimately jazz is cat and rock is dog. You know jazz is all idiosyncratic and everyone is kind of in their own world and listeners are the same way. You go to a jazz show and there's nobody around having a good time. You know, they're all in their own little worlds a lot of the time. At my gigs I try to encourage more, you know, rock type interaction. It doesn't always happen but I try to get it happening like that. That's what's missing: There aren't all these jazz bands that are part of a scene together.
SL: I thought you were talking about on the national, or international "big time level" Part of it on that level is that you can't make it enough just as a leader with your own band, so everybody plays with everyone else and real "bands" don't stay together.
AC: Now take that Miles band, with Herbie Hancock, and Ron Carter and Tony Williams - they came up together in that band and they learned how to play together and they stayed together, so it’s a different kind of band. It’s like a family. They create this little family and they just collaborate and interact with each other for the rest of their lives. That’s how you get to that point - you establish a family of people you play with and that’s how you develop a sound. I don’t care how many solo things you do or sit-ins, or whatever you’re doing - if you don’t have a group of guys or a group of people that you’re playing with a lot you’re not going to be able to develop something that’s as emotionally strong. You might become a great player. You might have a lot of fun, but you won’t have that connection.
SL: And it will be "trading off" rather than the sound of "a band", which can be something special ...
AC: Yeah, the same stuff can happen when you’re playing with people a lot, it’s just all intuitive. You can tell what is going to happen. Have you ever seen the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, play each other in tennis?
AC: It’s just insane because they can anticipate everything the other is going to do. You’ll see these volleys that you’ll never see with anyone else. They come up with some incredibly exciting stuff. It’s pretty wild. A lot of that happens in jazz.
SL: OK If you’re Venus, who’s your Serena?
AC: I don’t have a Serena. I don’t really have that. I haven’t found my home yet. I play with these guys, but we like get together once a week. But we don’t get a chance to practice much. We’re all free-lancers, and we’re all really busy.
SL: In a fantasy world, would that be something that you’d love to have?
AC: Yeah, absolutely.
SL: You’d like to have something that was like THE band that you could work with all the time?
AC: Absolutely. Jazz is great. I love jazz. But it’s not something I want to do SOLELY for the rest of my life.
SL: Do you plan on staying based in Albany for the rest of your life?
AC: I don’t really have plans for the rest of my life. Sometimes I get upset with the local scene but it’s been good to me so I’m gonna be around for awhile.
SL: Well, by all accounts - and I’ve gotta come check you out for myself - you’ve been really terrific for the local scene, leading your band and doing the bookings, so I look forward to seeing you in the future and I look forward to this (interview) coming out.
Now let’s get to the really important questions of the day. Are you familiar with a really good young pianist who I understand went to Harvard but hung around Berklee named Aaron Goldberg
AC; Wait a minute….His name does sound familiar…..Does he play with Drive By Leslie?
SL: No, I don’t think so. He’s in Josh Redman’s band, he plays some with Nick Payton, he’s a really up and coming player ...
AC: He must have known Josh from Harvard?
SL: I assume that was the connection ...
AC: They’re going to be lawyers and then it’s like "Oh, I’m ALSO an amazing jazz musician!!!
SL: Actually, I think Aaron was some kind of science guy. But here’s the pressing question: Now that AARON GOLDBERG is becoming a major jazz figure, do you think that opens up the way for people like yourself with Jewish last names and the first initial A?
AC (moment of silence followed by loud laugh): Sure!
SL : OK, sure there’s the Aaron Goldberg thing and sure there’s Avishai Cohen and the OTHER Avishai Cohen on the jazz scene (two Israeli musicians, a bass player and a trumpeter BOTH named Avishai Cohen, both fine young players on the NYC scene). But have the two Avishai Cohen’s saturated the market for guys named "A. Cohen" ?
SL: Good answer. Thank you very much.