Anat Cohen: Bringing The Clarinet To The World

Feb 6, 2013
Originally published on February 6, 2013 4:28 pm

Clarinetist Anat Cohen is one of a handful of Israeli jazz musicians making a mark on the American jazz scene. She's been voted Clarinetist of the Year six years in a row by the Jazz Journalists Association, and her most recent album, Claroscuro, showcases the range of her talents and musical influences, from New Orleans-style jazz to Israel to Latin music — particularly that of Brazil.

Cohen says that the clarinet's somewhat old-fashioned reputation may be the result of the very thing that attracts her to the instrument.

"[T]he clarinet is still associated with older styles, with folkloric music," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "In Israel, the clarinet is associated with klezmer music and more folk music. So I think, in people's minds, it's something that is either dated or too religious. ... I'm working hard to put the clarinet in other scenarios that are not necessarily just folkloric or just traditional. ... I try to bring it to any kind of scenario and find its place."

This includes the music of Brazil. Cohen, who first encountered the country through friends she met as a student at Boston's Berklee College of Music, says Brazilians and the people of her native Israel are similar, and that that shock of recognition formed the spark of her initial attraction.

"We have this casual way of being with each other," she says. "But one thing that is different is they are much less suspicious of people that they don't know. And that's something that I found fascinating. ... We have an expression in Israel saying, 'Respect and suspect at the same time,' because you always want to know, 'What is this person about? And what are they after? And can I trust them?' And something about the nature of Brazilian people [is like], 'Okay, you're here, you're somebody's friend, you're our friends, we're all together, let's all be together.' And it applies to music. ... [T]he music is for everybody. The music is for the people. Everybody sings together."

Interview Highlights

On playing with a lot of breath in her sound

"It's kind of a no-no in the clarinet world, in the legit way of playing. But, you know, when you play jazz, I think, that the search for expression — that's what it's about. And if I want to say something and whisper it ... the air has an effect. It's like you're talking to someone, and you speak with more air in your voice. It gives a certain feeling. So it's just another vocabulary of sounds."

On being introduced to jazz by playing the music of New Orleans

"It was so new to me because, you know, that's not what you hear normally on the radio in Israel. So I just fell in love with the way it felt ... playing with everybody, everybody playing together, counter lines, trombone is playing melody, the other trumpet and clarinet playing lines behind it. Then, you get up and play a solo for 32 bars and that's it: Nothing is too exhausting, nothing is too long. It's just beautiful feeling. Everybody's smiling, everybody's happy. The music of New Orleans has this joy."

On how the singing style of cantors influenced her

"Cantors have an influence on anybody that listens, that is there. Because here is someone that is speaking out of their hearts and using one single melody, and all they do is express it in the most heartfelt way. And as a jazz musician — or as any musician — of course it would have an influence. I mean, that's what I try to do when I play music, when I play any music: When I play a cadence at the end of a song, you want to take one note and make it meaningful. And if you hear a cantor and they're doing it right, you're going to be so moved."

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Anat Cohen, is an Israeli clarinetist, saxophone player and composer who now lives in New York, and has become one of the top clarinetists in American jazz. She was voted Clarinetist of the Year six years in a row by the Jazz Journalist Association, and last year was voted Multi-Reeds Player of the Year.

In the 2012 Downbeat critics' poll, she won in the clarinet category. She's brought her clarinet with her, so we'll get a sense of how she does what she does. Cohen grew up in Tel Aviv. She played tenor saxophone in the Israeli Air Force Band. She moved to the U.S. to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Her brother, trumpeter Avishai Cohen, is another Israeli who has become prominent in American jazz. On February 15th, they'll perform at Carnegie Hall with their brother Yuval Cohen, a composer and soprano saxophonist who lives in Israel. Their group is called the 3 Cohens Sextet. Let's start with a track from Anat Cohen's latest album "Claroscuro." Jason Lindner is featured on piano on this version of "La Vie en Rose."


GROSS: That's "La Vie en Rose," from Anat Cohen's new album "Claroscuro." Anat Cohen, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love your playing. Thanks for coming.

ANAT COHEN: Thank you, Terry. It's great to be here.

GROSS: So why did you choose this Edith Piaf-associated song? Did you intend it as a tribute to her, or did you play it for another reason?

COHEN: I actually chose it because of Louis Armstrong, who, you know, without Louis Armstrong, I think there wouldn't be much of jazz. And he is, for me, such a huge inspiration. So "La Vie en Rose," the version that we're playing in the album, is very, very close to the version that Louis Armstrong has played on one of his recordings, and I just basically transcribed him playing with a fantastic trombone player. His name is Wycliffe Gordon.

