Clarinetist/saxophonist Anat Cohen is a regular at the Village Vanguard, the legendary New York City jazz club where all the greats have played and many have recorded landmark albums. She was the first female horn player to headline at the Vanguard and the first Israeli. She has spent five residencies there.
In 2009, she was sitting at the bar when club owner Lorraine Gordon approached her about a new project: a weeklong tribute to the clarinet. Knowing that 2009 was Benny Goodman’s centennial and that Gordon loves Goodman’s music, Cohen decided to focus on songs recorded by the King of Swing.
Cohen’s latest CD, “Clarinetwork: Live at the Village Vanguard” (Anzic, 2010), was released last Tuesday. It’s her first live recording, her fifth as leader, and a good excuse for her biggest U.S. tour to date, which includes her Dakota debut this Sunday.
She’s bringing the rhythm section that joined her for six nights at the Vanguard last July: pianist Benny Green, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash. To jazz fans, it’s a dream team. “They are some of the best musicians,” Cohen said by phone earlier this week. “Super swinging, and incredible human beings. Top of the line.”
Cohen comes to Minneapolis by way of New York, Boston, and Tel Aviv. Born and raised in Israel, she began clarinet studies at age 12 and played jazz in the Jaffa Conservatory’s Dixieland band. At 16, she learned the tenor saxophone. She majored in jazz at the prestigious Thelma Yellin High School for the Arts, whose other graduates include pianist Omer Klein and guitarist Gilad Hekselman.
After her mandatory Israeli military service, Cohen enrolled at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. She spent semester breaks in New York City, moved there in 1999, and immersed herself in the music scene, playing many kinds (traditional and modern jazz, Brazilian choro, Argentine tango, Afro-Cuban styles) with many bands, founding her own record label (Anzic), and earning raves for her virtuosity and expressiveness on an instrument seldom heard in jazz since Goodman’s day.
If you don’t know Cohen, Sunday is your chance to see and hear one of the most exciting and original performers in contemporary jazz. I first heard her live two years ago, playing a version of Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” that knocked me out. Her clarinet skipped over the notes like someone crossing a stream on slippery stones.
“Clarinetwork” includes a blistering “Sweet Georgia Brown,” a sexy, strutting “St. James Infirmary,” and a “Body and Soul” so tender it could double as a lullaby, except for about a minute that would wake the baby.
Clarinet is her primary instrument these days, perhaps because her brothers Avishai and Yuval play trumpet and saxophone (as the group known as the 3 Cohens, they’re kind of the Marsalis family of Tel Aviv), perhaps because there are fewer clarinet players than saxophone players and more opportunities to stand out. “I go with the flow,” she said. “The clarinet has become more dominant for me in the past couple of years. You end up working more and realize this is becoming your life.”
The clarinet project at the Vanguard was ideal for her. “Every musician who plays there has a special relationship with the Vanguard,” she said. “It’s a very personal place. [Owner] Lorraine Gordon is 86 and she’s there almost every night. She knows what she likes, she listens to the music, she talks to the musicians. I’m very honored that she let me come in and play, that she allowed me to make a live record there and become part of that tradition.”
What did she hope to achieve with the new CD? “This was my first live record, and the concept was simply to put together a weeklong show inspired by Benny Goodman, and to get a group sound with people I hadn’t played with before. To take four people who haven’t played this configuration, these songs, these arrangements, this vibe and see what happens. Each night, we learned about each other—what we like, what we like to play, what kind of support we look for. I’m very happy with the sound we got.”
Some of the songs were her arrangements, others evolved on the spot. “We call them ‘arrangements as you wait,’” she explained. “They just happened. When you play more than once with a band, you develop together.”
All eight tracks on “Clarinetwork” were recorded on July 5, the final night of the Vanguard residency. The band hasn’t performed together since, so Sunday night will also be a reunion for them. Expect to hear the new CD and maybe (I’m hinting) “Jitterbug Waltz.”