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Anat Cohen: Swing Dancer

Reclaiming melody, emotion and movement for modern jazz

Anat Cohen
Anat Cohen
Anat Cohen with Jason Lindner, New Orleans Jazz Festival, April 2011
Anat Cohen at Avatar Studios, NYC, 12/11
The 3 Cohens: Avishai, Yuval and Anat, Tel Aviv, 2011
Anat Cohen, Winter Jazz Fest, NYC, 1/11

During the 2011 Winter Jazz Fest in New York, Anat Cohen previewed some of the material from her Claroscuro album, which is finally being released in September on her Anzic label. She began with “All Brothers,” a postbop tune imbued with African flavors, written by her drummer Daniel Freedman, introduced by Jason Lindner’s McCoy Tyner-ish piano and climaxed by Cohen’s own Coltrane-ish soprano sax, whose wailing cries climbed higher and higher in pitch with each variation on the theme.

If you stood in the crowd at Le Poisson Rouge on that January night and closed your eyes, you heard some of the hippest modern jazz around, full of rhythms and chords that clashed and then resolved. But if you opened your eyes, you saw a bandleader who didn’t give a damn about being hip or cool. You saw Cohen dancing happily about the stage like a child at recess, her dark ringlets bouncing off the back of her silver-striped, black-velvet top, her knee-high brown boots shuffling across the stage as her silver horn swung to and fro.

It was a strange thing to take in at a jazz concert, seeing how jazz performances often aim for a sobriety that might justify the sobriquet “America’s Classical Music.” But if you disarmed your own hipness, you soon found that Cohen’s uninhibited joy was contagious. Like her earliest hero, the young Louis Armstrong, Cohen refuses to believe that cutting-edge jazz has to be accompanied by a stony stage demeanor. Jazz offers many things to the listener, and pure pleasure is surely one of them. So why not exult in the endorphins it sets free?

“I remember that Winter Jazz Fest show,” Cohen, 35, says in her Brooklyn apartment in mid-June. “I was dancing, and before long people in the audience were dancing, too. It shouldn’t be considered unhip to dance to jazz. People used to, but then it wasn’t cool. People still dance to Latin jazz and New Orleans jazz, but not to mainstream jazz. I don’t know why.

“When you take a rhythm and analyze it, it’s like math-you look at the bar, divide it into 16 beats and try to figure out if the accent falls on the seven or nine. But when you’re dancing, you get the feel of the bigger pulse and suddenly the subdivisions become more natural. It’s important to feel those pulses in your body, because then your fingers can just run free. Not all of my music is danceable, but when the music starts grooving, the audience will start moving, which makes me move.”

Later in the same set, Cohen picked up her tenor sax to play Abdullah Ibrahim’s “The Wedding,” which also appears on the new album. The tune lends an Ellingtonian elegance to a mix of gospel piano and South African township rhythms, and Cohen grabbed hold of the juicy melody with a brawnier, more assertive tenor sound than she’d displayed in the past.

Her primary instrument, though, is the clarinet, and that’s what she turned to for the set closer, Lindner’s “That’s What It Is.” Up from the crowd milling next to the stage popped Anat’s younger sibling, trumpeter Avishai Cohen (not to be confused with the Israeli bassist of the same name). The bushy-bearded brother and the apple-cheeked sister played the theme together, as they had so many times as teenagers in Israel, and then traded solos with big grins that implied, “Oh, yeah? Well, check this out.” “When she takes a solo these days, she plays whatever she wants, and the audience just melts,” Avishai, 34, declares. “It’s like the clarinet is an extension of her body. She changes one note in the melody; she closes her eyes and starts moving onstage, and people dissolve in their chairs.”

On Claroscuro, the Freedman and Ibrahim numbers are joined by Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose,” Milton Nascimento’s “Tudo Que Voce Podia Ser,” Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare,” Dr. Lonnie Smith’s “And the World Weeps” and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Olha Maria.” When I ask Cohen what thread ties these very different pieces together, she’s stumped for a moment. Sitting at her dining table, she scrunches up her face and stares out through the glass wall, past the oriental maples on the 11th-floor patio to the nearby Williamsburg Bridge. Finally, her face lights up in epiphany.

“Melody,” she declares. “How do all these songs fit together? They all have beautiful melodies that are either fun to play or very emotional. When you leave a show, you hum the tunes-you don’t hum the changes. The tune sets the tone for what we’ll play; it gives us the inspiration for what we’ll improvise, and what we improvise is another melody. You can put a different melody over the same chord changes and you’ll create a completely different mood. The melody might go up and down like gentle waves or be spiky like a stock-market graph.”

Cohen’s own playing is like that: It can roll gently through a ballad standard or it can zig-zag spikily through a postbop burner, but it always traces a tune. She’s never content to merely run scales; she’s always looking for the intervals that will draw a new melody out of an old one. She doesn’t care if the new variation is hip or not. She wants you to feel something.

