ANAT COHEN: IN HER OWN WORLD OF JAZZ CLARINET

By Paul Freeman [July 2015 Interview]

Anat Cohenís music is out of this world. And thatís exactly where she wants to be. When sheís playing clarinet or saxophone with her quartet, everything else melts away.

Her sound is fun and serious, seductive and innocent, sensitive and uninhibited, joyous and poignant. Itís everything good music should be.

Cohen and her equally acclaimed brothers - trumpeter Avishai and saxophonist Yuval - were encouraged by their parents.

The Israeli-born, New York-based Cohen learned musical basics on a keyboard they had in their Tel Aviv home. When she attended a conservatory, they needed clarinet players in the band. Her dad had one he barely played. He knew how to assemble it, make a sound and play basic melodies.

When she entered Israelís national high school for the arts, Cohen fell in love with New Orleans jazz. She was encouraged to switch from clarinet to saxophone. In modern jazz, the clarinet, difficult to amplify, had given way to instruments that fit more easily with louder bands.

While Cohen was studying at Berklee College of Music, however, a teacher told her she did indeed have a voice on clarinet. She turned her attention to that instrument again, applying it to jazz.

At Berklee, Cohen met musicians from Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela and she reveled in South American music.

Her debut album, ďPlace & Time,Ē was released in 2005. She has played numerous festivals, including the Newport Jazz Festival, Montreal International Jazz Festival, Tudo … Jazz Festival, and the North Sea Jazz Festival.

Her sound has been widely hailed. The Washington Post said, ďCohen has emerged as one of the brightest, most original young instrumentalists in jazz. . . with a distinctive accent of her own.Ē All About Jazz declared, ďCohen reaches a state of musical ecstasy. . . as her clarinet moans, sighs, soars and wails with passion and emotion.Ē

The Jazz Journalists Association has voted her Clarinetist of the Year for the past seven years. Both her clarinet and saxophone playing have been praised in Down Beat magazineís annual critics and readers polls.

On tour, Cohen is joined by her regular lineup of great musicians - keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Daniel Freedman. They feature numbers from Cohenís brilliant new album, ďLuminosaĒ [Anzic Records]. Material ranges from originals to Milton Nascimento Brazilian classics to a jazz interpretation of Flying Lotusí electronica/hip-hop ďPutty Boy Strut.Ē

Throughout, Cohenís fantastical, flowing, sensual playing dazzles. In concert, Cohen and her cohorts expand the tunes via imaginative improvisation.

POP CULTURE CLASSICS:
ďLuminosaĒ is truly a brilliant album. Does the title reflect the overall feeling you wanted to project?

ANAT COHEN:
Well, yeah, itís how Brazilian music makes me feel. Itís full of light.

PCC:
In composing the originals, whatís your writing process? Do you have ideas in mind before you begin? Or do you start to improvise and see what comes?

COHEN:
I guess itís a different process depending on the song. For instance, ďHappy Song,Ē I just wanted to write something light and short. For the song, ďIma,Ē which means ďmother,Ē I was thinking about actually voicing the word ďImaĒ and thinking about my Mom. On the ďSpirit of BadenĒ song, I was thinking about the music of Baden Powell and trying to come up with something in that spirit. I usually write on the piano. Each song has its own certain purpose why they were written. They were not written specifically for this album. They were written and then ended up being collected for this album.

PCC:
While youíre writing on piano, are you imagining in your head what it will sound like on clarinet or sax?

COHEN:
You know, not really. I hear my own voice and then, I think, some songs, they could be played by either instrument, the clarinet or the sax, tenor saxophone or soprano sax. But, for example, ďThe Wein Machine,Ē I wrote for the Newport Jazz Festival, which was 60 years old last year. I wrote it for the celebration. And I was thinking about something more traditional. I was thinking about tenor saxophone. And thatís actually what I ended up recording with.

PCC:
Have you always been attracted to both the modern and traditional sounds?

COHEN:
I think so. When I first started playing jazz on clarinet, my first encounter with jazz was the music of New Orleans. And then I picked up the tenor saxophone and I started to move forward in time, a little bit forward. But the music of New Orleans was always a strong passion, so I stayed with tradition and folkloric sounds. When I think of playing [Brazilian] choro music, which is also a part of this album, that is also folkloric. It sounds also from the 20s and the 30s, and later on, itís more modern, of course. And the harmonic pace is very traditional. So Iíve always loved tradition and I feel like playing traditional harmonies, it brings out the different personality.

You have more space to be humorous, to be witty. Itís a different process of music. Itís something very natural and melodic and playful. For me, itís more playful. I confess, I havenít found a way as playful in the modern world, which for me seems more serious. You can definitely be playful, but itís harder to express the playfulness, when itís over complex harmony and complex phrases.

