Anat Cohen Anat Cohen Musician Anat Cohen has been playing clarinet all her life. (Photo: Ilana Strauss / From the Grapevine)

Bringing old-school jazz into a new era

Add a Latin flair to a Dixieland undertone and you get the toe-tapping tunes of clarinetist Anat Cohen.

Even though the building is under renovation, there's still a spectacular view of Manhattan from Anat Cohen's apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The modern, open-concept space is so sleek, Cohen is almost embarrassed that she lives there. "We got lucky on the rent," she told From The Grapevine on a recent visit.

But a closer look reveals that it's an artist's space: a standing bass leans against a post, books are crammed into large shelves in the dining area, and art and design books are stacked on the coffee table. A few pieces of luggage near the front door indicate that Cohen has recently come back from touring, which is why the instrument that has defined Cohen's career, the clarinet, is nowhere to be found. "They're sleeping," she said with a smile about the tools of her trade.

Anyone who's ever watched Anat Cohen, one of the jazz world's most prominent clarinetists, knows why she's reluctant to break it out. She's all in during her performances, whether she's playing Dixieland, jazz standards, or her current passion, Brazilian choro. She waves the wind instrument around as she plays notes that sound more flowing than mechanical. When she's not playing, the Israel native moves to the melody and vocally encourages the members of whatever band she plays with. Cohen feels that the clarinet, more than any other instrument she plays, is like an extension of herself.

Cohen has been experiencing that connection between musician and instrument since she was a teenager, when she went to the conservatory at the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Music Center, following in her older brother Yuval's footsteps. "They have bands and basically they needed clarinet players, so they encouraged me to pick up the clarinet. So I went with the flow," she said. "I felt that I really connected with the instrument. I got into jazz as far as playing the music of New Orleans. They had what they called the Dixieland band. Finding a spot immediately for the role of the clarinet is really crucial because clarinet has an important part in the music of New Orleans. You really get to express yourself."

However, since the clarinet had fallen out of favor in modern jazz – "It’s 2015 and you tell people 'jazz' and 'clarinet,' they still say 'Benny Goodman,'" she lamented – by the time she followed Yuval to Boston's Berklee College of Music, she had already traded in the clarinet for a tenor saxophone. "Clarinet had kind of lost its popularity. I think one of [my high school] teachers said 'Listen, why don’t you bring your tenor or your brother’s [soprano] saxophone or any saxophone; just please don’t bring the clarinet,'" she said with a laugh.

Cohen picked up the clarinet again at the end of her college years, when she started playing gigs around Boston, right before she moved to New York in 1999. "I started to practice it a little bit and in that year I worked in New York and I started to play Brazilian music and I started to play choro music and that’s really what brought me back to the clarinet," she said.

To that point, she hadn't been to Brazil, but was friends with Brazilians, and knew she enjoyed the joyous vibe of choro music, which adds a Latin flair to a Dixieland undertone. Her eyes light up when you talk to her about choro. "I like to call it the father of samba and the grandfather of bossa nova. You can define it as Brazilian ragtime," Cohen said.

"It gives you a feeling of joy, although the word 'choro' means 'cry.' But it’s music that in a way is very casual. It was formed around a table sitting in a circle, having beers, and just playing those songs and passing it as an oral tradition. Yet when you try to play it and bring it to stage, it takes so much concentration. It’s so hard to play, because there’s so many notes."

Cohen is constantly touring, whether it's with the Anat Cohen Quartet, with Choro Aventuroso, or with larger bands where she is featured on clarinet. She also occasionally plays with Yuval and her younger brother Avishai, who followed his older siblings' path through Berklee and is now a well-regarded jazz trumpeter. They call their band, appropriately enough, 3 Cohens.

A large, framed photograph of Anat with her brothers rests on the floor of her apartment behind a sofa, waiting to be mounted on a wall. When asked how often they play together, Cohen smiles and says, "Not nearly enough." She's scheduled to play with them in South Africa in September and on a January "Jazz Cruise" in the Caribbean.

"Without my brothers I would not be playing music," she said. "I would maybe stop at some point and doubt am I doing the right thing. I was never really thinking 'I’m a female doing [jazz]' because it was just so naturally we all were in this process together. It helped me never doubt. So my brothers are a huge influence on me and an inspiration."

Whoever she plays with, when she's performing, "the only thing I think about is the melody and how to serve the melody." She also revels in the connection she has with the audience and the people with whom she's sharing the stage. Ask her what her most magical onstage moment is, and her eyes get a faraway look, and a smile crosses her face as she recalls a concert with her band in Paris from a few years ago.

"Really the music brought us there, brought me there, and I think it was a feeling that everybody shared," she said. "I will never forget this feeling. That’s where I want to be in that sphere, wherever it is, whatever it is, and I don’t know how you get there playing music without other people. I want to get there. I want it to be a shared experience."

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