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Anat Cohen: Time To Blossom

By Published: June 18, 2007

I think when it comes to music, when you have the passion, its not like you can choose not to do it. You have to do it.

"I would say that's what keeps me content musically is the fact that I try to put myself in different musical situations and I enjoy them all equally, says Anat Cohen, an Israel-born musician who has been making noise in her own sweet way on the New York City music scene since coming to the Big Apple in 1999. The city intimidated her a bit at first, influenced by impressions of the city she had only seen in modern movies that showed a potentially dangerous side, but she has survived and prospered. She's adding her own piece to the quilt that is the city's musical scene.

Cohen has survived the tough town and is navigating the rough, often unforgiving, waters of the business for musicians that play jazz.

Jazz, however, is not all that Cohen is about. Her robust sound on tenor sax and the rich sound she gets out of a clarinet lend themselves nicely to the American art form, as evidenced by her work with the Diva Jazz Orchestra, with which she's worked for nearly a decade, or playing the music of Louis Armstrong in another band. But she can also be found in other parts of the city contributing a variety of Latin forms, including choro music, of which she is particularly fond.

"Sometimes I go through periods that I want to play certain music with the people that dedicate themselves to that style, says Cohen. "To play choro music with people who—that's what they study, choro music. And play the music of Louis Armstrong with the people that study it—you know, not everybody wants to do that, or can do that. If you assume every jazz musician can play the music of Louis Armstrong, it's not really true. It's something you need to dedicate yourself to.

"It's a matter of choice. It's not like one music is hipper. It's a matter of choice of what period you want to dedicate yourself to. Sometimes I feel it is very important to play the style with the people that really know the style ... I would like to play with people who understand those styles, but can be open enough and have studied enough jazz and rhythms and harmony to be able to take it somewhere and bring it to somewhere different than just jazz. Kind of combine everything.

She's not kidding. She has already released two CDs on Anzic Records in 2007, Poetica and Noir, each different, displaying a broad range of music. Both, however, benefit from her sweet melodic sensibilities and deft way with harmonies and rhythm. Later this year, the Choro Ensemble, of which she is a member, will come out with a new CD.

Cohen has played with many established musicians in the city and, like her brothers—saxophonist Yuval and trumpeter Avishai—it's created a buzz. "I'm excited, she says of her music and the opportunities that could result.

Poetica consists of a quartet, with Jason Linder on piano, backed by a string quartet on some of the numbers. The music includes old Israeli songs, a Brazilian tune, a French number and even Coltrane's "Lonnie's Lament. Each is very melodic and the band is very much in sync on the arrangements, which are by Cohen and her bassist, Omer Avital. One of the striking things about it is that Cohen plays only clarinet, and it brings to the forefront how beautifully she plays the instrument. It's almost akin to Johnny Hodges on alto sax in a time when everyone was copying Bird. It's expressive, melodic, emotional.

"These are definitely things that are important to me. Sound is important to me, she says. "I think I'm coming from more of a classical world on the clarinet. When I picked up the clarinet again... it's funny, I was talking to Greg Tardy. We both started on clarinet and left the clarinet alone for years to focus on tenor. Then we both picked up the clarinet again. I told him what I hear on the clarinet, I hear mainly folkloric music. I don't want to play what I play on the tenor to play it on the clarinet. I'm hearing more melodic and older sound. He said exactly he opposite. He said I want to do exactly what I do on the tenor. I want to go on the clarinet and put all the modernism to the clarinet. I think it's just a matter of choice. I never tried to imitate everything I learned on the tenor. Maybe because I get to play so many folkloric kinds of music. I get to play with a Venezuelan guitarist and folkloric Brazilian music and the folkloric Columbian music, Louis Armstrong music.

Noir is with a larger aggregation and Cohen plays tenor, alto and soprano sax as well as clarinet. It features musicians like her brothers, Ted Nash, Ali Jackson, Scott Robinson and more, and also has strings. Oded Lev-Ari arranges and conducts tunes that include Latin music, but also "Cry Me a River, "You Never Told Me That You Care, "Cry, and a delightful pairing of Samba De Orfeu and "Struttin' With Some Barbecue. The sound of her tenor, particularly on "No Moon at All and "You Never Told Me That You Care is sensual and enticing.

Putting them both out this year wasn't intentional. "I had the project with the large ensemble [Poetica], it was an ongoing project. It took about a year, probably, from the minute we thought about it until we actually got the arrangements done and the personnel. It just ended up we had both projects ready at more or less the same time. Because they are so different, I thought, let's just put them both out, says Cohen.

