Best jazz musician you haven't heard of - Anat Cohen?
Born in Tel Aviv, and now a New York resident, Anat started out like many musicians do on clarinet, and has great chops and a rich, full tone on that most difficult of woodwinds. The same can be said of her work on saxophone. Her tenor playing (tenor seems to be her predominant horn) is both lush and muscular, full of inventive ideas, highly lyrical, and remarkably refreshing, in the way it stands out from the cookie cutter tenor players that are all over jazz today. And while she is clearly informed by everyone from Ben Webster to Sonny Rollins, but her sound is totally contemporary. She also is very well versed in everything from Brazilian choro to Argentine tango rhythms, and she incorporates those influences into her work, as well as some hints of her own heritage and her early exposure to Dixieland. Her brother Avishai (not the bass player) is also a first rate jazz trumpet player in New York.
I first took note of her playing a couple of years ago with her excellent debut Place and Time. It had a poise and presence that I'm not used to hearing. We got so many records at the station, from big names to unknowns, and it's rare for one to really stand out of that pile of "unknowns" and make a big impact. Early this year, Anat returned with two new records in her own name. Poetica is a showcase for her clarinet work, an has echoes of classical music, Brazilian, and even a eye opening version of Coltrane's "Lonnie's Lament."
The other record, Noir, is a large group showcase ("big band" isn't perhaps the right label), again, with similar themes, but a totally different sound, and more focus on her tenor playing. Together they make a nice set, showing the musical development and diverse interests of a talented young player. Anat's tenor playing has evolved a bit from her first CD. Her sound seems even bigger, and now has perhaps a bit more edge than before. I sense she's more willing to take (more) musical risks and expand her palette as an improviser now.
Then last week, I came across another CD, which eventually inspired me to write this post. I briefly glanced at the two disc set, which didn't seem to catch my interest at first. The "Waverly Seven" was the band, Yo Bobby the title. It seemed to be some kind of two disc tribute to Bobby Darrin, complete with Vegas-esque CD artwork. I get a lot of these. They usually aren't worth a listen. After I turned the CD over and saw the personnel, (Anat, Avishai, Joel Frahm, Jason Linder, etc) it piqued my interest. I took the CD with me and listening to it on the way home I was hooked.
What could have been a terribly cheesy concept is actually a REALLY hard swinging, retro-yet-fresh showcase for Anat's tenor, and fellow tenor Joel Frahm, playing songs associated with Darrin, in fresh, "wow, that's cool" arrangements. Think of Tadd Dameron charts, with some B-3, Wurlitzer, Moog, and guitar mixed in, all with a incessant uptempo swing feel. Most of all, it's a lot of fun, and proof that you don't need to water down jazz to make it fun for listeners. At times, like on the barn burner "Artificial Flowers", which closes disc one, Cohen and Frahm go at it in a classic tenor duel that would make Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Johnny Griffin proud. I could help but crank up the CD player to the max and roll down the windows, head bobbing up and down on two and four. I was really prepared NOT to like this record, but I can't stop listening to it. Something most of Anat Choen's albums tend to do.
Most articles in the jazz mags about Anat Cohen will likely spend a good deal of time talking about her Israeli heritage, the fact that she's a female tenor player in jazz, etc. That's great, good story lines for a journalist looking for an angle, but it's missing the point. And that of course is, she's REALLY good. If you're tired of listening to those cookie cutter tenor players who all must be playing the same licks, and trying to rip off Chris Potter, Michael Brecker, or Mark Turner, listen to Cohen.