11:15 AM EDT, September 15, 2013
Five years ago, Chicago pianist-composer Ryan Cohan led his quartet on an African tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department and came back loaded with musical ideas.
He gathered them up for his suite "The River," which he premiered with a septet in 2010 and has documented on a gripping new album by the same title.
Though "The River" sounds impressive on the recording, it proved still more striking in concert Saturday night at the Green Mill Jazz Club. Playing the work in its entirety, Cohan showed how far he and his colleagues have taken this music in three years. For "The River" emerged as a fully realized whole, its earlier structural weaknesses addressed in performance, its pictorial effects a major achievement for both composer and instrumentalists.
In effect, "The River" now stands as a breakthrough moment for Cohan, as the Green Mill performance affirmed.
The piece opened ingeniously, Cohan playing an attractive, rhythmically rolling motif suggesting, of course, the gentle flow of a river. Once that motif had been established, the journey began in earnest, Cohan and the septet painting pictures of stops along the way.
"Call & Response," for instance, instantly placed the suite in Africa, John Wojciechowski's bent notes on flute and Samuel Torres' hands-on-skins percussion evoking decidedly non-Western musical syntax. "Arrival" teemed with surging rhythms and brilliant colors articulated by Wojociechowski's soprano saxophone, Tito Carrillo's fluegelhorn and Geof Bradfield's bass clarinet.
The scoring here, and elsewhere in "The River," pointed to a composer who has become expert at tone painting, the sensuous front-line work enriched by intricately layered rhythms from Cohan, bassist Lorin Cohen, drummer Kobie Watkins and percussionist Torres. Close your eyes, and you might have thought several more musicians were playing, thanks to the sonic breadth and textural depth of Cohan's writing.
You almost didn't need to know the title of "Storm Rising" to deduce the meaning of this movement, thanks to the tempestuousness of the music and the sonic heft of the septet playing at full tilt. But the storm here didn't necessarily concern the weather, for the forthcoming movements showed that Cohan was dealing with different kinds of convulsions.
"Forsaken," which stood as the dramatic centerpiece of the work, represented Cohan's contemplation of the genocide that has plagued various spots on his African tour, including Rwanda. Here Cohan has written the most searing music of the suite, and of his career, the anguish of the subject expressed in the unflinching dissonance of Cohan's piano solo, the quasi-orchestral shouts of the ensemble at large and the sometimes shattering, sometimes softly lamenting phrases of Carrillo's trumpet.
But there was joy in this work, too, particularly in "Brother Fifi," a rhythmically buoyant, harmonically straightforward, musically life-affirming ode to a young musician Cohan met on his travels. The plaintive lyricism of "Kampala Moon," poetically delivered by Bradfield on soprano saxophone, and the nearly frenzied dance rhythms of "Last Night at the Mannenberg" added welcome dimension to Cohan's suite.
And the final pages, which had seemed anti-climactic during the 2010 premiere, showed new weight and purpose this time around, Cohan recapping the opening theme but playing it more slowly and reflectively, as if much had been learned during the odyssey of "The River."
Composing a suite that sustains interest and coheres thematically during the course of an hour-long composition stands as one of the most difficult tasks in jazz composition.
Cohan has met the challenge, "The River" suggesting that he should continue his explorations into large-form writing – not enough jazz musicians dare to, and fewer still succeed.
Ryan Cohan and his septet perform "The River" at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Room 43, 1043 E. 43d St., in a presentation by the Hyde Park Jazz Society; hydeparkjazzsociety.com.
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