"The songs in Poetica, yeah, there are four Israeli songs on the record. So I would say it's influenced by the music of Israel, but mostly from the music that I grew up with. Even the Jacques Brel song ["La Chanson des Vieux Amants ] is a song I listened to growing up. They're definitely songs from the more traditional Jewish, from "Nigunim to more modern things like the first song on the record ["Agada Yapanit (A Japanese Tale)].

"I'm very pleased with the results. And very pleased with the musicians on both of these. On Poetica, Omer Avital was a big part of the process of making the album. I suggested the songs. We figured out some of them together. Because the clarinet is so associated with classical music, we thought [the arrangements] would enhance the sound of the wood of the clarinet with some strings. He did great. He arranged all the string arrangements on the record. With Omer playing and Jason Linder and Daniel Freedman [drums], these are people I have been listening to ever since I came to New York City. I've gotten to play with them quite a bit. I couldn't think of better people to put the spirit of jazz —which will be the interaction and the flexibility to embrace any song and make it build, no matter what style.

She's likewise pleased with Noir. "When you have Ted Nash on the saxophone and my brother Avishai on the trumpet, people that really have character on their instrument, they give character to the written parts; really make music out of their parts, all the people in the orchestra. When the moment comes for them to speak up they are so strong with their personality that it is such a joy to hear that.

Cohen says she's unsure how the music will be categorized, but it contains the basic elements of jazz, even within the arranged structures. Some tunes swing, others are more melodic. But the quality of the music is more important than the label. "In today's scene in New York, there are so many things that are happening, so many jazz musicians are doing so many variations of music. I don't know that because they are jazz musicians playing good music that it makes jazz. I'm sure somebody would like to define it. I would call it jazz because I'm playing it in a jazz quartet, even though the improvisations on Poetics are quite lyrical. There's still a lot of improvisation, even thought it might not be so obvious that they are improvisations.

"I'm very, very happy. It was an incredible experience to record it. Oded Lev-Ari has been my friend ever since high school. I was very happy to try to make a project like that with him. I think he exceeded any expectations. He did a remarkable job on the arrangements. I'm very thrilled with what he wrote and I'm thrilled with the choice of musicians and the performance. Standing in front of a band like that is very thrilling, Cohen says.

The albums are already receiving praise among the critics and Cohen will be touring with a small group through the summer, playing some of that music and mixing in others.

Born in Tel Aviv, Cohen started clarinet studies at age twelve, and played jazz on clarinet for the first time in her Jaffa conservatory's Dixieland band. At sixteen she joined the school's big band and learned to play the tenor saxophone. She entered Thelma Yelin High School for the Arts, where she majored in jazz. She knew Lev-Ari from those days. "We were both in the jazz major, studying jazz. The first year they started the jazz major in the high school, we were the guinea pigs of the school. That's where we met. We stayed friends for all these years and ended up in a musical project.

After graduation, she served her mandatory Israeli military service duty from 1993-95, playing tenor saxophone in the Israeli Air Force band. Eventually, In 1996, she headed to Berklee College of Music in Boston. It not only connected her with the American music scene, but it exposed her to music from other cultures. And it also brought her back to the clarinet, an instrument she played, but got away from for practical, not musical, considerations.

"My first woodwind instrument was the clarinet. I left it for a few years when I started to play jazz, because the clarinet was quite a bit out of fashion for a little while. People were not interested in me playing clarinet. They didn't care which saxophone I'd bring, as long as I didn't bring the clarinet. I kept playing in big bands, so it was always a doubling instrument, but I wasn't really paying too much attention to it. The first person that put the light on for me was Phil Wilson at Berklee. He heard me dabbling in it there and said, 'You should play the clarinet. It's really your voice.' It gave me the idea to try. He made me improvise on the clarinet. I wasn't really using it as jazz before, says Cohen.

What pushed her even more into clarinet again was the Brazilian choro music she discovered and learned to love. The clarinet suited it, with the warm tone she could evoke and the sound of the wood. "We like to call the choro the father of samba and the grandfather of bossa nova. It's an older style. When people think of Brazilian music, they usually think of samba or bossa nova. But there are so many styles all over Brazil, in the north and the south, in the west. One of the founding styles of samba is choro. It's probably the equivalent of ragtime here. It's also a pianistic style. It transfers to the Brazilian ukulele, the cavaquinho, and there's a little Brazilian tambourine, pandeiro. Clarinet is one of the leading solo instruments, and mandolin. Clarinet is actually part of the style.