And we're both playing the parts that Louis Armstrong played, trumpet and trombone, and instead we're playing clarinet and trombone. So "La Vie en Rose," that's mainly a tribute to Louis Armstrong.

GROSS: And what about those wonderful glissandos that Jason Lindner, the pianist, plays? Are those inspired by the Armstrong recording?

COHEN: Absolutely. Actually, those are transcriptions of the original arrangement by Louis Armstrong. Though, basically, what we did is we almost took the same arrangement that Louis Armstrong did, but we just put a little bit of a back beat. So it gives you a little bit more modern feeling.

But if you take - if you switch the rhythm section, and you take instead of what the piano, bass and drums are playing, and you put more like of an older sound of older swing, then it will just sound like something from that era. So we just modernized it a little bit by changing the groove behind the melody.

GROSS: Now, you play tenor saxophone and clarinet. But I think it's fair to say you're best known as a clarinetist. Now, I read that you were encouraged to play saxophone when you came to New York and were trying to get gigs. What was wrong with clarinet? Why were you told, like, don't bring your clarinet?

COHEN: Well, basically, I think that stage of being encouraged to play the clarinet and - the saxophone and not play the clarinet, we're talking back about when I was in high school.


COHEN: And, basically, I think there was - there was a time that clarinet was out of fashion, in a way. And people - actually people still associate it with - you know, if I tell anybody that I play clarinet and I play jazz, everybody's first association is, oh, Benny Goodman.

And the clarinet is still associated with older styles, with folkloric music, maybe. In Israel, the clarinet is associated with Klezmer music and more folk music. So I think for - you know, in people's mind, it's something that is either dated or too religious. And I think, you know, I'm working hard to put the clarinet in other scenarios that are not necessarily just folkloric or just traditional.

GROSS: So, at our request, you brought your clarinet with you.

COHEN: I do have it in your hand.

GROSS: And because you have such a beautiful tone, an especially warm tone in the lower register, can you just play a little bit in the lower register and talk about the difference between the lower and the upper register for you as a musician?

COHEN: Sure. Well, because I also play the tenor saxophone, sometimes I like to bring the tenor saxophone vibe into the clarinet. So while you would hear in more of a classical setting, the clarinet in the lower register would sound like that.


COHEN: But what I would do, I would take the sub-tone technique from the tenor saxophone, which maybe the legit clarinetists, they don't necessarily approve of, and I would make the lower register sound like this.


COHEN: So it has a lot of variety, and then...

GROSS: So what you just did has more - it's more breathy. There's more vibrato.

COHEN: Exactly, there's more air. And, you know, if you imagine Ben Webster on the tenor saxophone, then you can take - apply the soul, like - a lot of, like, air and vibrato. And I love doing it on the clarinet. Now, yes, it's maybe - it's kind of a no-no...


COHEN: the clarinet world, in the legit way of playing. But, you know, when you play jazz, and when - I think that the search of - the search for expression is - it's - that's what it's about. And if I want to say something and whisper it and, you know, the air has an effect. I mean, you know, it's like you're talking to someone, and you're like, you - you know. You speak with more air in your voice, it gives a certain feeling. So, you know, it's just another vocabulary of sound.

GROSS: And you mention in the legit world, in the classical music world, vibrato and breathiness, at least the size of the vibrato that you just played and breathiness is discouraged. And you started in the conservatory when you were, you know, when you were 12. So you were trained that way. Yeah.

COHEN: Right. Right. But I think because I moved to the tenor saxophone and I focused on the tenor saxophone for so many years, then I went back to the clarinet. I said: Why not apply those techniques into the clarinet, the ones that I learned to play on the saxophone?

So I think I'm just using - I'm just borrowing from the saxophone world.

GROSS: Now, what about in the upper register? What do you think about there?

COHEN: Well, the upper register of the clarinet can be quite painful. So...


GROSS: Painful as in squeaky?

COHEN: Not necessarily squeaky, but painful because it's very direct sound. Now, I'm going to try now - just make sure you plug your ears, OK, with some earplugs.


COHEN: OK, I'm playing really loud - really soft, actually, but I can play louder.


COHEN: Now you can use - let's say you take something from the Klezmer. You bend the notes from the Klezmer world, and you would go like...


COHEN: So you can apply - or you can use, like, really big vibrato on the higher register.


COHEN: So, you know, it's really such an expressive instrument, and for playing jazz, actually, it's great, because when you play with other people and everybody's into the moment and you want to add something to the sound rather than playing...


