Private Playlist: Chris Cohen shares Algerian synth funk, avant jazz, and more far-out sounds

Chris Cohen with some of his Private Playlist selections. Credit: Chris Cohen.

Private Playlist is a listening session with Southern California’s most notable musical figures in their private creative environments. Chris Cohen is a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with an extensive discography as a solo artist, sideman, producer, and band member. He spoke with KCRW about clearing the mind with experimental jazz and his own frightening near-miss with coronavirus:

I was coming back from a show on March 10 from Missouri, and I got sick on the plane. So that was the first day I was like, “Okay, something is definitely going on.” There were no recommendations coming from the government then, and it was really unclear. I managed to get an appointment with my doctor two days later, and he was just like, “Yeah, you might have it; I can’t test you. Just quarantine.” It was really a weird nightmare scenario — I’m a paranoid person, so I’ve been waiting, in a weird way, for this.

Then my girlfriend and I moved on the 15th of March, and I was planning on working on new music anyway … so, lucky for me, I didn’t have to cancel anything that I was planning on.


Junior H

Not long before we moved, I was listening a lot to Junior H. My neighbors were playing him really loud outside, and it sounded so cool. I was too shy to go up and ask them what it was, so I just Shazamed it. There’s one Junior H song in particular, “Quién Es Quién,” that I was listening to before that trip to Missouri.

Nass el Ghiwane

When I was in my 20s, I worked in record stores, so I have tons of records. And in the new house, we have our stereo by the couch with a turntable, and a little Bluetooth speaker in the kitchen. We’ve been listening to a lot of music while we’re cooking, particularly this self-titled record by the Moroccan group Nass el Ghiwane. It really lifts my spirits up; it’s physical, the songs are long, and they have this back-and-forth group vocal. It’s exciting.

David Murray

When we first moved into the house, I put on this record by David Murray, the tenor saxophonist. It’s called Flowers for Albert. It’s an early-morning, clearing-your-mind kind of song.

When I was 18 or so, I saw an ad in The Recycler newspaper that said: “Jazz Records, $3.” And it listed Sun Ra and Coltrane, and it was clearly this intense collection. I went to this guy’s house — a friend of his had passed away — and he was selling hundreds of really incredible, rare avant-garde jazz records. I remember borrowing money from my sister, trying to buy as many as I possibly could. I bought a huge box of records, and that was just one of them. I remember going through them for a year or so; each day I’d pick out a new one, and I just kept going back to that one. It’s a live recording, and there’s a lot of space; it gets out-there, but it also has a lot of restraint.

David Tudor

I bet you’re probably going to get this answer from a lot of other musicians, but my routine hasn’t changed that much. I live my life like a hermit anyway, so it’s not super-different, but my girlfriend is working from home, and I haven’t been alone at all. Certain music I like to listen to alone because I don’t want to be distracted from it.

For example, there’s this record, Pulsers, by the composer David Tudor. I love it, but I can only listen to it alone — because you’re speechless when you’re listening to it; it puts you into a different state that’s not social.

Maghreb K7 Club

There’s also this compilation that just came out on Bongo Joe Records. It’s a collection of raï music from the ‘80s made by the Algerian diaspora living in Lyon, France, and it blends raï with other forms. It’s called Maghreb K7 Club: Synth Raï, Chaoui & Staifi 1985​-​1997.

The way that I listen to music in my new space is really different. We were living in Happy Valley in Lincoln Heights, and we had a little back-house, so I could be pretty loud. I’m still figuring out how to listen to music, or how to play music, in the house. I moved a piano in here, and I’m kinda nervous about playing piano with my neighbors, so … I’m still figuring it out.

Check out KCRW’s other Private Playlists:

Inara George shares tips for raising music-literate kids during quarantine