Steve Cohn has come a long way as a musician from the early days when he first learned to play the piano and played the blues in a club. He spent two years in Japan, which tells how he came by Japanese instruments like the shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo flute, and the hichiriki which is a double reed. Cohn also plays the ektara, a single stringed instrument used in India (the word literally means one string).
Cohn's interest in international instruments has led to the creation of a fascinating amalgam. He uses the tonality to work up their distinct sound, and then melds them with the voices of traditional western instruments. In this he has had the input of some exceptional improvisers including Reggie Workman, Karl Berger, Jason Hwang and William Parker among others. The line-up of his groups is never static. The underlying factors of an innate understanding between the members, and the ability to take an uncharted course and make it meaningful remain with the band on this recording.
Cohn stirs up dense passages and then pulls back, letting the calm waft across. He balances thrust and tangent to give the music a nice edge and leave an open vent for his skillful band to surprise the listener. They waste no time doing so.
"Ohio" wraps several ideas into one neat package. Masahiko Kono blasts fat notes from the trombone, Cohn brings in the reeds and the ektara, Kevin Norton splashes rounds of color on the cymbals and Tomas Ulrich bows a rich line on the cello. But this is just the beginning. Cohn develops the grain of an Oriental melody while Koto shards the line, but Ulrich continues to be the peg, playing deep and resonant. The music is in a state of constant flux with a playful mid-section, some strong harmonies and a discernible melody on the piano from Cohn. The elements are disparate but the whole is cohesive.
While tension and turmoil are key signposts, "Oyasuminasai" brings in some tranquil pools. Cohn's initial melodic line on the piano is merely a quick nod before it turns spatial. Ulrich and Cohn have a conversation going that tacks melody to atonality. The evolution is constant, the sustained attack of the trombone meshing with the rhythmic impulses of the drums and the piano flitting into open territory while the bass pegs it all down.
Cohn and his band find some intriguing nooks and crannies on this atmospheric outing.
Personnel: Steve Cohn: piano, shakuhachi, hichiriki, shofar, ektara, percussion; Masahiko Kono: trombone; Tomas Ulrich: cello; Kevin Norton: drums, vibes, percussion.