COHEN: Then using all those sound techniques really help the expression.

GROSS: Since we've been talking about clarinet-versus-saxophone, maybe we should hear you on saxophone, because there's a great track on your album "Claroscuro" in which you do an Abdullah Ibrahim piece called "The Wedding." Why don't you tell us why you chose this, and maybe talk a little bit about your approach on tenor, since we just heard you describe your approach on clarinet?

COHEN: Well, we recorded "The Wedding" - actually my pianist Jason Lindner suggested that we play the song. And that was a couple years ago, when we went to play in South Africa in a jazz festival in Jo'burg. And since Abdullah Ibrahim is from South Africa, we - you know, Jason suggested to play this song, and I immediately fell in love with it, and it became part of our repertoire.

And, you know, it's - the tenor saxophone, for me, has so much history. Every note that they play on the tenor saxophone is coming from one of the great fathers of the tenor saxophone. So there's a mixture of sounds, and a little gospel and some, you know, back beat, a little bit of R&B and just, like, a lot of tradition. So "The Wedding" has basically - it has a little bit of everything.

GROSS: OK. So this is Anat Cohen on tenor saxophone. Jason Lindner is the pianist, and it's from Anat Cohen's new album "Claroscuro."


GROSS: We'll talk more with clarinetist, saxophone player and composer Anat Cohen after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Israeli clarinetist, saxophone player and composer Anat Cohen. Her latest album is called "Claroscuro."

Now, you grew up in Israel. You've been living in the United States since about 1996, when you came here to study at the Berklee School of Music. How were you first exposed to jazz in Israel?

COHEN: Well, actually, the - I have two brothers that are jazz musicians, and it was definitely a family journey. The three of us went to the same schools and the same conservatory and the same after-school youth orchestra and big band rehearsals. And also, we were all part of the conservatory in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, playing the music of New Orleans. There was, twice a week, a Dixieland band.

And that really was my exposure to jazz, playing the music...

GROSS: Dixieland.

COHEN: ...yeah, playing the music of New Orleans. Now, I didn't know - I could play some clarinet and I could read music, but I really knew nothing about improvisation. But, luckily, they have music charts with written solos, and I could just focus myself, focus on the feeling of swing, which is so new to me because, you know, that's not what I - you know, that's not what you hear normally on the radio in Israel. So I just fell in love with the way it felt.

GROSS: So you've just walked us into the next recording I want to play, and this is from one of the albums you've recorded with your two brothers, with Avishai on trumpet and Yuval on soprano saxophone. And the recording is "Tiger Rag," one of the, like, you know, popular, you know, trad jazz songs.

And in this, you kind of combine a little bit of Klezmer along with, like, traditional New Orleans jazz. Do you want to talk about your arrangement for this version of "Tiger Rag"?

COHEN: Sure. Basically, there was - we were invited, the 3 Cohens, my two brothers and myself. We have a sextet. And we were invited to play in Brazil. And the theme of the festival in Ouro Preto Brazil was Louis Armstrong. And we love - we all love Louis. And we said, OK. We're each going to make some arrangements and something else, different angle of Louis Armstrong stuff that he recorded.

And I chose "Tiger Rag" because it's just such a traditional song. And it's - I realized that it's really playful. You can get to give it a little bit of, like, Klezmer feel. And I was really trying to go from a little, like, one big Egyptian orchestra moment and to traditional New Orleans feeling, to Baião feeling, northeast of Brazil, and kind of tried to make it really playful because this song has traditionally been taken really, really seriously, and it was always a real cutting competition between musicians. So I was just trying to have some fun with it.

GROSS: So this is "Tiger Rag," arranged by my guest, clarinetist and saxophonist Anat Cohen. She's featured on clarinet on this. And it's from the 3 Cohens' album "Family."


GROSS: Anat Cohen will be back in the second of the show. The 3 Cohen Sextet performs February 15th at Carnegie Hall. Anat Cohen's latest album is called "Claroscuro." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Anat Cohen, an Israeli clarinetist, saxophone player and composer who now lives in New York and has become prominent in American jazz. She was voted Clarinetist of the Year six years in a row by the Jazz Journalists Association. Her latest album, "Claroscuro," features the song "La Vie En Rose," Artie Shaw's "Nightmare," South African composer Abdullah Ibrahim's "The Wedding," Brazilian music and an original composition.

Now, you said you want to bring music from different parts of the world together in your playing, and you've done that. You've played, you know, like, all kinds of jazz. You've played traditional Israeli songs. You've played a lot of Latin music, a lot of Brazilian music, in particular.

