Monday, April 26, 2010

Anat Cohen and the "New" Clarinet

© Andrea Canter

I’ve always loved the clarinet. One of my very first jazz albums was Pete Fountain’s Licorice Stick. I think I was about nine years old. My dad picked it out for me, but I’m not sure why this particular album or even the clarinet. But it made a lasting impression. Maybe 15-20 years later I discovered Richard Stoltzman, a classical clarinetist who also did some jazz and Brazilian music. Strangely, perhaps, I have not delved very deeply into the jazz clarinet canon. I have classic recordings of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, like any good jazz enthusiast. I have several modern recordings of Don Byron. But it took Anat Cohen to wake me from my clarinet slumber. I was right when I was merely nine. The clarinet is a gorgeous instrument. It’s time to hear it again as a leading jazz voice—a modern voice.

I suspect there are 200+ people who will agree with me after hearing Anat Cohen at the Dakota last night. Hers was a pleasing premise—salute the great Benny Goodman, play his songbook, but do it filtered by the pace of the 21st century, the rhythms of global cultures. And bring together a band of compatible, virtuosic performers who share a passion for musical expression regardless of artistic origins. Cohen, nothing less than a virtuosic performer and elastic improviser, assembled one of the most satisfying bands I’ve heard yet—the ever-swinging Benny Green on piano, the master pulse-setter Peter Washington on bass, and the king of time and space, Lewis Nash on drums. Last summer they recorded their Goodman interpretations live at the Village Vanguard, releasing the CD last month as Clarinet Work on Anzic Records.

Reunited at the Dakota, the quartet tore through Goodman classics, some that have become so commonplace that they are often played on auto pilot—“Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Body and Soul,” “St. Louis Blues.” No auto pilot at the Dakota. Cohen and company treated these old chestnuts with the respect of original compositions. But it was respect augmented with new twists and turns, alterations in tempo, in rhythm, in harmonies such that often these familiar melodies were suddenly transformed into modern masterpieces.

Cohen is perhaps the most expressive reed or brass player I have ever experienced. Not only does her clarinet cover a full range of human emotion, but so do her facial expressions, somehow clearly visible despite that mouthpiece. She sways like a dancer, the clarinet a diminutive partner that she swings up, down, over, under. She covers a good deal of the stage in the course of a tune. I’ve seen horn players, particularly trumpeters and some saxophonists, who kick their feet, swing a leg, wave an arm as an added physical expression of the music. Anat brings that sense of physical abandon to the clarinet. You can hear it in the music – that letting go of all conscious decision-making, reacting in the moment, for the moment.

Her compatriots are kindred spirits. Benny Green contorts and grins at the keyboard. Lewis Nash flails and grins even wider behind the trapset. Only Peter Washington seems to have a well of reserve and more or less deadpan at the bass—but his playing belies the calm.

This night provided a good reminder of where jazz came from in the first place—not from charts, not from fake books. From the heart and soul. And it doesn’t matter if the vehicle is a 1930s popular song or a 21st century free improvisation. Or both at the same time.

Photos (top to bottom): Anat Cohen; Benny Green (with Anat); Lewis Nash; Peter Washington; Anat and Lewis. (All by Andrea Canter at the Dakota, April 25th) . For a more detailed review of the Anat Cohen Quartet at the Dakota, visit