PCC:
You have the full range of material in what youíre covering here. Is Milton Nascimento one of your favorite composers?

COHEN:
Oh, yeah, I love Milton. One of the first songs I heard of Miltonís was the song ďBeatriz.Ē Itís actually a song written by Edu Lobo and Chico Buarque. But I heard Milton singing and I thought, ďWhat is this voice?Ē It goes from so high to this super low, such a big range. And I have such an appreciation for range, especially, playing the clarinet, itís an instrument that has a bigger range than soprano saxophone or tenor saxophone. The natural sound of the instrument goes from very low to very high. And itís easy to imitate that sound, going to the extreme. I heard Milton singing and I thought, ďOh, my God, this magical voice. What is this sound?Ē I was so mesmerized by his sound.

PCC:
And then, at the other end of the spectrum, you interpret the Flying Lotus tune. How did you discover that one?

COHEN:
My piano player, Jason Lindner, heís always hips me to different sounds and he showed me the song a while back and he was over here in my house, actually, where Iím sitting right now. He played it for me and then he said, ďThat could be something fun.Ē And he just taught me the melody. And I was holding the clarinet and I was going, ďWell, what can we do? Can we actually play it?Ē And he helped me figure it out.

And together we figured out how to make it work for the band. And itís really a trip to try to make this electronic sound into a jazz quartet. Itís obviously a computer sound and in the song thereís a couple of places where thereís suddenly a very unnatural mute. It sounds natural, but to really make it happen, you canít just press on the computer ďmute.Ē You actually have to do it. And every time we play it, itís almost against the instinct. You have to make natural something that is quirky. Itís so much fun to play. Itís become one of our favorite things to play.

PCC:
Are you always looking to expand your boundaries and try new things?

COHEN:
I love trying different things. I love when people suggest things to me. I love a challenge, doing new things. And sometimes, at the beginning, it sounds weird. But as youíre playing it, as with any kind of music, you get used to it. Like anything - you get used to flavor, to spices. You get used to sounds. And it becomes natural to play it.

PCC:
Playing these pieces live, do you add a lot of improvisation?

COHEN:
Yeah. Some songs more than others. But definitely all of them, they become longer, with more improvisation. Some songs we first played and then recorded and some songs we first recorded and then figured out how to play live. And I think, in live situations, thereís definitely more room for improvisation, because youíre in the moment. If something happens, you go for it.

And I think, for the album, sometimes itís better to condense, to not lose the creativity and freedom of improvisation, but know that sometimes if you stretch something too long, you lose focus on a record. Itís not the same as with the excitement of a live show. So itís always a fine balance with how much you can stretch on an album, when youíre not playing live, because itís different when youíre recording live, in front of an audience. Then youíre really capturing a certain energy. But to bring the same energy into a studio, itís a very fine balance between exciting and chaotic.

PCC:
When youíre performing live, are you always conscious of the entertainment factor?

COHEN:
No, I donít think about the entertainment. I think the song itself, the shell of the song, the skeleton, you find a certain way to present the song, which creates a certain energy, a certain vibe, an atmosphere, and then itís a send-off for improvisation. Once youíre in the improvisation, the music goes where it wants to go. I donít think about - oh, it should be this, it should be that, because I think, with jazz, whenever you actually try to follow a narrative you have in your head the way you think a solo should go, the way you should play it, the music doesnít work anymore.

When youíre playing with a quartet, it comes from four people together creating something. And, if one person has an agenda and the other person has a different agenda, then you start clashing and having arguments. You have to find this balance, how to be in the moment. So sometimes Iím thinking, ďOh, my God, weíre going so far, who knows where the audience is? We lost them completelyĒ [laughs]. But that canít be what dictates my musical choices in the moment.

PCC:
When youíre completely immersed in the music, is that like being in another world?

COHEN:
Absolutely. Thatís a very good description. I get lost in this world. Actually, itís my preferred state, if I may be honest, is to be lost in music on stage. Not lost as far as - I donít know where I am. Lost with the music, inside the music, be with other musicians. You go into like a different sphere, like youíre floating in something that is not connected to this world. Itís just a whole separate parallel universe. Itís just a lovely place to be.

PCC:
So when youíre on stage performing, is that fun for you? Or is it just intense?

COHEN:
Itís amazing. It can be very intense, if the energy of the musicians is all getting intense together, it can be intense. And if you feel the audienceÖ the best part is when youíre in this parallel universe and you feel the audience is there with you. Itís an unbelievable feeling. You feel like everybodyís being swept to a different place, elevated. It becomes about what really matters in life, about connection. And when you feel those moments when youíre connecting between the musicians, between myself and the other players and between us and the audience and everybodyís connected, itís the essence of life - connecting.