COHEN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I want to showcase an Israeli song that you play on one of your earlier albums, called "Poetica."

COHEN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And this is a song called "Nigunim"? Am I - you pronounce it.

COHEN: Yeah, "Nigunim."

GROSS: "Nigunim." And it features a string quartet on. Tell us about this song.

COHEN: Well, first of all, "Nigunim," it was arranged by Omer Avital. It has a string quartet in it, and it's a very traditional song. It has a little bit of the Klezmer, the crying clarinet sound that I definitely connect with. And when I was doing this album, I was looking for sounds that the clarinet, you know, music, melodies that I feel comfortable expressing, that I grew up with, that are just a part of me that I don't have to try and understand, that I can just be and live inside them. And "Nigunim" is just one of those melodies. It's just, you know, you will hear it.

GROSS: Well, it's beautiful. So this is "Nigunim" from Anat Cohen's album "Poetica," with Anat Cohen featured on clarinet and a string quartet with an arrangement by the bass player, Omer Avital.


GROSS: That's my guest clarinetist Anat Cohen from her album "Poetica," a traditional Israeli song called "Nigunim." Anat Cohen is from Israel. She grew up and Tel Aviv, and has lived in the U.S. since 1996, when she first started attending the Berklee School of Music.

So did cantors have an influence on you? And for people who don't know what cantors are, they're the people who sing the prayer in synagogue.

COHEN: Yes. Cantors have an influence on anybody that listens, that is there. Because here is someone that is speaking out of their hearts and using one single melody, and all they do is find a way to express it in the most heartfelt way. And as a jazz musician, or as any musician, of course it would have an influence. I mean, that's what I try to do when I play music, when I play any music, when I play a cadence at the end of a song and I just - you know, you want to take one note and make it meaningful. And when you hear a cantor, if they're doing it right, you're going to be so moved. So, yes. Definitely.

GROSS: Is there a particular melody that you heard sung by a cantor that influenced you at all?

COHEN: I can't really talk about any specific melody that influenced me, but that minor sound and those ornaments, you know, like something...

GROSS: Well, what kind of ornaments? Or maybe you could demonstrate the kind of ornament you're talking about.


COHEN: So otherwise you...

GROSS: Beautiful. Thank you. Yeah.

COHEN: Yeah. Otherwise you would just play...


COHEN: So without those little ornaments, without those like - without those - oy - parts of the melody...


COHEN:'s, for me, I can't express the melody as well. So - and I just assume - you know, it's not something I deliberately put in the music. It's a lot of things that I do are things that are a part of me that one day, I say, wait a second. Here is where it comes from. But it wasn't an intentional - I didn't - intentional process. I didn't mean to be influenced by a cantor and say, OK, I'm just going to imitate a cantor. But, you know, it's just there.

GROSS: My guest is clarinetist, saxophone player and composer Anat Cohen. Her latest album is called "Claroscuro." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Israeli clarinetist, saxophone player and composer Anat Cohen. Her latest album is called "Claroscuro." Let's hear a track from an earlier album called "Noir." It's a composition called "La Comparsa" by the late Cuban composer, pianist and bandleader, Ernesto Lecuona.


GROSS: One of the things I love about your music is that, you know, it's very influenced by some of the, you know, Israeli and Jewish music that you grew up with. But it's also so influenced by, like, early jazz and more contemporary jazz and Latin music. I mean, I think it's great that your music is steeped in your own roots, but it's not limited to that. So when you started to play Latin music, and you play so much of it, were there things you had to learn that you didn't already know? Did it introduce you to new rhythms that have become a part of you, or just new melodic twists? And if so, is there something you can illustrate for us on your clarinet?


COHEN: I - well, there were so many things I had to learn. First, the main thing is the clave, this mysterious word that everybody's talking about, the clave, and you cannot cross the clave. And what does it mean and how do you find it? And I had some friends showing me some music. And they say, OK, this is the clave.


COHEN: And that's it. That's your mother. That's your father. And there's no way you can change it or cross it. And I was like, OK, but how do you play and keep it? How do you - I mean, there's no way I could talk and keep the clave. I mean, I couldn't sing something over it. So, basically, the melodic in the Afro-Cuban tradition, you know, all the melody's based around the clave and all the rhythms, of course. So there was a whole mysterious process, that I had to really learn a lot of it by dancing.

GROSS: Really?

COHEN: Yeah. Because, you know, once you move your body from one side to the other, then all the subdivisions of the clave, everything kind of makes sense, because it becomes part of your movement, part of your body. And you watch everybody else dance, and it's - and, of course, by playing and by trying to find a one, basically. And it was not an easy process, and I think, you know, I'm happy that I went through it.

