Anat Cohen brings new -- and old -- sounds to the clarinet

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Anat Cohen

Anat Cohen (Andrew A. Nelles/Chicago Tribune / November 9, 2012)

Only one clarinetist on earth could have come up with the album "Claroscuro," its stylistic breadth expressing the singular esthetic of soloist Anat Cohen.

That Cohen careens on this disc from original compositions to Brazilian fare, from historic repertoire to bracing new music sums up her approach to the art of jazz improvisation and composition. That she makes all of this music sound as if belongs to a single continuum says a great deal about her gifts as bandleader and soloist.

Cohen, however, finds nothing unusual at all about the range of repertoire she explores in "Claroscuro" and elsewhere in her musical life.

"I don't even think about it as many different directions," says Cohen, who will be leading her quartet Sunday evening at Evanston SPACE.

"All these directions that are on the album are part of my normal week of music. … I play with the Louis Armstrong Centennial Band when I'm in town (in New York, where the Israeli clarinetist is based), more modern music, (Brazilian) choro. It is different worlds, but I feel myself in all of them equally."

More important, Cohen and her colleagues make the listener feel comfortable in these musical settings, despite the stylistic gulfs among them. This can be credited, in part, to the fervent lyricism of Cohen's playing, which makes itself heard regardless of the score at hand. Then, too, Cohen has found a kindred spirit and empathetic collaborator in pianist Jason Lindner, whose tonally sensitive approach to the keyboard matches hers to the clarinet.

Yet Cohen acknowledges the striking contrasts on the recording simply by calling the album "Claroscuro," a clarinet-centric play on the word "chiaroscuro," which refers to an artistic technique of setting off light and shade in an image or object.

"Basically, first I make music, then I listen to what selections are on the album and I look for a name to describe it," says Cohen.

"When I was checking out (this) music, I said there's a lot of really dark and dense parts to the album, and also very bright and uplifting parts, and I was looking for a title that would describe that contrast.

"Then I thought about chiaroscuro, the painting that emphasizes shade and light, and I thought that would be perfect."

Certainly "Clarascuro" casts many different kinds of light, from the high romanticism of Edith Piaf's "La Vie En Rose" to gently swaying phrases of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Olha Maria," from pianist Lindner's aptly named "Anat's Dance" to Artie Shaw's classic "Nightmare." The contributions of guests Paquito D'Rivera on clarinet, Wycliffe Gordon on trombone and vocals and Gilmar Gomes on percussion adds shades of texture and tone, making "Claroscuro" one of the most striking and ambitious recordings in Cohen's discography.

For though Cohen brought characteristic high spirits to her "Notes from the Village" (one of the best recordings of 2008) and an unmistakable accessibility to "Clarinetwork: Live at the Village Vanguard" (2010), "Claroscuro" reaches more deeply into the lyrical core of her art.

All of this work could serve to heighten the profile of an instrument long marginalized in jazz. For although the clarinet enjoyed immense popularity during the Swing Era, thanks largely to the work of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw – both of whom transcended the world of jazz to become pop stars – it has struggled to be heard in our noisier musical world.

"It's always mind-boggling to me that you say 'clarinet' and 'jazz,' and people immediately say 'Benny Goodman,'" observes Cohen. "It's so ingrained in people's consciousness: Benny and the sound of the clarinet in jazz.

"It's not the case with trumpet or saxophone or piano."

But why?

"He was really so famous that I don't know anybody, besides Louis (Armstrong), who has been such a household name in jazz – that's when jazz was pop music," says Cohen.

"Clarinet is not part of (today's) sound. You don't hear in recordings on any modern sound. You don't hear it in any R&B band. It's really not there."

Which makes Cohen's efforts all the more notable. Though as a child growing up in Israel she began her studies on clarinet, she eventually moved to saxophone before returning to the instrument for which she's now known around the world. The process was gradual, however, leading Cohen to believe that "the clarinet chose me more than I chose the clarinet."

And the art of jazz is the beneficiary.

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