ANAT COHEN BURST ON THE SCENE ABOUT 10 YEARS AGO WITH NOT JUST ONE, BUT TWO ALBUMS. BOTH COMPLETELY DIFFERENT IN FORMAT, POETICA AND NOIR ACHIEVED IT’S GOAL, AS IT SHOWED THE WORLD THE VARIED TALENTS AND STRENGHTS OF THE ISRAELI CLARINETIST AND TENOR SAX STAR.
SINCE THEN, SHE HAS RELEASED MATERIAL OF A WIDE VARIETY, RANGING FROM STRAIGHT-AHEAD JAZZ TO MOODY AND FREER MATERIAL. MOST INTRIGUING IS HER ALLURE TO BRAZILIAN MUSIC, AS SHE’S RELEASED MATERIAL IN A GROUP FORMAT WITH THE FAMED TRIO BRASILEIRO AS WELL AS A COLLECTION OF GUITAR/CLARINET DUETS OF BRAZILIAN MUSIC ON THE RECENT OUTRA COUSA, WHICHK, COMING FULL CIRCLE, WAS RELEASED AT THE SAME TIME AS THE ROSA DOS VENTOS ALBUM, WITH THE TRIO THAT SHE HAS CURRENTLY BEEN TOURING WITH.
SHE WAS RECENTLY IN LOS ANGELES WITH THE TRIO, CREATING SOUNDS AND RHYTHMS THAT MIXED THE PASSION OF BRAZIL WITH THE FREEWHEELING WARMTH OF THE MEDITERRANEAN.
COHEN WAS GRACIOUS ENOUGH TO ANSWER SOME QUESTIONS THAT RANGED FROM HER FAMILY BACKGROUND TO THE COMPARISON OF LIFE FOR WOMEN IN THE UNITED STATES AND ISRAEL.
YOU GREW UP IN A MUSICAL FAMILY WITH BROTHERS ALSO CURRENTLY PLAYING JAZZ. WERE YOUR PARENTS MUSICIANS?
They were serious music lovers. My mother ended up working with music; she ended up being a music teacher in kindergarten. My father always wished that he played an instrument, but he never really got a chance to learn a musical instrument, but he had a vast knowledge of music: classical music, jazz, popular music. He always dreamed that he could play the tuba so we could have a family band (laughs).
ONE OF THE UNDER-APPRECIATED ASPECTS OF LIVING IN ISRAEL IS THE EXPOSURE TO A SMORGASBORD OF MUSIC FROM A MYRIAD OF COUNTRIES.
Yes, because it is a country of immigrants. It used to be more apparent, but with the current globalization and the internet we’re able to travel the world by just clicking a button. But, people coming from all different places to Israel, a young country, and retaining their own culture you get Moroccan music, Middle Eastern music that is already here, Eastern European with a heavy Russian choir. All of that is definitely a mixture. And then you have music from South Americans that made their language translations to Hebrew but with them playing the rhythms of South America. So you get Bethlehem folk songs and Hillel music mixed with the Brazilian music from the “Tropicana ” (Tropicalia) era. I grew up listening to this Brazilian music without realizing that it was from Brazil. I just thought it was Israeli music!
So, there’s a mixture of everything, but I must confess that it is with the Brazilian rhythms that I feel most at home with, and most comfortable to be myself. I don’t feel that it’s culture is strange to me; I don’t understand exactly how to mathematically divide the rhythms; I feel that is something natural that comes to me from the first time I played this music.
THERE ARE MANY JAZZ MUSICIANS FROM ISRAEL THESE DAYS. HOW DID THE JAZZ SCENE GROW AND EVEOLVE? WAS THERE A MAJOR DIFFERENCE IN THE JAZZ SCENE FROM ISRAEL WHEN YOU CAME TO AMERICA?
Years ago, there were very very few places where you could go to hear jazz. Back in the 1980s there was only one club in Tel Aviv, and a few others spread around. In the 1990s jazz education started to develop in Israel; the first “Jazz Major” was in a very famous high school for the arts, Thelma Yellim, which had a well established classical major department.
The year that I entered high school in the ‘90s they started the jazz major program. That was the first high school to offer jazz studies; after that other high schools started to add jazz to their classical and other studies.
