Negative Space As A Musical Device

Tal Cohen 2

Tal Cohen peers so deeply into the piano keys when he plays that you fear he might fall in. He’s listening to how the notes ring out, and just as intently, plays the pauses and negative spaces. “The Gentle Giant” is a thoughtful piece, delicately utilizing the full length of the instrument. In the more experimental, rhythmically complicated “Gavetsch” – really, God knows where this is going, melodically – Tal lets his band explore vignettes of small, explosive phrases. Tal is a true front man in the sense that he leads with confidence as much as he shares the music kind-heartedly, riffing off what the others bring in from measure to measure. It might come in the form of pounding the keys or just stopping mid-thought. In the Tal Cohen Quartet, the joy of collaboration is evident.

When did you know you wanted to be a musician?

Never really considered anything else!  

Has your family been supportive of your career in jazz?

Extremely supportive! I dedicate one of the songs on the album to my family- Lo HAYA. 

“Lo Haya Velo Hiye” is the full name of the piece and it means “never was and never will be” in Hebrew – there will never be anyone else like my family. 

How did your early years in Israel and your Jewish heritage inform your music style today?

I started with playing classical music back in Israel but was always interested in jazz. I remember that my dad put on some Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin when I was young. I loved the guitar solos and the Deep Purple organ solos by Jon Lord. I then started checking out more organ and got into the great jazz organist Jimmy Smith, and from there I just got into jazz.

What standards do you like to perform? 

I love playing standards, they are such a playground for me. I feel so at home playing them. On the album there is an arrangement of the Miles Davis composition “Nardis” done a little differently! 

Why did you name the album “Gentle Giants”?

This album represents many things to me. It is a collaboration between American and Australian musicians of the highest caliber. There are so many amazing jazz artists in Australia and I hope that this is a small representation of what is out there. 

The concept behind the album is an old one – don’t judge a book by its cover. And the title is dedicated to people who might seem frightening but are true gentle giants. I truly think the world needs more acceptance and less judgment. Musically, I have written material that is very open and certainly had these musicians on my mind when I wrote the music. I’m so happy with the result and I think that it has something for everyone.  

What is your favorite track and why?

I love “Chopin Meets Abach.” There something really mysterious about it; every time I listen to it I hear something new.

Why were you intrigued to compare jazz from the U.S. and Australia?

There is great jazz everywhere. Australia has an amazing jazz scene that unfortunately doesn’t get the recognition it deserves due to the distance. I highly encourage people to get familiar with Australian jazz.

Very fresh sounding. Is it unexpected time signatures, harmonies, tempos…? 

Those are certainly some tools I use. But my music is really not that complicated and I always try to stay honest to the melody. I also don’t like locking musicians down. I like giving them freedom so they can be themselves.

What has been your career highlight thus far?

There have been many: playing with Greg Osby all around has certainly been a learning experience, but I would say that playing duo with him in Maine was a highlight. It’s a special experience playing as a duo with him- he’s such a powerful player.

I’ve also had the chance to do some stuff with the Terence Blanchard Quintet. We played for the Blue Note 70th Anniversary at the Grammy Museum in LA – a very special venue.

I had the privilege of playing at the Detroit Jazz Festival as the winner of the Barry Harris Piano Competition. An amazing opportunity to play to a huge crowd. That’s where I met Nate Winn who plays drums on my album. I played with my favorite bass player in the world – Robert Hurst (who is also on the album).

The other career highlight would definitely be playing at the Sydney Opera House for the Freedman Fellowship Award. An amazing venue. I played with my good friend and mentor Jamie Oehlers who is also on my album “Gentle Giants.” This album certainly would not have been possible without the Fellowship Award. I cannot be thankful enough.

What spurred you to move to the U.S.?

It was one of those crazy things- I woke up one day and there was an email from the University of Miami saying, “Hey we’ve heard about you and checked out your music, would you like to come to the U.S. on a full scholarship to do your Master’s and also teach?” It took me a while to answer, but eventually I thought that it was the right move.  

Who are your biggest influences?

There are too many to name. All the greats such as Bill Evans, John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Red Garland and many, many more. I’m definitely influenced by classical music as I grew up on it, but I have also been influenced by a lot of the people that I’ve been fortunate to play with in recent years such as Terence Blanchard, Greg Osby, Jeff Tain, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, David Binney, John Daversa and many more. 

There are stops and starts in your music. What does that indicate for you?

Music for me is always about drama and telling a story. I’m trying to not be scared of space in my music. Space only adds to the drama. It’s a valuable tool that we sometimes forget to use as musicians.

What’s your favorite venue so far?

I’ve played in many great venues but I really enjoyed playing the Sydney Opera House. What an experience!

Do you have any goals for either your composing, your repertoire, or other?

I would love to make more music and create more. I truly hope to get the music to a wider audience somehow. A lot of people have commented that the music would be perfect for films, so hopefully that will happen soon! 

Where are you in your head when you perform?

Very interesting question, I try to have nothing in my head and flow. Less processing, more natural decision-making. It’s an amazing feeling to get in a confident flowing space. 

Current projects?

There are many!

Recording Greg Osby on the next record soon, working on a book of piano etudes that’s doing well and many sideman projects and touring. 

What’s something we may not know about you? 

I hate eggplants- one of the songs on the album is dedicated to it.

For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Tal Cohen.

(c) Debbie Burke 2017

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