Anat, Elvis, and Jenny

Looking ahead to Newport Jazz and Folk, and to Jenny Scheinman
By JON GARELICK  |  July 30, 2007

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NEW CLARINET: Anat Cohen plays with authority and heart in multiple styles.

In the wake of a single solo album on her own label in 2005, Anat Cohen is suddenly everywhere. The 32-year-old Israeli saxophonist and clarinettist has three albums this year on the artist-run Anzic. Noir is Cohen playing saxophones and clarinet with big band and strings; Poetica is exclusively clarinet with a small band. And Yo! Bobby is a retro tribute to the songs Darin sang by a group with Cohen who call themselves the Waverly Seven.

It’s the two new solo albums that command the most attention. Since studying at Berklee and moving to New York, Cohen (who plays the Newport Jazz Fest on Saturday and the Regattabar on September 13) has become one of those internationalists who can play convincingly — with heart — in multiple styles. She got her first professional lift with the all-female big band Diva. But she’s also the only non-Brazilian member of the Choro Ensemble. Noir splits the difference between big-band chestnuts and Latin jazz. Poetica — which includes a string quartet on some tracks — mixes Latin, Israeli folk, a couple of originals, and Coltrane’s “Lonnie’s Lament.”

These styles float into one another without a bump — a flagwaving big-band arrangement of Nat “King” Cole’s “No Moon at All” seems a logical follow-up to the clave of Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona’s “La comparsa.” Pairing Black Orpheus’s “Samba de Orfeu” as a medley with the Louis Armstrong favorite “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” is a kind of stunt, but it also works — Cohen’s brother Avishai’s trumpet picks up the syncopations in the samba that turn into “Struttin.’ ”

Cohen’s playing is old-fashioned in a good way. Her tenor is big and robust — on flagwavers she plays with the huff and churl of Ben Webster or Illinois Jacquet. But it’s her clarinet that sets her apart. These days, for most jazz reed players, it’s a second instrument — Don Byron is the obvious exception. Cohen’s tone is consistently rich and fluid, especially in the lower register. On Poetica, the matching of her work with bassist Omer Avital’s string arrangements, especially on the melancholy waltz “Agada Yapanit (A Japanese Tale),” is peerless.

On the phone from New York, Cohen tells me that in Israel she was discouraged from playing the clarinet — it was stigmatized as either Dixieland or klezmer. She credits Berklee’s venerable ensemble teacher Phil Wilson for getting her back into it. Wilson recalls that he had brought in an arrangement of his “Camel Driver,” a 5/4 minor-keyed tune similar to Ellington’s “The Mooche” that included a clarinet solo. He had Cohen play her “double.” “She was playing mostly tenor then,” he says, “and playing it beautifully.” But when she hit the solo in “Camel Driver,” “she came in on the chalameau register — that beautiful low, woody sound — and she just took if off from there. She blossomed like a tomato plant in August.” Here, Wilson thought, was Cohen’s full personality — “positive and bubbly,” he says, and he bursts out laughing.

That warmth is apparent through all Cohen’s work. You could argue that she’s mainstream, but how many people can play so well in so many streams? The “Samba/Barbecue” medley, she says, “symbolizes my current life, running from gig to gig.”

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