May 06, 2014

Rio-Paris: an interview with guitarist Liat Cohen

Four fabulous women, two cities: Liat Cohen on playing bossa with Natalie Dessay and why Brazilian music is so seductive.

What does Brazilian music mean to you as a guitarist?

Liat Cohen: I’m Israeli but the nature of the classical guitar is perfectly suited to playing South American music. I’ve played with Brazilian guitarists like Toninho Ramos and Luiz de Aquino. I think somehow the character and mentality in Israel and Tel Aviv have much in common with the Brazilian character. The Brazilian people have been through a lot; we have influences from Europe, as well as the sand, the beach, the joy of life... So I identify with the culture as well as the music.

Is that why you decided to release a Brazilian disc?

I have recorded and toured music from Brazil, Argentina, Colombia… And for many years I wanted to record Villa-Lobos, but I didn’t want to record just the obvious choices like the Preludes and the Chôros. I wanted something a little more original, and I found it with this project.

What connects the two cities of Rio-Paris musically?

For centuries now, composers and artists of the guitar have been attracted to Paris. And me too — I found myself here 20 years ago as a student! French composers like Darius Milhaud through to songwriters like Claude Nougaro and Georges Moustaki were very open to the Latin influence, and vice versa: Villa-Lobos is for the guitar what Chopin is for the piano. For the album we miraculously found the scores for two unpublished songs by Villa-Lobos setting the poetry of de La Fontaine and Victor Hugo that show his love for the French language.

Which is why it’s interesting to have one of France’s most beloved sopranos singing Jobim’s Aguas de Março in the French-language version by Moustaki alongside Modinha in Portuguese. How did the three singers — Natalie Dessay, Agnès Jaoui and Helena Noguerra — get involved in Rio-Paris?

I had wanted to work with Natalie for a long time; we’ve known each other for many years and I’ve always admired her work. We were searching different types of repertoire, and when I suggested the possibility of Villa-Lobos’ beautiful Cantilena from the Bachianas No. 5 she said, “You know, I’ve never sung it!” We knew right away that it was the perfect starting point. That took us on a journey of Brazilian music with Villa-Lobos, Baden Powell, Jobim, Gismonti…

Agnès Jaoui had already devoted a superb disc to South American music, and Helena Noguerra’s mother tongue is Portuguese, so it’s a great mix.

It's a great all-female line-up when the guitar is often thought of as quite a masculine instrument.

It would be a little clichéd to think of the macho flamenco guitarist when there have been great female classical stars like Sharon Isbin and Ida Presti. Personally I had never played in an all-female group like this, but this project demanded these particular three voices. Making music together, understanding each other and laughing together in the studio, there was a lot of emotiona and a lot of fun — and it's still going on in the concerts!

On Rio-Paris you play a few brilliant solo pieces by Villa-Lobos, who was himself a fine virtuoso guitarist; did playing songs pose some different challenges?

As a classical guitarist it’s not at all my usual style. In technical terms, it’s not a problem, but the rhythms are so particular. A piece like Desafinando: technically it’s very simple but rhythmically when you try to play the bossa nova offbeat and make it sound breezy, without any effort — that was the big challenge for me.

But we wanted to show a vision of different styles of Brazilian music, starting with classical and going on to more popular music and jazz. With Brazilian music you have this melange that’s not possible with most other music. But thanks to the guitar, we can do it on Rio-Paris. To juggle between these songs and styles — to see the differences and the connections with the rhythms — it’s an exciting musical journey.

Rio-Paris is out now, and available here.