In todayís world, the social media generation often misses this feeling of connection, because you think youíre connecting by having thousands of friends on Facebook, but in reality, how do you feel the connection? Itís the most amazing feeling to do it through music.

PCC:
Your brothers are outstanding musicians, as well. Were your parents musical? Did they encourage you all to explore music?

COHEN:
Definitely musical. Definitely encouraged us, supported us, drove us around, opened this world for us. Let us be what we wanted to be. Never ever asking, ďAre you guys going to study a real profession one day?Ē Uh-uh. Itís like real, honest, beautiful support that I wish for everybody to have. Really letting us be and just loving us for whatever choices we made.

PCC:
Did you start on piano? Or go right to clarinet?

COHEN:
I did start on piano, before clarinet. It wasnít a piano. It was keyboard. We didnít have a piano in the house. We had one of those Yamaha organs, furniture, ridiculous instrument. But it got me some basic theory. And that gave me a certain foundation and a way to read music and develop coordination, between left, right. And I think, ultimately, helped me in visualizing music, because thereís something about playing a keyboard - you look at the scale and you see it goes from left to right. You look at the music and you look at the keyboard and it kind of coincides. It goes up-down, right-left. And you can kind of take the same approach and you bring it to woodwinds, and you can imagine the shape of the phrases. So it really helped me in visualizing music. When I hear music, I often think of geometry.

PCC:
What was it about the clarinet in particular that drew you?

COHEN:
Well, it started, just basically, I went to the conservatory and they needed clarinet players to join the band. So basically, they suggested I pick up the clarinet. And I knew the sound. My Dad had shown me the clarinet before. We had one in the house that my Dad bought years ago. And he didnít really play it, bus he knew how to put it together and make a sound and play some melodies, because he was really talented. And so, I was like, ďAll right, clarinet sounds good.Ē So I picked up the clarinet. And I didnít know that one day, it was going to take me places.

PCC:
Learning to play the tenor sax, as well, was that just to expand your musical palette, to give you another musical voice to express yourself with?

COHEN:
The tenor sax was basically, when I got into high school, high school for the arts, and they had a jazz major, I started to play in jazz combos. And I was basically discouraged from bringing the clarinet and encouraged to pick up any saxophone. Clarinet was out of fashion. People made it clear to me - thereís no room for clarinet in jazz. And I resent this statement today [laugh] and I resent when students come to me and they say, ďOh, our teacher told us that you canít play jazz on the clarinet.Ē It makes me angry, because any music really, you have to be able to express yourself. And any instrument, if you really find a connection between you and the instrument, youíre going to find your voice.

Youíre going to be able to express yourself. And I think I didnít even realize I had neglected that voice on the clarinet until a teacher from Boston [at Berklee] told me, ďYou know, you have a voice on the clarinet.Ē And Iíd never even thought about it, because I was always discouraged from playing it. And I may have never picked it up again, if the teacher hadnít told me that.

I slowly started to hear those people saying, ďYou know, you have a voice,Ē and began to feel comfortable. So I donít like when people have like a preconception of an instrument, because itís really not about the instrument. You can find a setting for any instrument. And you can create music with anything. And I donít think you should define an instrument and say it belongs or doesnít belong. Itís a very personal experience. People make music with a comb. They make music with a saw. You can make music with anything, if you find the right set-up and the right sound around you. Itís important to be encouraged to look for your own sound and to look for the sound you like, rather than to think what fits society. But thatís a general statement, about how to be a person, as well, how conformist or non-conformist you want to be. So itís very personal.

PCC:
The clarinet was accepted in jazz in the 40s, why do you think it fell out of favor?

COHEN:
People say itís a difficult instrument. And it is a difficult instrument. Itís difficult technically and itís difficult to amplify. So it just kind of cleared the room for more percussive, louder instruments like the soprano saxophone, which just took over. It was easier to fit as the music got louder, more amplified. And the clarinet can really disappear underneath the band, when the people play loud. And with the clarinet, if you want to be heard above the band and the amplification, you kind of have to play in only the higher register, for the most part. And that can be pretty shrill [chuckles]. So it slowly got cleared away to make way for the louder instruments.

PCC:
It must be a revelation to a lot of listeners to hear you and, if theyíre not that familiar with the clarinetís role in jazz, to now discover it.

COHEN:
Well, if I make anybody re-appreciate the clarinet, Iím happy, because itís an amazing instrument. And Iím not saying it to oppose people playing it, but people really do still associate it with older music. In some countries, itís never lost its appreciation, because itís part of the folkloric sound. But in the U.S. itís definitely associated with swing music and the music of New Orleans and it still hasnít really left that.

