Wednesday, April 17, 2013

StLJN interview: Anat Cohen

The Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival began as primarily an educational event for local student jazz bands, and although the festival has been booking headlining talent for several years now, the professionals performing at the GSLJF still are involved in putting on workshops and adjudications for the students.

As you’d expect, the questions they get from young musicians can cover a wide range of topics, from technical to philosophical. But if any aspiring jazz clarinetists ask Anat Cohen this week which other clarinet players they should be listening to, the answer they get may be somewhat surprising.

“I think I'm more influenced by John Coltrane than any clarinetist,” said Cohen, who plays both clarinet and saxophone. “I don't listen to the instrument, maybe as much as I listen to the soul behind the notes.” Born in Israel and educated at the Berklee College of Music, Cohen (pictured) has risen to jazz stardom over the past decade, winning multiple polls as “best clarinetist,” playing major festivals and clubs, and recently headlining her first European tour.

“Sometimes you want to listen to other instruments to get your influences,” she explained last week in a phone interview with STLJN. “In many people’s minds, clarinet still belongs to certain genres and certain times, but you don’t have to play just swing music.”

Still, “it's important to listen to the history of your instrument,” she acknowledged, ticking off a list of influential clarinetists that included her friend and mentor Paquito D’Rivera as well as historic figures such as Edmund Hall, Sidney Bechet and Benny Goodman.

Perhaps the most important information she hopes to impart to the students has to do with being in the moment. “When you are a student, you study so many details about the music. The hardest thing to remember is that you are making music with other people. I really focus on the communication between the musicians,’ she said. “I tell them, ‘Take a step back. Play less notes, and let's listen to each other.’ Nobody told me those things when I was studying music.”

Cohen’s last album Claroscuro featured her regular quartet, which includes Jason Lindner on piano, Daniel Freedman on drums and Joe Martin on bass. That group made their St. Louis debut last year at Jazz at the Bistro. During this visit, Cohen will take part in educational events at the University of Missouri St. Louis and then team up with drummer Matt Wilson to perform on Thursday night at the Bistro.

For the last several years, the GSLJF's Thursday night opener has featured special combinations of musicians who don’t work together regularly. While that's also the case with Cohen and Wilson, they aren’t exactly strangers, either. After meeting a couple of years ago at a recording studio in New York City, where both reside, the two had been looking for a way to do something together, Cohen said. They finally got a chance to record together in December – no word on when that session will come out, though – and do a few trio gigs around NYC with Martin Wind from Wilson’s band Arts and Crafts on bass.

In addition to earning plaudits for their skills as instrumentalists and composers, both Cohen and Wilson have a reputation as performers who know how to relate to an audience. “I love playing with Matt. He's just so creative and so much fun and so musical and honest,” she said. “Matt likes to have fun. He’s crazy enough to do anything.”

Asked if more jazz musicians could benefit by emulating that crowd-friendly approach, Cohen noted that showmanship and musicianship aren’t incompatible. “It's a very individual thing. When you go out and see Jimmy Heath, he's the master of an instrument, and he's also an entertainer and he's having fun. It’s very individual.”

Cohen and Wilson will be joined by two local musicians, pianist Ken Kehner and bassist Jahmal Nichols, for what promises to be a very spontaneous set. “I don’t know when we're going to rehearse,” she said with a wry chuckle. “We'll be cool, we'll find stuff to play. Having Matt Wilson on the bandstand – it’s like, some drummers, you know you're going to play swing, or more groove-oriented music. But with Matt it’s like, start the conversation and see where it goes. I like to converse on stage.”

Cohen, Wilson and company will perform two sets, at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., on Thursday at Jazz the Bistro. The Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival then continues at the Touhill Performing Arts Center with the Monterey Jazz Festival 55th Anniversary All-Stars on Friday night and trumpeter Doc Severinsen's big band on Saturday. The UMSL Big Band, directed by bassist and GSLJF head Jim Widner, will open the show both nights. For a video preview of this year's GSLJF, see this post.

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