Anat Cohen: Clarinetwork Live at the Village Vanguard

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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Anat Cohen

Clarinetwork Live at the Village Vanguard

Anzic Records


Anat Cohen can make the clarinet sing—literally and figuratively. On Clarinetwork Live at the Village Vanguard her wonderful, flowing melodic lines swoop and soar like arias placating the most high. It is as if—in that spiritualised state of grace—Cohen, in her singular, burnished or blushing tone, is voicing the murmurings of the soul set free by the music. Cohen is an anomaly in contemporary music. She is not bound by metaphor and idiom, genre or species. Her home is where her heart is, be that the gentle, wistful shuffle of Brasilian choro or the wild abandon of swing or bebop. On Clarinetwork, she is entrenched in recasting the era that was glorified by Benny Goodman. In fact, as 2009 was a Benny Goodman centennial, this album was recorded as a deeply felt homage to one of a handful of legendary practitioners of the clarinet.

As a homage to Goodman, this album is by far one of the finest tributes made to that musician. However, it is impossible not to be continuously under the spell of Cohen herself. Her technique is impossibly refined and she can glide from altissimo through clarino to chalumeau seemingly effortlessly. How she is able to play microtonal intervals and the resultant quarter notes at breakneck speeds is a mystery best left unsolved, because on this album it is a joy to hear her duel with that other virtuoso, pianist Benny Green. Cohen's technique is so supple that she plays some wild and wonderful trills at the conclusion of her phrases, as effortlessly as she might usher in a new phrase after a barely discernable vibrato is employed to close a preceding one. And she appears to have an endless stream of improvisational ideas issuing forth from her clarinet.

There are times when Cohen and Green recall the delightful 1980 musical conversation between Goodman and pianist Teddy Wilson on "Sweet Georgia Brown." On "Lullaby of the Leaves," however, that give and take and get up and go may be surpassed by Cohen and Green, whose unbridled improvisation from chorus to chorus appears to stem from a cornucopia of musical ideas that take the song to places it has never been before. Cohen's fabulously brooding chalumeau tone at the start of "St. James Infirmary" is breathtakingly beautiful, and when she starts to ascend the registers as the blues builds toward the end of the 12-bar cycle there is a sense of wonder that might suggest that Cohen is one of today's finest examples of clarinet virtuosity. However, the suggestion that there are only two improvising players on stage may be remiss.

As a matter of fact, Peter Washington probably never gets sufficient credit for his outstanding accompaniment on the bass. To discover that he was personally sought out for this special assignment by Cohen is a comforting thought. Washington is a virtuoso who has the ability to unearth exquisite hidden harmonies from his instrument. His flawless technique and acute sense of melody enables him to interpret songs with monstrous harmonic ingenuity, and his natural sense of melodic swing as he hits notes that never were part of the original melody, but now seem extraordinarily part of the tune, is stunning. He is also bang on the pulse time after time—something that he displays beautifully on "St. Louis Blues," "Body And Soul" and "What A Little Moonlight Can Do."

Drummer Lewis Nash, who not only kept time for the later incarnation of the Don Pullen/George Adams Quartet, but also provided his considerable talent for saxophonist Branford Marsalis' Grammy nominated sojourn, Random Abstract (Sony, 1988), fits the rhythm section like the other glove. Nash's singular sense of timbre and melodic gracefulness is what sets him apart as a percussionist, providing a constant reminder that he is both accompanist extraordinaire as well as lead voice when called upon to be one. His star turn on "St. Louis Blues" is a case in point. The gentle sway of "Body And Soul" provides further evidence of h8s ingenuity, as he colors the song with hushed tones behind Green's dazzling runs and Cohen's low register undulations.

Even at 69:31 minutes this album may be an all-too-short snapshot of the actual concert. If it is then the hope that this ensemble will get together again is alive and well. There is never enough of a good thing, especially when it comes to the art of music and especially in a gig that bristles with genius.

Tracks: Sweet Georgia Brown; Lullaby Of The Leaves; Band Announcement; St. James Infirmary; After You've Gone; St. Louis Blues; Body And Soul; What A Little Moonlight Can Do.

Personnel: Anat Cohen: clarinet; Benny Green: piano; Peter Washington: bass; Lewis Nash: drums.

Year Released: 2010

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