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Anat Cohen: "A Master of Expressive Improvisation"

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Wednesday January 26, 2011

From Tablet

Jazz Standards: Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen, a master of expressive improvisation, leads a talented wave of expatriate musicians flooding the New York jazz scene
By: Ben Waltzer

Late one night this summer you could walk down East 27th Street in New York, enter a doorway under a neon sign that beamed “Jazz Standard,” descend a staircase, and hear a clarinet wail. Anat Cohen was leading her quartet in material from her latest recording, Clarinetwork, a centennial homage to Benny Goodman, as part of impresario George Wein’s Carefusion Jazz Festival.

Cohen, who has curly brown hair and a round, brightly expressive face set off by a barely perceptible nose ring, turned to the band to count off “Limehouse Blues,” a showpiece of Goodman’s, authoritatively and at a swift tempo. After playing the melody, she began to improvise, building short motifs into longer, harmonically challenging disquisitions. Over the music she draped long tones that seemed to be kept afloat by drummer Lewis Nash’s rhythmic jabs. She bent and shook notes, projecting sound with a physicality that became a dance. The clarinet seems to have a plaintive, pre-modern quality built in, and her sound evoked at once the blues, antique worlds, and indistinct old countries. As the crowd applauded, Wein, 85, beamed at his protégée from the corner banquette where he was sitting, his hands resting on an upright walking cane. Cohen paused to look at her watch. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” she said, smiling, before introducing the band.

Wein—a pre-eminent figure in the jazz world for five decades and founder of the Newport and New Orleans jazz festivals—met Cohen three years ago at a concert sponsored by the Sidney Bechet Society, named for the legendary New Orleans soprano saxophonist. “I heard her play ‘Shreveport Stomp’ and was blown away,” he said. “Her approach to jazz is total. She’s got big ears and respects the tradition but isn’t locked into it. She just played a festival in Puerto Rico and got a standing ovation from 3,000 people. She wasn’t playing salsa but ‘Memories of You.’ ”

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