Taking center stage in the Logan Performance Hall, Anat Cohen evoked the image of earlier leading ladies of jazz: of Billie, Ella, or Dinah standing in front of her band, about to sing you a story. And when she raised her clarinet to her lips, she might as well be singing. Out flowed the story, the carefully crafted emotions of a virtuoso, but filtered carefully through a skinny black horn raised high in the air.
On a few occasions, Cohen raised her hand to shield her eyes from the spotlight, commenting at one point, in her thick Israeli accent, “it feels like an immigration department.”
Cohen is no stranger to the spotlight. She has been voted “Clarinetist of the Year” by the Jazz Journalists Association for the last six years. She has released and co-released eleven albums since 2004, performs regularly at jazz festivals around the world and in New York City clubs, and is widely regarded as a true jazz star on both clarinet and saxophone.
As part of this year’s Hyde Park Jazz Festival, Cohen played an astonishing midnight duet with Brazilian guitarist Douglas Lora. That night, Rockefeller Chapel felt like an intimate gathering of old friends, but tonight her performance took on a completely different, but equally evocative, character.
Cohen is constantly moving, changing levels with variations in pitch and volume. She sways in more contemplative pieces, dances through more upbeat numbers, her clarinet an extension of her arms. Her bright red fingernails popped up and down the horn and out from her black draped blouse, her dark curls bouncing with them.
She sometimes chatted with the pianist while the drummer soloed, or vice versa. She frequently stepped away from the front of the stage to observe, with a look both of pride and of pure enjoyment, celebrating what her band mates do as individuals. In a master class after her performance, Cohen stressed the necessity of “choosing the people who make you sound like who you are.”
Her song choices demonstrate the various sides of her personality as well. “Anat’s Dance” by pianist Jason Lindner seemed like an homage to the cohesion of the group. When Cohen introduced “All Brothers” by drummer Daniel Freedman, she clarified that it was not just for her two biological brothers Yuval and Avishai—with whom she plays as The 3 Cohens—but for everyone: sisters, brothers, all of us. She concluded, “I ask you to do something nice for somebody today…even if it is just a smile.”
The set also brought together Brazilian choro music and more classic jazz, with two pieces by Brazilian composer Milton Nascimento, paired with “Nightmare” by Artie Shaw and Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose.”
Cohen’s final solo on “La Vie en Rose” was reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald’s 1957 “Air Mail Special.” She jumped from musical allusion to complete improvisation and back, without a breath or pause or thought, and finally concluded in a slower ascent to a pitch that strained the upward limits of the instrument itself.
What Cohen does is not old-fashioned, though some would consider her instrument an anachronism on its own. There are, of course, masters of jazz clarinet from the golden days of yore—Benny Goodman, Sidney Bechet, Artie Shaw—but wielding a clarinet at the front of a jazz quartet is something of an anomaly today. There is a particularly vehement argument against the clarinet as a jazz instrument, which Ms. Cohen cites as the reason she put down the clarinet in favor of the saxophone as a teenager.
During a master class after her performance, dressed and holding herself more casually, Cohen decried this trend. “As long as the teachers tell the students the clarinet is not a part of jazz, we are hopeless. I will fight for it. I will yell.”
Kamila Muhammad, whose tight curls create the same shape as Cohen’s, was called upon to participate in the master class and has also been told that the clarinet does not have a role in jazz music. A graduate of Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago, she is now a sophomore studying the clarinet at Northwestern under the tutelage of Victor Goines, the prominent jazz saxophonist and clarinetist who sat behind her.
Kamila has played clarinet for ten years and knows how a master class is supposed to go. “I play for her…and then she rips into me.” She admitted that Cohen is an idol of hers and, unsurprisingly, she seemed nervous.
After Cohen answered a few questions and declared that she was a very informal person to the small audience assembled in Logan’s Performance Pent House, Kamila and a blues guitarist named Derek stepped up to play. The two had never met before and exchanged only a few words to decide that they would play “Bag’s Groove,” a simple, blues-based tune made famous by Miles Davis’s quintet in the mid-fifties.
Kamila and Derek made a funny pair, she dressed in business casual and he in just khakis and sneakers. Kamila closed her eyes and Derek smiled to himself as they passed the focus between themselves wordlessly, though not entirely seamlessly.
After playing a few choruses, their eyes agreed upon an end, and the audience marveled at what they had been able to create with so little knowledge of one another and such subtle communication as they went along.
“Communication is the hardest thing in any situation,” Cohen told them. “With music, with friends, with lovers, with your dog.” She agreed that it was hard but essential to “let go of my ideas and go to this new musical moment,” encouraging them to “treat it as a gift.”
Beyond communication, Ms. Cohen stressed the importance of being conscious of every sound, “even of what happens to a note when you’re done playing. Does it evaporate?” she challenged them.
What followed was consistent with Kamila’s prediction. “Let’s do some exercises…that will make you uncomfortable to become comfortable,” Cohen began. Each minor suggestion she made—a change in volume, octave, articulation—made a world of difference in the expression of what might otherwise have become a repetitive melody.
When they began again, Cohen stopped them. “No tapping,” she nagged and pointed at Kamila’s foot, her built-in metronome.
These comments from Cohen illustrated a larger struggle to reconcile her classical training with jazz’s instinct for improvisation and informality.
“My teacher told me you can’t play jazz and classical, but you should be able to do both,” she said. “It’s all music.”
What distinguishes jazz, Cohen says, is that “you want to be able to scream into the instrument, you want to cry into it, to laugh.” Indeed, she combines the technique of the “legit school” with the screaming and dancing and laughing she does when the clarinet is not poised at her lips.