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Anat Cohen at the Vanguard

Anat Cohen

Watching Anat Cohen perform is a joy matched only by listening to her. At the Village Vanguard, where Cohen and her band held forth for six nights, two sets per night, the clarinetist/saxophonist was a study in motion. Eyes closed as she blew, Cohen often danced in place, crouching, swaying and jumping, wherever the muse took her, following her own ever-shifting melody lines and tempo changes. Then, turning over the solo spot to her musicians-pianist Jason Lindner, upright bassist Joe Martin and drummer Daniel Freedman-she stood or kneeled behind a column that partially obscured her from the audience, continuing to follow the rhythms via physical expression until it was time for her to return front-and-center.

All of this was done with broad smiles-the Anat Cohen Quartet might just be the happiest band in jazz. Lindner, off to Cohen’s right, often beamed as he followed her lead, and she returned the mutual admiration; the deeper he dug in, the more she enjoyed it. But the music was never whimsical. Although the group opened this early set with Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz,” the track that closes Cohen’s new Anzic CD Notes From the Village, they established from the onset that sheer musicality is their guiding force; they just see no reason not to have a hell of a grand time playing.

Cohen, who was named 2007’s Up and Coming Musician of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association, leads like a seasoned veteran, with ample assurance and boundless imagination. Originally from Israel and now based in New York, Cohen has been extremely prolific the past couple of years, working within a number of settings and displaying a hunger for varied experiences. The quartet she brought to the Vanguard may just be the best fit of all, though. Unexpectedly unleashing a melodic upper-register torrent of clarinet during the Waller number, Cohen might have thrown other players for a loop, but these three made the transition seamlessly and built on it. Freedman, in particular, is a highly adaptable sticksman with an arsenal of ideas; his understanding of the equal value of both quietude and a good solid pounding puts him into rare company among contemporary jazz drummers. Martin was a steady anchor throughout, but he too made the most of his flights, and quite often charted the direction.

Drawing largely from the new album, Cohen and the group made clear their penchant for tossing into the blender disparate international elements and rhythmic sensibilities that should have been-but were not-at odds with one another. Cohen’s own “Washington Square Park,” which opens the album, exuded a quintessential New York vibe in its unabashedly multicultural tone, driving forward with the mad deliberation of a New York City cabbie while retaining a studied, sober, practically tender underbelly. On Ernesto Lecuona’s Cuban-originated “Siboney” (arranged for the album by Lindner) and on “Um a Zero”-penned by Pixinguinha, the pioneering Brazilian choro composer often credited with bringing the art of jazz improvisation to Brazil (“the father of samba and grandfather of bossa nova” was how Cohen explained choro itself)-Cohen’s clarinet spilled notes that in lesser hands might have piled atop one another but here flowed forward effortlessly and determinedly. The Sam Cooke civil rights-era anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come”-the appropriateness of which at this particular historical moment was noted by Cohen with glee-took the quartet into poignant blues territory while the Joe Greene ballad “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” gave Cohen (moving to the saxophone), Lindner and Martin large spaces to fill.

Cohen’s aptitude on both instruments is undeniable but her preference would seem to be for the clarinet, where she exhibits greater individuality than on saxophone. That’s just as well because saxists are as plentiful in New York City as decent pizza, while the clarinet is in sore need of an Anat Cohen to give it a booster shot of neo-coolness. She understands the instrument’s possibilities, the myriad moods she can coax from it, and the places it’s been. Given her restless artistic temperament, it’s unlikely she’ll stay with this current lineup long enough to develop what they laid down here, but for an ephemeral moment at the Village Vanguard there was reason to believe that Anat Cohen, with all of her enthusiasm and panache-abetted by the Lindner-Freedman-Martin team-is the one to take clarinet music to the someplace new it needs to go.

Originally Published