Greg Cohen is a remarkable bass player who consistently finds himself in the right place at the right time. The right place tends to be alongside the likes of John Zorn, Tom Waits, or Ornette Coleman who utilize his services repeatedly. But his career is long and consistently varied and he’ worked with everyone from Woody Allen to David Byrne, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Antony and the Johnsons, Elvis Costello, Laurie Anderson, Willie Nelson, as well as part of numerous improvisatory ensembles. He’s considered something of a musicians musician having appeared on such iconic albums as 1980′ Heart Attack and Vine and 1999′ Mule Variations for Tom Waits and 2001’s Life on a String for Laurie Anderson.
He’ coming out to Australia as part of John Zorn’s Masada project, for Zorn’s run of Zorn @60 performances as part of the Adeliade Festival. Cyclic Defrost caught up with Cohen via email.
Bob: What is jazz?
Greg: If we go way back, the word jazz was spelled jass, a word used to describe ones posterior.
As you know, jazz was the music that flourished in New Orleans during the turn of the last century. The function of jazz was to raise spirits for people at parties, funerals, parades, but most importantly, in the red light district (the district). There, they needed this new music to keep the â€œgood timeâ€ feel alive in the houses of ill repute. In this way, the great musicians of New Orleans paid their rent. When the â€œdistrictâ€ was the target of political change, so changed our new national music – jass (now spelled jazz).
Greats like King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, packed a bag or two, and headed up the river to Chicago, where the promise of good work lay. After arriving to Chicago, King Oliver sent for the young Louis Armstrong, just out of the orphanage in New Orleans in 1922, if this gives you an idea of when this music had it’s first major turn around. Armstrong changed the way both musicians and audiences approached what was the meaning of jazz.
As the music changed in Chicago, and other places across the USA, so did its execution. Back in those days, to keep a gig in the district, Chicago or NY, you had to keep the room happy. Know all the songs of the day; play for long hours, often without breaks.
Every 5 years or so, the music would change again. And perhaps the city where it flourished (NY, SF, etc). Each time the definition of the music changed, as did why people were attracted to it.
Gradually, Jazz moved from a ‘dance; music, to a music that appealed to a click of avid followers. Eventually ending up in Jazz clubs, concert halls and special events.
Bob: And what do you need to know to play it these days?
Greg: Today’ jazz musician from a distance of almost 100 years is a part of a slow transition and restructuring of the priorities in the music. Likewise with the fine arts, dance, cinema or any other idiom. Today’ jazz musicians are usually not working for houses of ill repute. They are not living during the times when the art form was morphing and classic compositions were being added to the repertoire day by day. And most importantly (for me), they are not living during the time when the music was a DANCE music.
Jazz has become a concert music. Complete with festivals and aficionados.Today’ musicians can do amazing things technically that the musicians of the 20’s and 30’s couldn’t dream of executing. And because they are not required to keep the room up on their feet and dancing, they have become more interested in the â€œheadyâ€ pursuits of the improvisational art form.
As with any art form that is over 150 years old (yes, there are ‘rags’ dating back to American Civil Wartimes), change is inevitable, and good.
I feel the musicians from this decade that will be remembered 150 years from today, will be the ones that left their unmistakable mark of the art form. Their writing will be original in content. Their playing instantly understood as them, in both sound and emotional character.
Bob: I ask you this because I understand that you are a bass professor at the Jazz Institute in Berlin and you keep popping up in various trios and ensembles so I would assume that qualifies you to know.
Greg: Not really, but I did anyway for you…my version at least.
Bob: You’ve played with some of my favourite musicians, John Zorn, Tom Waits, and Ornette Coleman, Keiji Haino to name a few. Is there something seductive about artists of their calibre tapping you on the shoulder?
Greg: Well, these types of artists you mentioned are vastly different from one another. So that was attractive about wanting to explore their music, It wasn’t always ‘seductive’. But always an experience!
Bob: How would you describe your approach to bass?
Greg: I am trying to support or create the music that I play with a sense of knowledge from the ground up. To have control of the low notes needed to anchor a group. To have a strong sense of time. To improvise in a way that does not mimic someone else, but creates a new set of ideas to the sound world.
And most importantly for me, to uphold the ‘center’ of the music we play. It’s core, or reason for it’s being.
Bob: I’m a big fan of Ed Wood and I really enjoyed the soundtrack, which I imagine was a lot of fun to make. I understand you were involved in this film. Can you tell me what your role was and what the experience was like for you?
Greg: The music producer of that film came to me and asked if I would re-arrange the title music of Howard Shore for a smaller group. They had planned to do a video based on the film. That didn’t happen, but they liked our track and placed it on the soundtrack recording.
Bob: Have you done much soundtrack music?
Greg: As a composer, very little. As an arranger… some. As a performer, much.
Bob: What did John Zorn say to you when he approached you about Masada?
Greg: Actually, nothing. Joey, Dave and I were asked to play on a soundtrack recording that John had written for a movie called ‘Thieves Quartet’. He liked what we did, and decided to book a gig and try out some new tunes he had written. And that was that!
Bob: What’s it like playing in a project like Masada, where you’re surrounded by a bunch of truly incredibly talented musicians?
Greg: It’s a thrill! And always filled with telepathic transmissions, humour and joy.
Bob: Does it elevate your work?
Greg: Yes, and I hope it can also do the same for them.
Bob: You’ve worked with Zorn repeatedly. What continues to draw you back to working with him?
Greg: I guess what I just said? He’s a musician’ musician.
Bob: I’ve loved your work with Tom Waits over the years yet as far as I can tell you haven’t played with him on a studio album since Mule Variations, is there a reason behind this?
Greg: We are looking for a new project now. I hope we can do something this year.
Bob: I saw a clip for the Greg Cohen trio on you tube where you’re playing in a tattoo parlor. Can you tell me about it? Is this an ongoing ensemble? Do you get much time to do your own thing?
Greg: That was a one-day request of a French filmmaker. It was fun.
Bob: You have a very distinct bass sound. I’ve seen forums where people are trying to get a “bright Greg Cohen sound. ‘ Have you worked hard to create a distinctive bass sound? How important is this?
Greg: I have many sounds. Each time I travel, I must play on a bass with different strings, set ups, and even drastic differences in size! Imagine being used to driving a VW beetle, and then having to operate a bus! Sound starts in your ears. Somehow we must ‘will’ our sound to come out of this big box we play.
Bob: Do you feel like a gun for hire?
Greg: Sometimes, but most often, I feel like a musician lucky enough to work with a great community of artists.
Bob: What’s the one piece of advice that you wish you could’ve given yourself as a working musician when you were starting out?
Greg: Don’t worry so much about what you don’t know, and start weaving with the threads you have.
Bob: What kind of music/ setting do you enjoy playing the most?
Greg Cohen will be in Australia from Tues 11th of March as part of a week of performances with John Zorn at the Adelaide Festival.