There were a few different reasons for this; partially because of Israeli musicians that went to the US to study abroad, came back and had first hand experience with studying jazz, playing it and living it. So, as more people came back to Israel they started playing all over the country; in the north, south, in Tel Aviv, you could study jazz in the Academy in Jerusalem. There are two colleges in the US that are associated with Israel, and you can transfer your credits from there to the States, giving you a serious shortcut.
One is associated with Berklee College of Music, and the other one in Tel Aviv, the Striker College has my brother Ival partially running, and it’s associated with The New School. This helps the musicians get one foot into the US and ease the transition. It’s really gotten developed since the 90s.
The musicians now are at a seriously high level now. There’s a club in Tel Aviv called “The Pillar House”; every night you go there, they have jazz there. I went there one night, and I’ve played in New York, so I know what “high level” jazz is, and the people there were swinging and playing at such a high level that I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t in New York. It’s very rare to hear the real deal, but it’s there. It was fascinating.
IS THE APPROACH TO EDUCATION DIFFERENT IN ISRAEL THAN IN THE US?
Most of the teachers I had in Israel were Berklee graduates.
IN ISRAEL BOTH MEN AND WOMEN MUST SERVE IN THE MILITARY. DID THIS HELP YOU AS A PERSON AND MUSICIAN?
I know some Israeli girls that are playing in the army “blues” band and in the Navy band. I played music in the Army and Air Force big band; not to be confused with jazz. We played popular music and accompanied singers and songwriters from Israel.
The thing in the army that helped me was first of all it taught you to be part of a system; to work with other people and make things work out together. It might be against your will, but you have to comply.
The other thing was that it gave me experience; it was a working band even though we were wearing uniforms. 959 We had to be on time, and had to obey army rules; our job was to rehearse and perform at army bases. It gave me a lot of experience in not only playing music, but in preparing and in carrying the drum set, etc.
It also prepared me to play a wide variety of music besides jazz. I wouldn’t say that it was “wonderful,” but it was very important.
The Israeli culture of going straight from high school into the army is really a different way of life. You go into the army for 2 or 3 years, and when you are finished you are 20-22 years old. They then take a year or so to figure out what they want to do in life and then pick and study a profession.
In the United States, you have to choose right from high school at 17 what you want to do in life. So, you end up wasting a lot of time and money because you really don’t actually know what you want to do.
In Israel, people come to their adult life a little bit more mature because they get some time to figure things out and discover who they are. In the army they actually can get a guidance on a profession.
I HEAR A BIT OF KLEZMER IN YOUR TONE. DID YOU GROW UP LISTENING TO TRADITIONAL FOLK, OR KLEZMER MUSIC BY ARTISTS SUCH AS GIORA FIEDMAN?
That sound in my playing is not something intentional. On some songs I might just open up a little bit, but what we are playing is Brazilian “choro” music. If you hear a Brazilian clarinet player, you might not hear that sound, so it might come a little bit from how I grew up or in my blood, but it’s really not part of the music. It’s some ornamentation that I might apply here and there, but it’s not really my intention.
I have too much respect for klezmer music to tell you that I can play it. People like Giora Fiedman or David Krakauer are fantastic clarinet players of the original music, and Krakauer can play a lot of other things. So, when I play, it’s not really intentional. Somehow it comes out when I play choro music, but even Louis Armstrong comes out a little bit!
YOU COULD MAKE A GOOD ARGUMENT THAT THE SWING ERA CAME FROM JEWISH ARTISTS LIKE BENNY GOODMAN, ARTIE SHAW AND ZIGGY ELMAN BASICALLY SWINGIN THE KLEZMER SOUNDS.
Artie Shaw used to talk about hearing the Cantor, and being influenced by him, but I think it’s more their personality coming out in the music. You can’t compare something that was played in the 30s to something that is played almost a hundred years later.
At this point I can give a musical nod to Shaw and Goodman, but I don’t try to play the same way. Anything I hear, be it a Cantor singing, Pink Floyd or Aida can become part of my music. I don’t think you can be a purist at this point because everything is influencing everything.
WHEN YOU FIRST HIT THE SCENE, YOU DID THE UNORTHODOX CONCEPT OF RELEASING TWO ALBUMS THAT WERE QUITE VARIANT. ONE WAS MORE JAZZY, AND THE OTHER MORE CLASSICAL OR WORLD. WHAT WAS YOUR IDEA BEHIND SUCH A DARING DEBUT?
Well, check this out; I just realized that 10 years ago I came out with two albums at the same time, and I’ve just done it again! It’s like I’m closing a circle.