GROSS: And what about what you had to learn on clarinet?

COHEN: You know, it's kind of interesting. We're talking about the tradition of, you know, about cantor singing. We're talking about Klezmer music. We're talking about minor melodies. And, you know, I find that it's all so close. It's all so similar. You know, you would take the melody and just play it, but this - you know, you would play it and express it the same. And those minor melodies, they're so similar, but you have to just put it closer to the clave. So, wow, let me see if I can demonstrate anything like that.


COHEN: So let's it's say something like...


COHEN: Then you put some Klezmer on it. So you go...


COHEN: I don't know. Something like that.

GROSS: Nice. Nice. Very nice. But, yeah. I mean, I'm hearing it's like it's very syncopated, but it's a different kind of syncopation than you're likely to hear in American music.

COHEN: Well, yes and no. I think today, the world is tiny.

GROSS: Well, yeah, today. But, I mean, like it's like syncopated differently than, say, early jazz or ragtime would be syncopated. Like the music to jazz grows out of, it's just syncopated differently. The rhythms are different.

COHEN: Definitely. Definitely syncopated differently. And then...

GROSS: So it wouldn't be as intuitive for you to play that way.

COHEN: Right. Right. I had to figure out where is the - where's the one, like, we like to say it. And then someone just told me one time, the one is everywhere.


COHEN: I said, thanks. That's really helpful.

GROSS: And when you said one, you mean, like, the beginning of the measure, like, the downbeat.

COHEN: Exactly.

GROSS: Yeah.

COHEN: Where does it start? How do you...

GROSS: Yeah.

COHEN: You know, and I think a lot of times, with music that we're less familiar, you know, as a musician, you tend to try to analyze it and understand it. And for me, it's always a struggle because I want to understand. I feel it's if I understand how it's written on the music paper, then maybe I can feel it. But sometimes it has to be the other way around. You just have to let go of your brain and just feel it and move to it, and then you can understand it. So I don't know which one is the right way. I think they're both right in different occasions.

GROSS: Do you find that men of your generation are more open to women jazz musicians than men of older generations?

COHEN: Absolutely. Absolutely. Just because they come across it more often. It's less of a novelty.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

COHEN: It's like OK, way to go. OK, cool. You're a woman. You're playing. And, yeah, some older guys are just less used to it. Maybe not the musicians, maybe more of the sound engineer. Like I would hear - someone would tell me, well, honey, you got to play into the mic. I'm like, really?


COHEN: Thanks for letting me know.

GROSS: OK. So it's interesting that in New York now, there's - you're one of several Israeli jazz musicians who have become very popular. And I'm thinking, just to name a couple, you, your brother Avishai Cohen the trumpeter, Anat Fort.

COHEN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What is it that now there is like a group of Israeli musicians who were making names for themselves in American jazz? I can't say that happened much until the last few years.

COHEN: I think there are two ways to look at it. One is that maybe the possibility that Israel has produced more jazz musicians than before, because of the education in Israel, that in schools, they teach jazz and programs, that schools in Israel have affiliated with Berklee College of Music and with the New School in New York.

So people have more of a direct line to come to the United States to pursue their career and to study. And I think another - I mean, I can go into more reasons maybe why Israeli musicians get attracted to jazz, but another way to think about it is, I think, the media, the mainstream media in the U.S. - or maybe in general - they are just more open to foreigners.

And it's OK today to be a jazz musician from another country and to be a real voice in this American art form called jazz. And, you know, people from Puerto Rico - there's Miguel Zenon and David Sanchez and there's Lionel Loueke - and, you know, people that are becoming part of the mainstream main voices of jazz but they're not necessarily born in the U.S.

And I think it comes together, the fact that people are coming from Israel but also the acceptance from the main media for people like that, that you hear about them more.

GROSS: Well, Anat Cohen, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. Thank you for bringing your clarinet and for playing for us. It was wonderful. Be well and thank you so much.

COHEN: Terry, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure talking to you.

GROSS: Anat Cohen's latest album is called "Claroscuro." On February 15th she'll perform at Carnegie Hall with her brothers, trumpeter Avishai and soprano saxophonist Yuval with their group the 3 Cohens Sextet. Here's a track from The 3 Cohens' album "Family." This is Duke Ellington's "The Mooch."


GROSS: Coming up, John Powers reviews the book that won the 2012 Crime Novel of the Year Award from Britain's Crime Writers Association. It's by Irish journalist Gene Kerrigan. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.