Saxophonist/Clarinetist Anat Cohen claims making good music is all about being yourself.
I first discovered the music of Anat Cohen right around the time I moved to New York City through a 2008 article in JazzTimes. The article was titled New Visionaries, and featured profiles on Esperanza Spalding, Mathias Eick, Robert Glasper, Aaron Parks, Christian Scott, Marcus Strickland, and Cohen. I never thought that the above article would start a chain reaction which would put me in the kitchen of Cohen’s west village apartment drinking espresso last week. But I suppose the story of my coffee date with Cohen goes back even further to Chicago where I first met the guitarist Howard Alden.
Woody Allen’s 1999 film Sweet and Lowdown, about a fictional guitarist who worshiped Django Reinhardt, played a significant part in my becoming a jazz musician. I loved the film’s soundtrack and began taking jazz guitar lessons, while teaching myself Reinhardt’s style. Though it was Alden — who played the guitar parts for the film — who I first began to copy when I transcribed his solo from “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” which I then played pretty much note for note on my audition for DePaul University’s school of music. Years later in 2007 I was able to sneak backstage at Chicago’s Symphony Center where Alden was performing with Dick Hyman, to corner him for an autograph. A few months after, Alden would perform with the jazz group of which I’m a member, the Hot Club of Detroit, and I’m happy to say that we’ve enjoyed a working relationship, and a friendship, ever since.
It was at Alden’s New York City apartment where I first learned he had a performing relationship with Cohen, shortly after I had read the JazzTimes article mentioned above. The two of them have performed in a number of the same circles over the years, including their regular working duo. This spring, we featured that duo as special guests with the Hot Club of Detroit for a couple shows, and last Saturday we performed with Cohen at a jazz festival in Harrisburg Pennsylvania. Stopping by her place last week to drop off some music, I asked if I could come back the next day to pick her brain on the record making process, and talk about her latest album, “Clarinetwork: Live At The Village Vanguard.”
Brady: I think of your album “Notes From the Village” as a decisively modern jazz album, but it’s also just flat-out fun, which is what keeps bringing me back to that record. It makes me feel good. What was your philosophy going into making that record?
Cohen: I like that you say it makes you “feel good,” because that’s my philosophy in general. It wasn’t like that was my philosophy going into the studio; to make an album that makes you “feel good,” because basically it was a very rushed process. My second and third records, “Poetica” and “Noir”, were recorded in 2006, and suddenly it was 2008 and I had been playing all kinds of music with my quartet for a couple of years, and I wanted to capture that live feeling of what we had been doing on stage. So I checked to see if the guys were available, and if a studio and engineer was available, and I thought, wow, everyone is available, now I have to go into the studio and do it! I figured we would play some material that we had been performing live, and come up with some new stuff for the album. My compositions on the album were completed for the album. The idea was not to try to limit the guys with a certain number of choruses, or to over produce, or worry about the lengths of tracks, but to try to keep the freedom going. You know how some people have this whole concept that tracks on albums should be five minutes maximum, otherwise they won’t be played on the radio. But the truth is jazz won’t be played on mainstream radio anyway, and people who like jazz will play a track even if it’s 12 minutes. So it really doesn’t matter. I mean, it’s nice to have a couple of short tracks, but as far as the music, I wasn’t worried about the length. So we rehearsed, and added some repertoire. We talked about playing the Sam Cook song “A Change is Gonna Come,” and Jason (Jason Lidner, piano) and Daniel (Daniel Freedman, drums) went home together to one of their places, and they called me and said, “We got, we got it!” So they came up with some ideas too. It was very much group work. Jason contributed his arrangement for “Siboney,” by Ernesto Lacouna, which is really nice. It’s a Cuban song, but it has a lot of reggae, and a lot of different rhythms that are not really Cuban. So I think we captured some of the live spirit, and everyone plays excellent on the record. It was really fun.
Brady: How many days were you in the studio?
Cohen: I think it was a day and a half, or two days. And I decided to add Gilad Hekselman to “Washington Square Park,” because I didn’t want the lines to sound random. When you add another instrument playing the melody with you, it sort of makes the melody exist. It legitimizes it. I love Gilad’s playing. Sometimes he plays with the band when Jason can’t play piano — he’s a busy pianist. So it made sense to have Gilad play on the record.
Brady: Your latest record also certainly invokes that good feeling, but it’s a much different sounding record, with different kinds of players. I’d call it very advanced hard swinging. What was your thought process going into that recording?
