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Poetica by Anat Cohen

The post-war history of the clarinet in jazz is summed up in a 1961 Down Beat article: "The Clarinet In Jazz . . . What Happened?" "Face it:" wrote Leonard Feather, "the instrument that for the better part of a decade, from 1935, was the worldwide symbol of jazz, has suffered a severe and inexplicable decline and fall." It was the maestro himself, Benny Goodman, who offered an explanation: "It's too difficult an instrument for these modern bopsters to learn," he suggested. "You can play bebop on a saxophone with less training and practice." More recently, Eddie Daniels expressed the same view as Goodman's. "It's hard!" he told me. "The clarinet has always been difficult, but the music changed. The music became more chromatic. . . . It seemed to fit very well in the swing era because it was a more up and down arpeggiated kind of music but as soon as it became more chromatic, more linear, more harmonic, suddenly the clarinet became much more difficult."

And so it was that the instrument almost disappeared from jazz for several decades. Apart from the great Buddy DeFranco and occasional forays from Art Pepper and Phil Woods, bebop clarinet became a virtual oxymoron!

Happily, the music has evolved and the instrument is making a comeback. Eddie Daniels set the ball rolling in the 1990s when he chose to play the clarinet exclusively for several years. Paquito D'Rivera also made a huge contribution, and gradually other woodwind players have been picking up the clarinet again.

The most recent of these to capture the spotlight is Anat Cohen. Cohen, who is originally from Israel, began clarinet studies at age 12, but as her interest in jazz developed, she began to gravitate toward the tenor saxophone. When she arrived at the Berklee School of Music in 1996, however, one of her teachers, Phil Wilson, encouraged her to play the clarinet more, and others introduced her to music traditions outside of the jazz mainstream. Following this through, she gigged with Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, Argentinian and Klezmer groups. Poetica finds her putting together all these influences and expressing them through the clarinet.

"I have always associated the clarinet with sounds that are flowing, expressive and intimate. . . i.e. . . poetic," writes Cohen. Along with this perception, her approach recognizes that the instrument belongs in, and can therefore evoke, a number of genres with equal conviction. Jazz, classical music, klezmer . . . both Cohen and the clarinet flow effortlessly between these different feels, shifting back and forth not just between selections but from one phrase to another. That her music has struck a chord with listeners is no surprise as these boundary areas between genres are generating a lot of truly creative music these days. To pull it off, however, requires just that sense of poetry of which Cohen speaks. Happily, she seems to have it.

The opening measures of "Agada Yapanit" leave the listener wondering what genre this is. It doesn't sound like jazz, at least not bebop. It is, in fact, an Israeli song, which she gives a fairly straight reading, eventually breaking out into some improvisation, but letting the strength of the melody, her inherent lyricism, and the liquid sound of the clarinet carry the performance. The same approach works beautifully with more Israeli folk songs, "Hofim," "Eyn Gedi," and "Nigunin," a Brazilian ballad, "Quando eu Me Chamar Saudade," a Jacques Brel song "La Chanson des Vieux Amants," a brace of Cohen originals, "La Casa del Llano" and "The Purple Piece," and one by bassist Omar Avital, "Cypresses." It is a diverse program, but it is held together by the group's concept and the underlying jazz sensibilities. In the middle of the program we come across a piece by a jazz icon, "Lonnie's Lament," by John Coltrane, an overlooked composition that succumbs to Cohen's interpretation: a quasi-classical theme statement underscored by the string quartet, followed by solos from Cohen and Lindner over a Latin feeling.

None of this would have worked without the right support, but Cohen has chosen the right accompanists. Jason Lindner is a composer as well as a pianist, and he has worked with Cohen since her earlier release Place And Time, so he is familiar with her approach and able to embrace the compositional concepts. Avital shares the arranging chores for the date with Cohen, including the string quartet writing on four tracks.

It is perhaps risky to release two albums simultaneously, but this is what Cohen has done. The other recording, Noire, which features a big band sound and Cohen on saxophones as well as clarinet, is probably getting more airplay. (See my review at: www.jazzreview.com/cd/review-19024.html) But this one, as the title suggests, may have more poetry, and may have done more for jazz, both by expanding its boundaries and by contributing to the re-emergence of the clarinet.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Anat Cohen
  • CD Title: Poetica
  • Genre: World Music
  • Year Released: 2007
  • Record Label: Anzic
  • Rating: Five Stars
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