PREVIEW Anat Cohen in Chicago 4.23.10

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Friday April 23, 2010

(From The Chicago Tribune)

By: Howard Reich
Published: April 23, 2010

When Anat Cohen was growing up in Israel, in the 1970s and ’80s, opportunities to hear world-class jazz musicians in person were scarce. Though Tel Aviv teemed with local artists playing the music, American virtuosos who defined the art form only sporadically crossed her radar, she says.

Nonetheless, in recent years Cohen ‘” who plays Friday night at Symphony Center on a double-bill with Joshua Redman ‘” has emerged as one of the most promising clarinetists in jazz. Having studied at the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston in the mid-1990s and blossomed thereafter in New York, she stands as a singular voice on the instrument.

Her recording “Notes From the Village” (Anzic Records) ranked among the best of 2008, the clarinetist applying the high-spirited sensibility of an earlier generation of players to a contemporary musical language. Further, her ventures in Brazilian choro music, Afro-Cuban jazz and other world-music genres have shown the breadth of her musical tastes and instrumental techniques.

All of which was made possible, she says, by the unique combination of early training in her homeland and the revelations that followed in the United States.

“I had a pretty good level (of playing) already in Israel,” says Cohen. But in America she began to encounter “exceptional individuals. They start to play, and they blow your mind.”

Back then, in the mid-‘90s, Cohen was playing more saxophone than clarinet, the transition to the higher-pitched instrument practically sneaking up on her.

“After graduating from Berklee and coming to New York, I found myself playing South American rhythms ‘” choro music, music from Argentina and Colombia and Venezuela and Brazil. Music that the clarinet sounds very comfortable in ‘” more comfortable than the modern jazz I was involved in.

“So, I started to play more and more clarinet. And since choro music can be pretty virtuosic and very emotional, I think my technique was getting better through playing it.”

Certainly the tonal radiance of her work shone through on the album “Poetica” (Anzic, 2007), which won wide critical acclaim and helped shape listeners’ perceptions of Cohen as a clarinetist to heed.

“Suddenly, I was a clarinet player,” she says. “It was never my intention, and it was never what I was aiming for.

“It was such an obvious part of me that I didn’t see it.”

But there was another force at work in Cohen’s ascent. In recent years, clarinetists such as Don Byron, Victor Goines and Dr. Michael White have made significant strides in returning the instrument to some prominence in jazz. Though the clarinet may never again enjoy the massive popularity generated by Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw more than half a century ago, there’s no question it has enjoyed an uptick in activity and visibility.

Our era ‘” decidedly louder than that of Goodman and Shaw ‘” may have less room for a comparatively soft-spoken instrument. But artists such as Byron, Goines and White have built a new audience for it. And Cohen is extending that listenership.

Her new CD, “Clarinetwork: Live at the Village Vanguard” (Anzic Records), seems likely to continue the trend, if only because of the traditional, easy-to-grasp nature of its repertoire. Conceived and recorded last year as a centennial tribute to Goodman, the disc revisits vintage tunes such as “St. James Infirmary,” “After You’ve Gone” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.”

And though its conservative nature will not thrill those who prefer to hear Cohen extending the boundaries of her art, the exuberant and freewheeling tone of her improvisations gives the proceedings a contemporary undertone. So, “Clarinetwork” seems likely to stoke the rising popularity of the instrument.

“I do feel that as far as public perception goes, the clarinet is finally starting to clear a path,” says Cohen.

“There are definitely some great clarinet players out there. ‘¦ I feel some people are shaking up the clarinet’s status.”

And Cohen is one of them.

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