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)

Last year saw the release of the duo album Live At Healdsburg (Anzic), a celebration of musicality and wit recorded at the 2016 Healdsburg Jazz Festival in California with pianist Fred Hersch, a prized musical partner. And in March of this year, but in a totally different vein, Cohen marked the premiere of the second concerto composed for her, “Concerto For Clarinet And Wind Ensemble.” Written by Tony award-winning composer/orchestrator Jamshied Sharifi, the piece was performed with the MIT Wind Ensemble, first at the Kresge Auditorium in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and later at the National Conservatory of Music in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

As this sampling of her collaborators suggests, they are a disparate and distinguished group. But those seeking an antecedent for her artistry might look to DownBeat Hall of Famer Benny Goodman (1909–’86). Cohen, who played the legendary clarinetist and bandleader’s parts in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s January 2018 recreation of his historic 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, cites Goodman as her “first clarinet introduction to jazz.” She considers him a role model of sorts.

“With Benny and the big band, there’s something about knowing how to take a song and not be afraid to make it your own,” she said. “You make a song iconic and you play it. He could play forever ‘Memories Of You.’ I can play forever ‘Memories Of You.’ It’s the emotional goal, not the notes; it’s where it takes you and what it expresses.”

Echoing Goodman, who also had concerti written for him, Cohen expresses emotion with consummate control, her rich timbre and precise articulation allowing single notes to soar and their accumulation to speak volumes as she pushes the limits of the instrument. Though Cohen’s musical language draws on the most modern vocabulary, she, like Goodman before her, mines a range of sources, invoking specific gestures, like those of klezmer, that Goodman employed throughout his career.

The big-band leader inspired an entire Cohen album—Clarinetwork: Live At The Village Vanguard (Anzic)—a collection of popular standards recorded on the Goodman centennial in 2009 and released the following year, with Benny Green on piano, Peter Washington on bass and Lewis Nash on drums. Goodmn also inspired Cohen to include vibraphone in the tentet, with James Shipp holding down the equivalent of the Lionel Hampton chair.

Shipp and trumpeter Noordhuis have a duo together, just one of the tentet’s smaller cells whose existence has helped the larger group coalesce into a living organism with remarkable ease. According to Noordhuis, that process began to take hold during the first engagement, the week at Jazz Standard.

“What was amazing about that run,” she said, “was that every gig we did, the band evolved. It only took a week, and we had this band sound.”

Noordhuis, a native of Sydney, Australia, also attributed the ease of coalescing partly to the nature of the sets, which, executed with interludes between tunes, compelled the musicians to maintain an active stance at all times to sustain the natural flow.

“We played solidly for an hour, and each tune morphed into another, even if it was a completely different genre,” Noordhuis said. “It sort of seamlessly weaved in and out. So, by the end of that week it was like, OK, we’re ready.”

The diverse nature of the musicians and music also played a part. “Everybody brings their personality to the table,” Noordhuis said. “It’s a blend of cultures—Brazilian, American, Australian, Israeli. The eclecticism of the repertoire is incredibly unique, a leading feature. And the way it’s presented—it’s a one-act show, it hits hard. Onstage, we’re all laughing. There’s a feeling of togetherness.”

Cohen’s leadership fosters that togetherness, her cues to the musicians—a raised clarinet, a fleeting glance, a turn of musical phrase—subtly sculpting the tentet’s sound with a mix of assertiveness and generosity. “There are times,” Pinciotti said, “where we’ll be playing some open sections and she’ll lead them into improvised background figures, or she wants them to improvise something behind her. But she always wants people to solo and play; it’s not just people playing figures for her to solo over and maybe one cat gets four bars a night.”

Such leadership qualities, Cohen argued, are only as successful as the personnel allow. So, her search for the right players for the tentet was a diligent one: “You look for teamwork, detail, compatibility; for pushing each other, support, having fun; for excitement, professionalism, positive attitude. You look for the way you feel the music together, the pace—and the trust you build with the band.”

Ultimately, the diligence paid off, yielding the kind of ensemble—integrated yet consisting of individuals—she hadn’t foreseen. “Originally,” Cohen said, “the concept was to show a lot of the things the clarinet can do, to play all the styles from all the regions of the world, from klezmer to classical. But it became less a history lesson than what the band could do with these personnel.” DB

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