Cohen: Well it was very simple. Basically I was asked to play a week at the Village Vanguard celebrating the clarinet since 2009 was Benny Goodman’s centennial. We just chose songs that Benny Goodman played. I called Benny Green (piano) to play, then Lewis and Peter, and everyone said yes. Once I had all of them coming to play with me, I thought, why not record it? I had never played with these guys, and since it was at the Vanguard I thought it was really a significant opportunity. It’s a great honor to be able to play there and to be able to record there. And playing with these swinging guys! It’s incredible. I had no clue how it was going to sound, but you can’t go wrong playing with Benny, Peter, and Lewis — you know it’s going to swing hard, but I didn’t know if we were going to get along, if we were going to have good chemistry, or how the music was going to sound, like if it would sound dated, or if it would open up. It was an incredible process from the brief rehearsal the day before the gig started, which was really just to go over the arrangements, to when we started recording, which was the last two nights. The music just evolved and really started to open up. I had no vision of how it was going to be. I realized there was a lot of support from the band. Benny, Peter, and Lewis have played with each other in many different formats, so they know each other musically and have great communication which was great for me. If I fall, they’re going to catch me, spiritually, and musically. And they’re just so professional. I was really excited because I didn’t know the music was going to open up the way it did. I think all the songs on the album are from the last night. I had never recorded a live album before, so it was a big difference from going into a studio. Also, I had never recorded straight ahead jazz on any of my records, which was deliberate. I figured if I put out a swing clarinet album as my first recording, then I would be pin pointed as that, which is not really my goal. My goal is just to play with many different people who I admire, with many different musical approaches.
Brady: How did you go about assembling that “fantasy jazz band?”
Cohen: It’s very important to me that everybody feels comfortable with each other in a band, personally and musically. First, I called Benny, and I asked him who he likes to work with. He gave me a few names, and I didn’t think that Lewis Nash (drums) would say yes, but I figured why not ask him? He did end up saying yes, and it was while he was on the road with the Blue Note Seven and Peter Washington (bass). So when I asked him who he likes to play with he said, “well Peter is right next to me, would you like to talk to him?” So I said “Sure, hey Peter you want to do it?” And he said “Sure!” So that’s maybe why it was a very comfortable situation. And after that date I got to go on the road with them which was just an incredible, incredible experience.
Brady: It had been a few years since I had heard Benny Green play. And he sounds like he’s thinking differently about the piano on your record. He didn’t sound like the Benny Green I remember, and in a good way. I guess even the best keep getting better.
Cohen: Well like I told you, I didn’t know the music would open up the way it did. But I think that by choosing these specific individuals and creating a vibe on the bandstand where it’s okay to be yourself, and not telling anyone to play in any certain way, the music can really evolve. When you play with people like that, with so much experience, who am I to tell them, “play this,” or “don’t play like this.” I like people to really put their personality into their playing, because that’s what makes music. Benny wrote a note to himself and put it on the piano while we were recording which said, “Don’t play long solos.” During the gig, I saw it, and went over to the piano, crossed it out and wrote, “Be yourself.”
Brady: Have you ever considered getting into record producing?
Cohen: Definitely. There are a lot of great producers with much more experience than me, and “Notes From The Village” and this latest one are more about teamwork, but there was no executive producer or anything. But it can be helpful when you have someone in the booth to say, “This felt great,” or “Why don’t you try it again.” It’s nice to have that person, but it’s hard to find who that person should be. It’s good to have someone you trust, otherwise you don’t know if it’s just work for them, or if they really care about the music. But I would definitely love to produce. I always have something to suggest. I listen to a lot of music.
Brady: I wonder if you think it might be easier to produce other musicians’ stuff than your own.
Cohen: It might be, because there is always some anxiety with self producing. But because I try to keep everyone comfortable with each other, I end up having these great people to work with and bounce ideas around with.
Brady: It seems today there isn’t really a “name” jazz producer, like a Norman Granz, or Teo Macero.
Cohen: The music industry is constantly changing. I don’t even know how people know what to buy anymore. It’s hard to find music. Anyone can make a record, but how do you get any attention for it? So maybe, it’s better to not pay a producer, to save money to hire a publicist. But even then, the jazz media only has so much space, so you have to be lucky to get reviewed. Thank god there are still some radio stations, like WBGO, that do a great job.
Brady: What’s on your mind?
Cohen: Composing. Nothing bothers me about performing. I love performing. Throw me on stage with anyone, and let’s make music. I would like to compose, but I don’t have the peace of mind to compose right now. There is too much work with emails to send, voice messages to listen to, it never ends. And I don’t have a manager. I do it all: flights, travel arrangements, hiring the musicians. Luckily I have a booking agent. And I don’t even really know what Twitter is. I’ll probably get there because I did get on Facebook, after I swore I wouldn’t. But there is so much, Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, email lists, we’re all so busy networking that I feel like nobody has time to go out and even support music. It’s overwhelming. IATT
Thanks to Anat Cohen for her time.