It was really a coincidence ten years ago; I was working on two albums simultaneously and we just finished them at the same time. I realized that as an incipient artist I’m not going to have the power and ability to get distribution if I go alone. It was at that time that we established Anzic Records with a few friends of mine that had albums out, and my brother Avishai had an album out. We united the force to get distribution and help get established with Anzic Records.
I released them together because I finished them together, but looking back now it definitely had a stronger impact they were not only two separate albums, but because they were both pretty ambitious albums. It wasn’t just a jazz quartet; it was a jazz quartet with a string quartet and the other one was a real large ensemble and I played all my horns; clarinet, tenor, soprano and alto saxophone. I only played clarinet on the quartet and string album, combining where I come from with classical and the traditional Israeli music.
They really showed the different personalities that I had in music, and basically coming up with an album that I played only clarinet on, which really established me as a clarinet player. In the long run it started my career as touring as a clarinet player, which wasn’t even part of my plan!
WAS IT A CONSCIOUS DECISION TO START OUT AND ESTABLISH YOURSELF AS A SOLO ARTIST?
I knew that I did not want to be an orchestral player. I love playing in large ensembles, and I don’t have to be in front, but I like to direct the music. I like to bring my energy to an existing ensemble and push musicians to get excited about the music.
I try to do it whether or not I’m the band leader. The music doesn’t care whether or not you are the band leader; it wants what it wants.
But as a bandleader you have a little bit more leeway to influence; you don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, but as a bandleader I’m allowed to have my vision direct the trajectory of the music and control it more.
YOU’RE THE MACHER!
More like the Yiddish mother, “Now, boys, first you’re going to sit down, then you’re going to eat, and then you get to play!”
LET’S TALK ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH THE “ALL WOMAN” BAND DIVA. YOU COME FROM A COUNTRY THAT HAS ALL WOMEN ENLIST IN THE MILITARY, EQUAL ON ALL LEVELS, AND THEN COME TO AMERICA AND PLAY IN A BAND WITH NO MEN. WAS THAT A BIT OF A CULTURAL SHOCK?
Yes. Before DIVA I was also in the Sisters in Jazz, and I had never before heard the phrase “women in jazz.” In the United States, they like to have everything defined. So, I belonged to something, to “Women in Jazz.” I didn’t know that! (laughs)
It was a bit interesting, and in the beginning I was not sure how I felt about it because I didn’t like the separation between men and women. Music does not have a gender. Or an age or color. Music is music!
I was not really enjoying this division. However, I did an audition and got accepted to the DIVA Jazz Orchestra and learned that there was much more depth to the subject because of the preconception of people about women because the message of the band was originally “Women are able to play,” but it later became, “Hey, let’s just make music. “
I do have a new sensibility about it; I am touring Europe in a bunch of Festivals with a killing all woman band. Renee’ Rosnes, Cecile McClorin Salvant, Ingrid Jensen…all great musicians. I still really look forward to playing with men and not everyone is willing to give it.
YOU ARE RETURNING TO SO CAL WITH A TENTET. WHAT IS THAT PROJECT ABOUT?
My partner (NAME AT CSUN) is one of the most amazing people on the planet. He’s earnest, he challenges, he’s super smart and he arranges and writes. We’ve been best friends for many years since high school.
He and I decided to have a band together, which became a tentet. It started from the idea of “OK, it’s 2017; 100 years since the first jazz recording, which had a clarinet. Let’s make a project which revolves around the clarinet.”
The clarinet connects everything, but it’s a journey from folk to abstract, from tradition to wildness. We both wrote some of the songs and arrangements, and we have a versatile band that can go from klezmer to Brazilian dance music to funk to swing. It’s a journey throughout the world; a really fun project and the album will be out in October.
THE DIFFERENT PROJECTS YOU’VE BEEN INVOLVED WITH LEADS TO THE OBVIOUS QUESTION. WHEN YOU PLAY, DO YOU FEEL THAT YOU ARE REPRESENTING ISRAELIS, WOMEN, JUDAISM, OR SIMPLY MUSIC ITSELF?
I only represent music. When I am on stage and I’m inside the music, everything else disappears. My goal is to find the purest way from the fear of music into the earth. I feel that we are vessels and the goal is for me to get myself, my ego and everyone else’s ego out of the way so that we can just play music that is as pure as possible.