"I played a little bit in Boston, but I really started to play choro when I came to New York. I was so thrilled to find a style that clarinet fit. There are no limits. You don't have to play louder. There's no amplification. Nobody covers up the clarinet. It really fits. Some of the music is very technical and very virtuoso. Some is very nostalgic. It brought me back to practicing the clarinet. There's a lot of modulation, a lot of keys. I wasn't really listening to clarinet players.

Cohen's influences on clarinet are typical in some respects, but not totally. As a youngster she listened to Benny Goodman. Later when she got into Latin music, it was Paquito D'Rivera. Then Ken Peplowski. "But really what brought me back to play it and made me get my fingering back together was the choro music. Since there weren't that many recordings available, I basically learned if from reading the charts, reading the music and playing with the guys and making my own interpretation. A few years later I went to Brazil and heard some clarinet players there and I thought, 'Wow. This is really cool,' she says with a chuckle.

"I didn't just check out clarinet players. Of course I got to hear Buddy DeFranco and I got to hear Kenny Davern. I was fortunate to see both of them and play with them a little bit at some festivals. I got to really check them out and be on stage, up close, so they were very influential as well.

Her early influences on saxophone were Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon. "They were really inspiring, their whole spirit and the intensity in the sound. Very inspiring. Then I started to go further. Gene Ammons. Illinois Jacquet. Then I passed through a big Coltrane period where that's all I wanted to do, she laughed. "Then I realized it's impossible really. Coltrane, his spirit—the way he plays is so spiritual that it's something that stays—no matter really what style. You don't have to play a Coltrane song or in a Coltrane style for me to feel the spirit and the depth of music. To me, Coltrane symbolizes depth, really profound musicianship.

Continuing to inspire her were the musicians she encountered in New York "that I go out to hear whenever I can. Joe Frahm, Harry Allen, Grant Stewart. A lot of variety. I love Jimmy Greene. There are a lot of cats around. When I go see them I remember why I live in New York and why I do what I do. Everybody is doing their thing and playing their music.

Cohen stayed at Berklee for two and a half years. In 1999, she moved to New York. It was the year after she got a call from the Diva Jazz Orchestra. She eyed New York with a bit of trepidation.

"Growing up in Israel and seeing all the movies of New York, New York was always a very scary place for me. Especially as a woman. Music is music, but still, when you're a woman, somehow walking in the streets, you're a little bit more vulnerable. A bigger target for anything to happen. I was afraid about how I was going to go to New York and walk the streets with my saxophone and go on the subway. I didn't really know how it was going to be. She went out on the road with Diva on a west coast swing and deiced it was time to take the plunge. "I thought: 'Why not live in New York?' Lead a musician's life, like any other man that I know. They go out, they play gigs, they just have their life. I thought I want to do that to. So I decided to move to New York.

Diva was her main gig at first. In order to continue to work, she would play in Boston where she worked with an Afro-Latin band. "At a certain point I said if I'm going to be in Boston then no one is going to call me to work in New York, so I have to just stay in New York, she says. "Since I was really involved with the Brazilian scene in Boston, it was pretty natural when I moved to New York I got involved seriously with the Brazilian scene here. Until today I love the music. There are a lot of different kinds of Brazilian music that is possible to be played here.

Cohen would go to the Zinc bar on Sundays and sit in, and slowly to met people. She continued to fit in with Latin and world music bands, and also got a gig playing the music of Louis Armstrong with David Otswald's Gully Low Band.

"It was great. I'm very fortunate we started in Boston with the bassist Leonardo Cioglia, who today is leading his own group and doing a lot of things here in New York. From that I grew to play in Duduka DaFonseca's quartet. I met him through the scene. And I play with a Brazilian pop band, playing popular music down in Café Wha [Greenwich Village] every Monday. It's very much show and dance and lights and singers. But a great experience, with Brazilian percussion. And I picked up Portuguese. We did the repertoire of more popular music, which otherwise I wouldn't have gotten a chance to really get into. And the Choro Ensemble, which really became one of my favorite things ever to do. We had a weekly gig every week. We played in a French bistro in the East Village. A weekly gig can definitely keep a band, a band.

