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Anat Cohen: From Israel With Swing

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By Mark Keresman

Quickly: How many female jazz instrumentalists can you name? Not singers, of which there are aplenty, but ace players of instruments of the female gender? There are more prominent ones on the scene than there were, say, 30 years ago--composer/bandleaders Carla Bley and Maria Schneider, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, guitarist Mary Halvorson, and bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding, to name but a few. But what of saxophonists, and even the (formerly) hard-luck cousin of the sax, the clarinet?

The answer, from Israel with swing: clarinetist and tenor/soprano saxophonist Anat Cohen.

A New York City resident since 1999, Anat Cohen was born 1975 in Tel Aviv, Israel into a musical family--brothers Yuval is a saxophonist and Avishai, a trumpeter. (The latter is not to be confused with the same-named bassist.) Taking to jazz, Cohen went to study at the fabled "jazz college of musical knowledge" Berklee in Boston in 1996. As with many jazz performers, after college that Big Apple beckoned--says Ms. Cohen, "There are a lot of Israeli musicians in New York because you want to grow and go onstage and eventually you have to get out of Israel to do that because there aren't enough places to play."

Ms. Cohen found many places to play--NYC's good like that. But more importantly, she found varied contexts to play within, such as the all-woman big band DIVA; Duduka da Fonseka's Samba Jazz Quintet, David Ostwald's Gully Low Band, dedicated to jazz styles of the 1920s and '30s, and the Choro Ensemble, devoted to the traditional choro music of Brazil. Further, Cohen has played with trad-oriented jazz swingsters Ruby Braff and Flip Philips and Brazilian trés avant percussionist Cyro Baptista. Cohen is of the newer generations of jazz musicians that have no truck with the "tradition" of jazz snobbery, in which virtually every genre of music that is not jazz (with the possible exceptions of classical music and Broadway show tunes) is looked upon with withering scorn, if looked upon at all. As with such swells as Chris Speed and Joel Harrison, the musics of George Harrison and North Africa are just as valid--and inspirational--as those of John Coltrane and Duke Ellington. Anat Cohen is an inclusive musical thinker and her latest album Claroscuro (Anzic Records) embodies that concept with class and spunk to spare.

Claroscuro takes its title from the Spanish word describing the play of light and shade (chiaroscuro in Italian). The album ranges from deliciously buoyant swing to darkly lyrical, old-school romantic ballads to a side trip to Louis Armstrong's New Orleans. Claroscuro encapsulates Cohen's flair for a global set of styles, from the Creole French chanson of New Orleans and the exquisite, haunted swing of Artie Shaw's "Nightmore" to the Brazilian styles of choro, samba, and more.

Cohen's latest studio triumph is realized with her working band--pianist Jason Lindner, acoustic bassist Joe Martin and drummer Daniel Freedman, with special guests trombonist/vocalist Wycliffe Gordon, percussionist Gilmar Gomez, and Cuban superstar clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera. There's variety and diversity, but Claroscuro is no mere "resume" of Cohen's attribute--it holds together as an album, or to be more precise, a great film, one with wit, pathos, and adventure all in one production.

For the past few years, Anat Cohen has been feted by the jazz press (the polls in downBeat, being named Clarinetist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association every year since 2007)--it's time the rest of the world caught up with her.

Anat Cohen is scheduled to perform Friday, October 26, at the MIM Music Theater.

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