Of course, people’s personalities and how they act, whether or not they are aggressive, that’s a cultural thing. For me, being very direct may be the way I encourage musicians, but that’s not part of the music. As an Israeli, the personality comes out when I’m talking to the taxi driver or to someone after the gig. On stage, the music is international.
YOU’VE RECORDED TWO FANTASTIC ALBUMS WITH THE BRAZILIAN TRIO. HOW DID YOU MEET?
We’re both part of this organization called Centrum, like the vitamin (laughs), which is based in a port town in Washington. Every year they have different workshops for different things, like dance, poetry, jazz, fiddle music. You name it.
They had a “choro” workshop, and I was invited to come and teach choro music. These guys were on the faculty. We also had Jovino Nevo Santos. He’s also a wonderful musician in Seattle, and basically we met through playing choro at the workshop and teaching it. It was love at first sight.
It was a real connection. I love this music, and the students were enthusiastic about it. When I came back to New York about 2013 I wanted to get back into the choro scene. I used to play weekly in an ensemble in New York back in 1999 in a little French bistro in the East Village. We did this for over 6 years and became The Choro Ensemble. We eventually played at Carnegie Hall.
Choro has been a big part of my life. It’s also what brought me back to the clarinet because I was mostly playing the saxophone. This music got me back and shed with the clarinet. It brought me back from John Coltrane’s world of the tenor saxophone to playing the clarinet again.
I then told the Brazilian Trio “Let’s put an album together” so we did that, and now we have the most recent one available. We love playing together, and we love each other as human beings. The guys are best friends, and two of them are brothers. I’m having a ball playing with them and discovering how to be a better human being through music.
YOU ALSO RELEASED A GORGEOUS DUET ALBUM AT THE SAME TIME
Marcello M… is an incredible 7 string guitar player from Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. He sent me an email entitled “I have a dream.” He said that he wanted to play the music of Monsier Santo on clarinet and guitar. He wrote for a big band ensemble.
I had heard his music, but had never really thought of playing it. His 1965 album was such a revelation because it had other influences. It combined Brazilian music with sophistication, and for the Brazilian musicians it was a trip. It was very influential.
He lived in Los Angeles until the end of his life. Jazz musicians have recorded his music, but never as a duo.
When I came to Brazil, he asked if I wanted to hear his arrangements, so he scheduled a day the studio. He transferred the entire big band into a seven string guitar. He prepared it so I could just come in and do my thing.
We’re in the studio; he’s playing something that he’s been working on and practicing for a year in preparation, and I’m reading the music, and the guy’s pressing “Record.” We’re sitting next to each other with head phones on and we’re playing. I’m thinking “This is really magical; it’s beautiful.” Marcello took the music and gave it his own interpretation with a whole new vibe to the music. I felt like I could play these melodies forever.
We went home and had done about 6-7 songs. We listened to it and thought “this is really special.” I told him “I’m going away for ten days; let’s go back into the studio. You figure out the new songs for when I come back from the beach!” (laughs)
That’s what happened. He prepared more songs and we have the album Outre Cosa, which means “Another Thing.” It’s another way of playing Santos’ music; it’s another way of playing guitar duos. It’s a beautiful way to get into Santos’ world, as people should know about him.
I’m really excited about this music.
THAT’S THE JOY OF THE CLARINET; IT CAN PLAY JAZZ, CLASSICAL AND FOLK
It’s very versatile. Like the Beatles’ song “Let it be.”
ANY MUSICAL OR LIFE GOALS?
I want to write music. Just stay in one place more than a week!
AS WITH MANY PEOPLE FROM THE MEDITERRANEA AND MIDDLE EAST, ANAT COHEN EXUDES BOTH A JOY OF LIFE AND A CEASELESSLY RESTLESS SPIRIT. BOTH OF THESE QUALITIES HAVE RESULTED IN SOME OF THE MOST EXCITING AND CELEBRATORY MUSIC TO HIT THE EARS OF JAZZ FANS.
AS STATED IN THE INTERVIEW, SHE’S COMING TO LA TO PERFORM AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT COLLECTION OF SOUNDS. IN FACT, DURING THE NUMEROUS TIMES I’VE PERSONALLY SEEN HER ON VARIOUS TOURS, SHE HAS NEVER REPEATED THE SAME STYLE, WITH THE SAME BAND, OR EVEN A SAME SONG. IT’S THAT SPIRIT OF A TRUE ARTIST THAT WE CELEBRATE IN ANAT COHEN.