by Jarrett Hoffman

COHEN-AnatAs part of Cleveland’s 2013 Tri-C JazzFest, renowned jazz clarinetist and saxophonist Anat Cohen will be performing with the Rimon Jazz Institute Ensemble from Tel Aviv as well as the Tri-C Jazz Studies Workshop Ensemble on April 24 beginning at 7:30 pm in the Tri-C Metro Campus Auditorium. Voted Clarinetist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association six years and counting, last September Cohen released her sixth album as a bandleader, Claroscuro, which features her on both clarinet and saxophone. We reached her by telephone to talk about the album and her upcoming performance in Cleveland.

Jarrett Hoffman: Could you tell me a little about the title of your newest record, Claroscuro?

Anat Cohen: Well, when I was listening back on the album, I realized there’s quite a lot of contrast—dark pieces, dance pieces, bright pieces. I thought of the Italian painting technique of light and shade, chiaroscuro. So Claroscuro is like a Spanish, “clarinet-way” to say chiaroscuro.

JH: Were there particular moments on the record that you feel represent certain levels of lightness or shade?

AC: Yeah! The song “And the World Weeps” is minor and slow and heavy. Then there’s “Um x Zero” [pronounced Um a Zero] which is very uplifting.

JH: It’s very impressive how fluent you are not only on two instruments on the record—both clarinet and saxophone—but also in such diverse styles, from African and Brazilian influences to the Artie Shaw tune, “Nightmare.” Is there a difference in how you approach the two instruments or the different styles?

AC: That’s a good question. I think that living in New York gave me good training in changing mindsets. I had long periods where I would play a few different kinds of gigs every day. I would play Brazilian choro, modern jazz with a big band on saxophone, and even the music of Louis Armstrong. So it’s not about the instrument or about yourself, but more about the setup, the sound, the blend, and putting yourself inside the atmosphere of the music. Changing instruments or styles is just something I’m used to now, and I don’t think about it actually. Sometimes if you’ve played a full set on one of the instruments, you do need a few seconds of adjustment because physically it’s different, mainly the air and the intensity of the way you produce the sound.

JH: I know you’ve focused on clarinet mostly in recent years. How did you make that decision?

AC: The clarinet made the decision for me! (Laughs) It wasn’t something where I decided, from now on I’m going to focus on the clarinet and see what kind of work I’m going to get or what kind of music I’m going to play. It was the other way around. At some point, I just realized I was playing more gigs on the clarinet. That’s how it all started. It wasn’t really my plan. (Laughs) And it’s great, I love the instrument, and I’m happy to be traveling with it.

JH: You’ve been described as not only an incredible musician but also a really dynamic bandleader. Could you tell me a little about the experience of that? And has it changed at all since you first became a bandleader to now?

AC: Sure. I’ll start with the first part. First you have to remember that you’re dealing with people. (Laughs) You’re a bandleader, and the music is important, but it’s people playing the music. So figuring out people’s abilities and personalities and figuring out how to make people feel comfortable being themselves, finding the right combination between band members. I think the biggest challenge as a bandleader is how to let everyone be themselves but have a gentle way to oversee the music and slowly direct it without dictating. It’s always a fine line. Another challenge is choosing repertoire and deciding what kind of journey I want to take the audience through. But those kinds of challenges become easier with experience. Mainly I just love being on stage, period. So whether I’m a bandleader or not, I love the experience of being in the moment and making something meaningful—having a conversation that everyone is a part of.

JH: I know one of the guest artists you collaborated with on Claroscuro is Paquito D’Rivera. [D’Rivera is a Grammy-award-winning saxophonist and clarinetist from Cuba.] How did you come to meet him?

AC: I met Paquito a few years ago actually. There’s a lot of overlap in who we work with. He’s been an inspiration for me since I first heard him. Basically we’re two clarinet players who love Brazilian music. We’ve gotten to perform together a few times, and he’s come to my shows, and I go to his shows. We’re colleagues and friends. I have so much respect for him, and I’m grateful for all his acknowledgements and support of me. We had played the song “Um x Zero” so many times together, so when it came time to record it, I just said, “Hey Paquito, would you come record with us?” (Laughs) And then once he was in the studio, I said, “Hey, let’s try this Artie Shaw song [“Nightmare”].” I thought it would be really cool for an Israeli and a Cuban person—two clarinetists—to play that together. I had actually been planning to play it with a quartet, and I did record that version too. But when Paquito was in the studio, we tried just switching off every 16 bars, so we completely improvised it. It was very cool. When you play with such masters, no matter what you do it’s gonna work.

JH: Switching gears a little bit, you’ll be playing at the Tri-C JazzFest in Cleveland later this month with the Rimon Jazz Institute Ensemble from Tel Aviv, Israel. Could you tell me a little about that?

AC: Sure. The ensemble is on tour, and I’m going to be a guest with them. That specific ensemble is a whole new program, but the school has been there a while now and has a great reputation. I look forward to making music together with them! That’s the beauty of jazz.

JH: One last question. What advice do you have for younger musicians out there?

AC: Not to be a music snob! (Laughs) You have to take time to develop taste, to be open-minded and say, ‘It’s all music.’ It’s like telling a young kid, ‘You must like Brussels sprouts,’ but it takes time to develop a taste for Brussels sprouts. I think in this day and age we have to try things and see how we feel inside the music before we just make up our mind about whether we do or don’t like something. Another important thing is just to play with other people. Put yourself in musical situations aside from just practicing at home. I know that a lot of people today create music on their own in their home studio, and you can do that too. But some music really requires other human beings. (Laughs) Music is a way to make friends and communicate with people.

JH: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk!

AC: Thank you for calling!

Published on April 18, 2013

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