Considering that she grew up in Israel playing mostly saxophone, Anat Cohen wasn't necessarily destined to become one of the world's leading jazz clarinetists.
Or maybe she was and didn't realize it.
Either way, Cohen – who has vacillated between the two instruments during much of her career – has become something more than just one of the most compelling clarinetists in jazz: She has helped to give the instrument new visibility and, perhaps, even a touch of glamour.
You could see as much last September, when an enormous crowd poured into the University of Chicago's Rockefeller Memorial Chapel for her midnight show with Brazilian guitarist Douglas Lora, during the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. That so many people would flock to Rockefeller at that hour to hear her said something about the rising fortunes of the instrument and Cohen's role in its apparent resurgence.
For alongside comparably gifted clarinetists such as Don Byron, Victor Goines, Michael White, Evan Christopher and Ken Vandermark, Cohen clearly is helping to put the instrument of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw back on the cultural map.
"I hope so," says Cohen, who returns here Sunday for a major event, leading her quartet at University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts and conducting a master class for students immediately afterward.
"I think more people think it's a cool instrument (now). … We're coming back."
Not that the clarinet ever really went away. Stylistically far-flung players such as bebop pioneer Buddy DeFranco, Cuban master Paquito D'Rivera, avant-gardist Anthony Braxton and others taught the instrument to make gripping new sounds in the post-swing era. But in our increasingly noisy, raucous musical world, the clarinet ultimately was marginalized, a comparatively soft-spoken instrument widely associated with an earlier era in American music.
Cohen has been at the forefront in reviving the clarinet's fortunes, thanks to many aspects of her playing: the purling beauty of her tone, the charismatic nature of her performances, the seemingly nonchalant virtuosity of her delivery and the remarkable breadth of her repertoire. From vintage New Orleans idioms to freshly penned compositions, from Brazilian choro music to Cuban danzon to indigenous rhythms of Venezuela, Colombia and Argentina, she embraces vast swaths of cultural expression. All-American jazz meets world music in her best work, to the benefit of both.
"The first thing I think (of Cohen) is: Wow, I wish I could do that," says Chicago clarinetist-saxophonist Eric Schneider, himself an exceptional reedist who performed with Earl Hines and Count Basie and shared a stage with Cohen for the first time last summer at the Ravinia Festival.
"She has an amazing control over the instrument. What I hear in her playing is (that) it's coming from more than just a jazz background. I hear the Brazilian music that she's studied, and maybe some of the stuff from her homeland.
"And all that comes together, and I just say, 'Wow.'"
Yet Cohen came to the clarinet circuitously, even if it was her first instrument in her native Tel Aviv. But once she began focusing on jazz, "I was steered away from it, just because of what the role of the clarinet was in the '80s – it wasn't very popular," says Cohen.
"I was in Israel, in high school, (and) in the '80s, '90s, basically the teacher was like: 'Bring any saxophone, don't bring the clarinet.'"
But after completing mandatory service in the Israeli military playing tenor saxophone in the Air Force band from 1993-95, Cohen attended the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she began collaborating with Latin American and South American colleagues. Those sessions, plus further such explorations in New York, where she moved after Berklee, lured her back to the clarinet.
"Basically, I love playing any kind of music that I felt the clarinet can fit," says Cohen. "For many years, that was my main struggle: I liked the instrument, but I couldn't find settings that I could just show up with clarinet and people would say: 'Come on in.' I couldn't find where to fit it – that was the problem."
But why was it solved via music from Brazil and other locales south of the border?
"Because the clarinet never got out of fashion in those countries," says Cohen. "It's all through the history of, for example, Brazilian music. You still hear the sound, even in popular music, in samba – it never got pushed to the side. Yes, (they play) the saxophone, but clarinet still is respected."
Though no one is expecting the clarinet to enjoy that kind of high visibility in the American pop marketplace, Cohen and colleagues surely have reintroduced the jazz public to the instrument in vivid ways.
Cohen's discography on the indie Anzic Records label that's named for her documents the strides she has made. The tonal radiance of "Poetica" (2007), the high spirits and contemporary edge of "Notes from the Village" (2008), the Goodman homage of "Clarinetwork: Live at the Village Vanguard" (2010), the expressive and stylistic range of "Claroscuro" (2012) and the collaboration with brothers Avishai Cohen on trumpet and Yuval Cohen on soprano saxophone on the newly released "Tightrope" (2013) attest to the ever-expanding nature of her work.
At the core of all this music is Cohen's signature sound, an uncommonly warm, glowing timbre that's not easily achieved on an instrument as recalcitrant as the clarinet. Then, too, there's the intensely melodic quality of Cohen's playing, which she credits, in part, to her heritage.
Listen, she says, to "the Jewish cantor – you take a melody, you have a voice, a very clear voice, with a very strong expression, and (melodic) ornaments are very personal, and that kind of sound … I think it may be engraved in my DNA." As it was in the identities of Goodman and Shaw.
"Or maybe it's something I learned," adds Cohen. "But those (cantorial) melodies I was always attracted to – how to take a melody and express it in the best way I can.
"Before I think of improvisation, the melody is important. That's an influence that comes from Jewish heritage. Of course, people have it in other cultures: flamenco, gypsy music, they have their own version of the same thing."
All those influences, and others, somehow come together in Cohen's work, often to magical effect.
The Anat Cohen Quartet performs her "Claroscuro" music at 2 p.m. Sunday at the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St.; $35 general; $5 students; master class at 4 p.m.; 773-702-2787 or ticketsweb.uchicago.edu.
New Orleans Jazz Orchestra
Crescent City trumpeter Irvin Mayfield will lead his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra in concert – with guests Allen Toussaint, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and singers Kurt Elling and Haley Reinhart – at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St.; $53.50 to $153.50; ticketmaster.com.