Hitting a high note

Multi-instrumentalist Anat Cohen has emerged as a rising star abroad.

ANAT COHEN 88 224 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
'Anat is an Israeli woman who plays the clarinet in the choro style... That's what I call the positive part of globalization... Very soon she will become a main voice in jazz clarinet' - Paquito D'Rivera NEW YORK - Anat Cohen's clarinet wailed like a woman scorned, dispensing with any need for a vocalist as she played the soulful 1950s torch song "Cry Me A River" with her Anzic Orchestra during a recent jazz club run in New York that saw her perform with four of her bands. Cohen, who comes from a family of prominent musicians, has come a long away since arriving in the United States in 1996 with a scholarship to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. She came shortly after completing her two-year compulsory military service as a tenor saxophonist in the Israeli Air Force Band, playing mostly pop music to entertain the troops. On tenor saxophone, Cohen has a big sound - she can both growl and play softer and more lyrically - that goes all the way back to pre-bebop Swing Era players. But it's her lovely, fluid clarinet playing that has established her as one of most promising young jazz instrumentalists. This year she was voted Rising Star Clarinet in Downbeat magazine's critics poll and received two awards from the Jazz Journalists Association as Clarinetist of the Year and Up and Coming Musician. "The clarinet has a range that is very wide and it sounds to me almost human," said Cohen, interviewed at the Greenwich Village town house that doubles as her home and the office of Anzic Records, the label she founded with her high school classmate, arranger-conductor Oded Lev-Ari. "It has the low notes and the high notes, so it's a pretty versatile instrument. At a recent performance at the Jazz Standard, Cohen performed with her Brazilian and mainstream jazz quartets; the Anzic big band she co-leads with Lev-Ari; and the 3 Cohens - Israel's answer to the Marsalis brothers - in which she's joined by older brother Yuval on saxophones and younger brother Avishai on trumpet. That gig capped a breakthrough year for the 32-year-old Cohen. This summer, she made her debut at the Newport Jazz Festival and became the first Israeli and the first female horn player to headline at New York's legendary Village Vanguard jazz club. Cohen, who released her first album as a leader in 2005, came out this year with two critically acclaimed albums on her Anzic label. Each disc showcases different sides of her musical personality. On Noir, she plays tenor, alto and soprano saxophones and clarinet with a big band that includes an unusual three-cello section, mixing Latin American music and jazz standards. The smaller ensemble Poetica, which focuses on her clarinet playing, offers an eclectic global mix of tunes from Israel, France and Brazil as well as several originals and her idol John Coltrane's "Lonnie's Lament," with an innovative arrangement featuring a string quartet. COHEN BEGAN playing clarinet at age 12 in a Dixieland band in an after-school program at a Tel Aviv conservatory. Her teachers in the newly inaugurated jazz program at Israel's Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts encouraged her to focus on the tenor saxophone. But a teacher at Berklee, Phil Wilson, recognized that she had her own voice on the clarinet. Cohen made clarinet her main horn after she started playing with a Brazilian choro band. "Choro," which literally means "to cry," is an older style of Brazilian pop music that predates bossa nova and mixes improvisation with European classical influences much like New Orleans jazz. Many choro songs feature a wailing clarinet, not unlike Eastern European Jewish klezmer music. "Coming from Israel, I heard klezmer but I never really tried to immerse myself in it. It was really the choro music that brought the clarinet back to my life because there I found a style where the clarinet really fits in," said Cohen, brushing back her long curly brown tresses from her face. The clarinet enjoyed prominence in jazz in the early Dixieland combos and Swing Era big bands led by such clarinetists as Benny Goodman, but few players could adapt the instrument to the more technically demanding bebop style. And the instrument further faded into the background when Coltrane popularized the soprano saxophone. The Grammy-winning, Cuban-born clarinetist, Paquito D'Rivera, has enthusiastically welcomed Cohen into the small fraternity of elite jazz clarinetists. He was blown away when Cohen's choro band played at a party in his home several years ago as a birthday present from one of his sidemen. "I was so impressed not only by the way she played Brazilian music so authentically, but the way she played the clarinet," said D'Rivera, whom Cohen considers one of her main influences. "It's very easy to make the clarinet sound horrible... but Anat has a very beautiful, sweet and at the same time impressive sound... she is an Israeli woman who plays the clarinet in the choro style... and she plays very good swing too. That's what I call the positive part of globalization... Very soon she will become a main voice in jazz clarinet." The band that remains closest to her heart is the 3 Cohens, who have titled their latest CD, Braid, as a metaphor for the close-knit way the three siblings play together. All but one of the 10 tracks are originals by each Cohen, including Yuval's hard-driving "Freedom," Avishai's impressionistic "Gigi et Amelie," and Anat's Latin-tinged "Tfila (Prayer)." Their love for music was instilled by their parents. Their mother, a kindergarten music teacher, played piano and accordion. Their father, a real estate broker, loved classical music and brought back a collection of American songbook records by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and others gathered in the decade he spent living in the United States. With older brother Yuval leading the way into jazz, the siblings followed in each other's footsteps through after-school classes at the conservatory, the performing arts high school and eventually to Berklee. Their musical paths have since diverged: 34-year-old Yuval has returned to Tel Aviv, where he teaches and leads his own band, while 29-year-old Avishai remains in New York, where he recently released his second album "After the Big Rain." "We now have interests in different kinds of music," said Anat. "But when I play with my brothers it's so natural because we feel the music in the same way and know where each other is coming from. It's like a dream - I love playing with them... and I get laughing attacks."