Here we are back at the pleasure principle and the ghost of Louis Armstrong. It isn’t Piaf’s version of “La Vie en Rose” that Cohen follows but Armstrong’s. Wycliffe Gordon not only plays the trombone foil to Cohen’s clarinet but also adds a gravelly vocal in the Armstrong mold. (Paquito D’Rivera also guests on Claroscuro.) Family, the 2011 album she made with Avishai and their older brother Yuval as the 3 Cohens, features three more Armstrong numbers: “Tiger Rag,” “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street.”

Back in the 1980s, when Cohen and her two brothers were stealing time from their classical lessons to fool around with jazz, the whole world of music wasn’t available at the click of a mouse; you had to have an actual LP, CD or tape to hear jazz. And it was much harder to obtain those recordings in Israel than it was in the U.S. So when a family friend gave the three kids an audio cassette of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, the youngsters played it until the oxide was nearly gone. “When I think about that tape, my heart is smiling,” Cohen says with a grin. “Louis had a spirit that projected pure positivity, even when he sang about painful stuff. You can’t listen to him and not want to do the same thing: to be serious and funny at the same time. It’s not music that passes you by; it grabs you. And talk about playing a melody-Louis did it with all his heart. That paved the way for how I heard music.

“I remember looking at a classical orchestra when I was taking lessons and thinking that I didn’t want to grow up to sit in a chair,” she elaborates. “I wanted to be a soloist and be free to move around. When I saw Yuval in the school’s jazz big band, there was something so free in the way they played; they looked like they were having so much fun. They seemed to be on a never-ending exploration. There’s something fearless about jazz musicians that you don’t find in the classical world, and I wanted to be that fearless.”

The three siblings got a chance to revisit Armstrong’s music in 2010 when they were invited to a festival in Brazil’s Ouro Preto, in Nascimento’s home state of Minas Gerais. The festival was dedicated to Armstrong, and the 3 Cohens, living on different continents, each created new arrangements for Armstrong numbers and then taught them to each other at the hotel in Brazil. In the lobby of that hotel, they ran into vocalist Jon Hendricks and spontaneously invited him to join their set. “He showed up at sound check,” Cohen recounts, “and sang ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’ and ‘Roll ‘Em Pete’ that night. He’s the one who said we had to record these songs together-and we did. We’d done the original arrangements so many times growing up, but this time we had a chance to do our own versions, to layer our own personalities on Louis’.”

For Cohen, Brazilian music has been as important a touchstone as Armstrong’s. Four of the 11 tracks on her new album were written by Brazilians, and she’s a longtime member of the Choro Ensemble, named after the traditional Rio de Janeiro folk music. But just as she had discovered New Orleans’ music in Tel Aviv, she discovered Rio’s music in Boston.

She followed in her brother Yuval’s footsteps: attending the Tel Aviv School for the Arts, the Thelma Yellin High School for the Arts and the Jaffa Music Conservatory before crossing the ocean to attend Berklee College of Music. Later, Avishai and his friend Eli Degibri would follow the exact same path.

When Anat landed in Boston in 1996, she arrived as a short woman with a big horn, determined to be a tenor saxophonist in the style of John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. She had put aside the clarinet on which she had excelled as a classical musician. Who wanted to be a jazz clarinetist? Who was even hiring them? Who were the living role models? What could be less cool?

Her English is quite good now, though she still has an accent and occasionally pauses to search for the right word. But back then her English wasn’t so good, and she found herself hanging out with her fellow foreign students at Berklee. A lot of them were South Americans, who had no prejudice against the clarinet because it was a staple of their improvised folk music. They invited Cohen to play with them, and she soon found herself soloing on her neglected instrument. When that happened, her Berklee teacher Phil Woods told her, “You know, you have a voice on the clarinet; you might want to look into it.”

“At first I thought, ‘Are you kidding?'” Cohen remembers. “‘You can’t improvise on the clarinet; it’s too difficult.’ But I found out he was right. Because the clarinet doesn’t have the same history as the tenor in jazz, I was no longer under the shadow of Lester Young, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, and I suddenly became fearless. The tenor seemed limited to jazz, but I could play anything on the clarinet: classical, jazz, New Orleans, Brazil, Argentina, anything.”

“For a long time, she was fighting to be that tenor player she wanted to be,” Avishai points out, “but she was always this amazing clarinetist. But because it came to her so easily, she didn’t take it seriously. She said, ‘Oh, I can do that, but what I really want is to be a tenor player.’ I was always telling her, ‘You should play more clarinet; it’s more your real self.’ I was telling her that, and other people were telling her that.

“The big change in her career came when she decided to put the clarinet first. Don’t get me wrong; she’s an amazing tenor player. But when she made that switch-‘I’m a clarinetist who also plays the tenor’-it opened up her tenor playing as well. On our last tour, her tenor playing had gotten to a whole new level. And she’s arguably the best clarinet player in the world right now.”