And I was talking to George Avakian [record producer/executive] just two days ago. George Avakian is 96 now. And he asked me if I ever met Benny Goodman. I said, ďNo.Ē He said, ďYou know, Benny would have liked you. He would have appreciated you.Ē And I said, ďYou know, itís unbelievable that itís 2015 and you tell people clarinet and jazz and they still say Benny Goodman.Ē And that is still what people say, because he was so famous and he was such a fabulous player with such a great sound. And being such a great bandleader and creating this sound and thatís what is engraved in peopleís minds. So people still associate it with swing music.

So weíll see. They forgot. Young people always want to move along. And other people always like to remember, they become more nostalgic as they grow up. So I donít know where the clarinet fits. You still have to convince them that it can do more than just squeak.

PCC:
And who were some of the recording artists who really influenced or inspired you, when you were growing up?

COHEN:
Well, you know, I confess that I listened to Benny Goodman. I listened to Sidney Bechet. But then I loved Louis Armstrong always. I still do. Thereís nothing like putting on a Louis Armstrong record and feel the world can be a better place. And Ella Fitzgerald, too. But then I got into like saxophone and after my basic Dexter, Sonny, Trane period, I got into Illinois Jacquet. I got into Jimmy Forrest. So many different sounds. You hear peopleís souls. You hear Ben Webster play - Oh, my God. You hear the soul of the person and youíre just so moved. So Iíve had so many influences. Miles Davis is probably a bigger influence on my clarinet playing than Benny Goodman.

PCC:
While you were growing up, was there a vibrant jazz scene in Tel Aviv?

COHEN:
Yeah, it was a small scene. It still is a small scene. But musicians are just fabulous. And they are very dedicated and accomplished. They swing hard. Itís amazing. I live in New York and I go around the world and I hear a lot of people play jazz. But somehow when I go to Tel Aviv, I feel, ďWow!Ē I swear, sometimes, the level is as high as New York. There are some cats that really play so great.

PCC:
You mentioned a teacher who helped you rediscover the clarinet, was that at Berklee?

COHEN:
Yeah, it was Phil Wilson.

PCC:
That experience at Berklee, did that open up your whole musical world?

COHEN:
Yeah. I got to meet people from South America, that just like me, came to study at Berklee. And they introduced me to the music of South America, some friends from Brazil, some friends from Venezuela, some friends from Argentina. I started to play music with those people and then discovered other folkloric music from South America and that helped me to bring the clarinet back into my life, because the clarinet has always stayed prominent in those sounds. So starting to play this music brought me back to the clarinet. So really, when people always ask me about the clarinet, they ask about Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman and I say, ďNo, itís not really that. Itís folkloric music from South America that got me back to playing the clarinet, especially Choro music from Brazil.

PCC:
Is it the spirit of the music that drew you to the Brazilian sound?

COHEN:
I just always felt at home with Brazilian music. Thereís a lot of influence of Brazilian music in Israel. People came and performed Brazilian music in Israel, just translated songs, or some brought actual musicians to Israel from Brazil. And itís part of the sound of Israeli music. So I realized at some point, I just feel comfortable with Brazilian music, like I grew up with it. So I said, ďOkay, letís do it. I can be myself.Ē

PCC:
Settling in New York, do you find that to be a stimulating creative atmosphere?

COHEN:
Oh, itís amazing. Iím walking like a kid in the candy store. ďI want to do this and I want to do that and I want to do this!Ē Itís got the best of everything. I love it. I come here and I can go to like two, three places a night and just walk from one place to another. The other day I went to hear the Benny Green Trio playing at The Jazz Standard and then from there I went to the Vanguard, heard Fred Hersch playing. And from there, I just walked to Fat Cat and I heard some amazing Latin jazz cats playing their butt off. And then you just end up dancing. It all happened within three hours. Unbelievable. This city is amazing.

PCC:
Do you still tour with your brothers, as well as with your own band?

COHEN:
Yeah, when we can. Weíre going to be going this year, in September, to South Africa. And then weíre going to playing on a jazz cruise in January. We have to find more things to do. I love playing with them. I love being with them on stage.

PCC:
Is there a special connection there, a kind of intuitive sense?

COHEN:
Oh, absolutely. Weíre co-leading a band, without any need to look at each other in the eyes. The whole thing is body movement, the feeling. Itís like team playing, but really, really knowing each other. You know when to throw the ball, you know theyíre going to catch it.

PCC:
At this point, what is the most rewarding aspect of life as a musician for you?

COHEN:
Those magical moments on stage, these are the rewarding moments. Other than that, thereís a lot of b.s. around [laughs], a lot of slapping around. But thereís nothing better than when everything clicks and youíre inside the magic of music and you know youíre doing something for your own soul and you can touch some other souls and youíre creating something that is positive. And adding positive energy into the world, this is the rewarding part of being a musician.

For the latest news on this adventurous musician, visit www.anatcohen.com.