She would also listen to Jason Linder's Big Band at Small's in New York and got the chance to sub in. "There was a different approach. More open and stretching and groovy and very inspiring music ... With the Diva Jazz Orchestra, I kept meeting people from the swing scene. Meeting David Ostwald, they've been playing the last six years at Birdland every Wednesday. So I get to play with them I get to do different things. Play with bands in the summer at Central Park and Columbus Circle just for fun, playing New Orleans music. There are a lot of different things I try to do all the time to keep myself available, to stay inspired and to keep growing.

Her first CD came out in 2005 on Anzic, Place and Time with musicians like Jason Linder, Jeff Ballard and Ben Street, and the buzz started to grow. It's been an active and interesting existence. While the club scene is not as vibrant as it once was, Cohen is not dismayed. She says she wasn't around it before, so she has nothing to compare it to. So she forges on, playing in a variety of settings that not only keep her active but keeps it interesting; helps her grow as a musician. But she knows the situation could be better, and that jazz and its artists should be appreciated more.

"But there aren't enough places to play. There aren't enough stages or clubs that care about the music, that care about the artist first and not the customer. It really is about the music. I think probably it's harder times. The economy, I'm not really sure. Maybe the fact that there's so much cable TV. I don't know what the reason it's hard to get people out of the house. I feel people are trying so hard to make the customer happy that the artist becomes secondary.

What's needed, she feels, "are stages and places where artists are able to come and play and listen to each other and interact and get ideas from each other. Not enough musicians do that. There's school, then the people get out of school. And New York is a tough place. There aren't enough places (where we can say) 'Let's just go and hang in this place.' There used to be clubs where musicians could just walk in and hang out. Maybe in the back, but just hang out have a beer and check out other musicians. Today, you can barely even do that. How are we supposed to grow musically if we can't get fed from each other's ideas, or inspired by seeing other people playing? I love going out and hearing live music. I love to see people on stage and get the spirit and see what people do.

Cohen is aware how jazz is generally treated in the U.S., especially among young listeners. It's often rejected, out of hand. But when people are exposed to it, and reality strikes, it can erase preconceptions that it's too difficult, or confusing. It's frustrating for musicians.

When Cohen encounters people, "first I ask, 'Do you like music?' Because people don't even know, sometimes, what they're listening to. Then you say, 'Do you like jazz?' They say no. They don't know why. It might be, she confesses, that they have heard jazz that isn't particularly good. "Like any music, when jazz is not good, it's really not good music. It's not something you can relate to if it's missing one of the compliments of charisma or interaction or creating music or doing something musical, then it's really not going to go anywhere. So many people, maybe they see some jazz band somewhere that is not so good and they say, 'Ahh. I don't like jazz' and that's it. It's very sad. We need to re-educate them. She relates a story of how people are misinformed, and how musicians have the power to change.

"Once I played a concert with Diva and I do a tribute to Benny Goodman and I play a clarinet solo. Three girls came up to me after the concert. They're holding hands and their eyes are shining and they said, 'Wow. That was amazing. We play clarinet and our teacher told us, you can't play jazz on clarinet,' she recalls, laughing. "I'm like, 'Well. I guess you can.' They didn't know better. But after that they knew.

Regardless of the situation, Cohen's extraordinary musicianship and her strong improvisational skills will keep her in forward motion.

"Everybody's doing what they can. I think when it comes to music, when you have the passion, it's not like you can choose not to do it. You have to do it. If you can make a living of it, then great. If you're not satisfied with the living you're making, then people choose to do also other things or only other things. It's very individual, but once you have the passion for music—if you cannot afford to do it, how very unhappy.

"Now I have two new CDs and it's a whole new journey starting, she says. "There's a lot of different things I want to do. I feel like it's time to think up the next recording already.

"We'll see. I'm not sure what will be my next thing yet. It will be fun.


Selected Discography

Anat Cohen, Poetica (Anzic, 2007)
Anat Cohen, Noir(Anzic, 2007)
Kerry Lindner, Sail Away With Me (Blue Toucan, 2007)
Francisco Mela, Melao (Ayva, 2006)
Ann Hampton Callaway, Blues in the Night (Telarc, 2006)
Anat Cohen, Place and Time (Anzic, 2005)
Diva Jazz Orchestra, TNT - A Tommy Newsom Tribute (Lightyear, 2005)
Choro Ensemble, Choro Ensemble (Circular Moves, 2005)
Jose Conde, Ay! Que Rico (Pipki, 2004)
Cyro Baptista, Beat the Donkey (Tzadik, 2002)

Photo Credit
Courtesy of Anat Cohen



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