When she graduated from Berklee and moved to New York in 1999, she continued to play Brazilian music, primarily with the Choro Ensemble. After all, it was no different from American jazz-both were foreign musics to her. If she could learn to improvise over the syncopation of one, she could solo over the swing of the other. “Once I understood those rhythms intellectually,” she recalls, “I wanted to feel them. To do that, I had to learn to dance to them. That was encouraged, because it’s not uncommon in Latin bands for a musician to step offstage and dance on the floor until it’s time to play again.” She picks up her new album from the table, points at the track list and says, “Which brings us to the first song on the new album, ‘Anat’s Dance.'”

The tune was written by Lindner, who insists that the composition describes Cohen’s “mental dance, not her physical dance; her creativity, not her stage movements.” But Cohen argues the two are inseparable. After all, musical knowledge is gathered through physical exertion, reassembled and then expressed through physical exertion. “Anat’s Dance” begins with a languid, unaccompanied clarinet solo, which is soon countered by a throbbing ostinato figure in the rhythm section, as if romance were sparring with sex. The ostinato comes and goes, but each time it reappears, it pushes the clarinet out of its sweet melody into unconventional intervals of anguish and/or passion.

Those unusual note choices are an important reminder that Cohen’s emphasis on melody, dance and pleasure do not come at the expense of experimentation and surprise. Whether playing with her own quartet (Lindner, Freedman and Joe Martin) or the 3 Cohens, Anat is constantly stretching for the unexpected chord, the unexpected interval.

When she played the 2011 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, for example, her quartet was booked into Economy Hall, the showcase tent for traditional jazz. She acknowledged the tent’s focus by playing such standards as “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “St. James Infirmary” and “Jitterbug Waltz.” But having once played the tunes straight, the combo started exploring and inventing, much to the puzzlement of the umbrella-twirling regulars on the wooden dance floor or in the plastic chairs. Creases of concern were visible on the foreheads of these traditionalist jazz fans, as Cohen stretched the rubber band till it was about to break and then loosened back into the familiar themes, easing worries throughout the tent. (This rubber-band approach to trad-jazz informs Cohen’s 2010 release, Clarinetwork: Live at the Village Vanguard.)

In June of this year, she was the special guest of the Young Lions of Gypsy Jazz in a Django Reinhardt tribute at Manhattan’s Birdland. Wearing a gold-embroidered, sleeveless black top and numerous silver bracelets, she stuck to the soprano sax, whose metallic bite allowed her to cut through the two or three acoustic guitars being furiously strummed and picked at any moment.

Whether it was a fast number like “Limehouse Blues” (a 1922 pop song recorded by Reinhardt in 1935 and by Armstrong in 1952) or a melancholy ballad like Reinhardt’s “Nuages,” she was constantly pushing beyond the usual note choices, creating a tension between her single-note line and the underlying changes that she resolved and rebuilt again and again. “This Gypsy music connects with my Jewish heritage,” she says. “The minor keys and the ornamentation of notes are very familiar to me. When you hear a cantor in the synagogue, you hear someone singing their heart out, treating a melody with so much ornamentation and care. When you hear klezmer music, you hear that cantor mixed with Gypsy music.”

Like her five previous solo albums as well as the 3 Cohens discs, Claroscuro is being released on Anzic Records, a label that Cohen co-founded and still co-runs with her friend Oded Lev-Ari. The label does handle other artists (including Joel Frahm, Eli Degibri and Duduka Da Fonseca), but only those who are close friends of one or both co-founders.

The idea is not to grow into a major label but to create a refuge where friends and relatives can make art and be compensated fairly, if not lucratively. Cohen operates her bands the same way, preferring to perform with friends and family rather than the biggest names. “She’s a friend,” Lindner says, “and I like to play with my friends because it’s so comfortable. When you make music with them, there’s more depth than if you play with someone that you don’t vibe with. Because jazz is about interaction and being aware, much of that is already taken care of if you play with someone you’re friends with. You can focus on the music.”

“With my brothers,” Cohen adds, “I can go for a whole show without looking in their eyes and yet we’re always in sync. We’re very different in how we play and yet we’ve found a way to complete one another. That’s a central question in jazz: How do you keep your individual selves and yet be a unit? It doesn’t happen naturally with other horn players, but with my brothers it’s so natural.”

Though she is best known for her clarinet playing-and rightfully so-Cohen is quite comfortable bringing only a soprano sax for a guest slot like the one at Birdland. She confesses that she wants to record an all-tenor album some day. On the new album, she plays soprano on “All Brothers” and tenor on “And the World Weeps” and “The Wedding.” The new album marks her first recorded bass clarinet foray, on her original tune “Kick Off.” When she rehearses at home now, she has all four instruments up on stands so she can practice on each of them in rotation.

“I like variety,” she declares. “I like to play different instruments for the same reason I like to play different styles. If I play the same thing for too long, I get bored with it, so I switch to something else. If I switch from choro to New Orleans jazz or originals for a while, then when I go back to choro, I say, ‘Wow, this is so great.’ There’s something to be said for doing just one thing and doing it really, really well, but then you have to close off certain options, and I want to keep all those possibilities open.”

Originally Published