The Eclectic Sensibility of Anat Cohen

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Anat Cohen’s long musical relationship with Oded Lev-Ari has resulted in “Triple Helix: Concerto For Clarinet And Ensemble,” which premiered in January at Carnegie Hall.

(Photo: Steven Sussman)

The shared history dates from the early 1990s, when Cohen and Lev-Ari were students in the fledgling jazz program at the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Tel Aviv. Assigned to school-security duty together, they quickly developed a personal relationship that turned musical, leading to extracurricular activities like four-hands piano sessions and restaurant gigs with their combo So What.

More than 25 years later, the duo’s friendship and musical partnership remain phenomenally strong and fruitful. Lev-Ari—who is married to singer Amy Cervini—has established a reputation as a skilled composer, arranger and producer who’s worked on numerous Anzic releases.

“Oded knows me,” Cohen said, eagerly displaying a photo of the two together, smiling and arm in arm, taken in the spring of 1993 for their high-school graduation. “He knows my playing, how much challenge I can handle, how much pressure, when to push me when needed, when to let go.”

Describing his enduring simpatico rapport with Cohen, Lev-Ari said: “We’ve always had this nucleus of understanding musically. In high school, a lot of [our] musical tastes were shaped. We both have a wide, inclusive view of music. It fits this overall general sensibility we share.”

The ties were nurtured when they left Israel for college. Both landed in Boston—she at Berklee College of Music, he at New England Conservatory—where they and Cohen’s two brothers, saxophonist Yuval and trumpeter Avishai, lived among a larger contingent of Israeli music students sharing loose communal quarters.

The Israeli connection, it turns out, offered more than a practical means of securing living space. It gave rise to deeper principles for organizing their professional lives and establishing their aesthetic goals—principles reflected in the desire to explore, and the need to adjust to, a wide range of situations.

“I can’t say it for a fact, but in my two cents of it, there’s something in the history, the DNA of the Jewish people, that we have no choice,” she said. “I have the flexibility to be here, or to be here, or to be here. Not everybody has the will to be flexible.

“There were always a lot of things I wanted to do. But then I said, ‘Wait, which one? Who am I? You know what? Music is music. So, I’m going to play everything I can. Everything I learn is going to be part of my music path and become part of my own DNA.’ And that’s what I’ve always done.”

For Lev-Ari, cracking Cohen’s genetic code, musically speaking, came down to applying a process of “activating and deactivating different parts of your DNA based on your environment—in this specific case, the interplay between Anat, the ensemble and myself, the composer.” They, in other words, are the constituent elements of the triple helix, and the concerto’s ecosystem is the metaphorical key that activates the code.

The tentet might be the most robust expression of that code, but it has something of a precursor. In 2007, Cohen and Lev-Ari released Noir on their young label, Anzic. The album also featured a large ensemble, dubbed the Anzic Orchestra, populated by like-minded musicians (Cohen’s brothers among them) playing material that ranged widely, from a Luiz Bonfá samba to a Johnny Griffin bebop number to ballads associated with contrasting personalities like Frankie Laine and Sun Ra.

On its own terms, the music—arranged with characteristic stylishness by Lev-Ari—was a critical success and a favorite with audiences. But, Cohen said, the orchestra was never intended to be a touring unit, and while she was satisfied that the album represented who she was at the time, its musical limitations, in light of the tentet’s capacities and her personal growth, have become clearer.

“The way I play,” she said, “I may have made other choices. I may have gotten better as an instrumentalist. With the tentet, there’s more interaction. I’m not afraid of the unknown. There’s more spontaneity. We can play anything. We can play classical, we can rock the house. It’s something I wasn’t exploring back in 2007. I didn’t have the vision, but I definitely have the courage now.”

It took some time, in fact, for Cohen to muster the courage to concentrate on the clarinet. As late as 2007, she still frequently was playing saxophone—she deployed tenor, alto and soprano on Noir—though the sense that she might first and foremost be a clarinetist had dawned on her eight years earlier when, at a jazz party in Clearwater, Florida, Stanley Kay, producer of the DIVA Jazz Orchestra, told her to ditch her tenor and retrieve her clarinet.

“I ran to my room while the music was still playing. I came back and played two choruses with my clarinet. While I’m playing, Kenny Davern taps me on the shoulder. He pulls me back between him and Buddy DeFranco. I was a young girl from Israel. What did I know? I think about the swing era as a style and here I am with these people—they are the swing era, they are the style, and I’m playing this music with them. It’s kind of like I got a blessing.”

In the years that followed, the reality of that defining moment became clearer as the demand for her clarinet became stronger—not least onstage with the the DIVA Jazz Orchestra. Nadje Noordhuis, who plays trumpet with the tentet, recalled their playing together in DIVA about a dozen years ago: “She had this big clarinet feature that would bring the house down every time she played it.”

As Cohen raised her profile and eventually became a perennial winner of the Clarinet category in both the DownBeat Readers and Critics polls, she realized that the instrument could help feed her penchant for eclecticism. “With the tenor, it’s so iconic with jazz,” she said. “With the clarinet, I can improvise, but it doesn’t have to be called jazz.” She could, she found, move easily from playing the music of Louis Armstrong at Birdland to playing the music of folkloric traditions in far-flung spaces. “It was the ease I had with the instrument. I realized I can be part of different musical settings.”

Her Brazilian connection in particular has flourished, most recently during a March trip to Ecuador Jazz 2019, where she reunited with Trio Brasileiro—percussionist Alexandre Lora, seven-string guitarist Douglas Lora and mandolinist Dudu Maia—with whom she had made the album Rosa Dos Ventos. That collection and the album Outra Coisa: The Music Of Moacir Santos with seven-string guitarist Marcello Gonçalves simultaneously were released by Anzic in 2017. Both earned Grammy nominations.

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