Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen, a master of expressive improvisation, leads a talented wave of expatriate musicians flooding the New York jazz scene
Late one night this summer you could walk down East 27th Street in New York, enter a doorway under a neon sign that beamed “Jazz Standard,” descend a staircase, and hear a clarinet wail. Anat Cohen was leading her quartet in material from her latest recording, Clarinetwork, a centennial homage to Benny Goodman, as part of impresario George Wein’s Carefusion Jazz Festival.
Cohen, who has curly brown hair and a round, brightly expressive face set off by a barely perceptible nose ring, turned to the band to count off “Limehouse Blues,” a showpiece of Goodman’s, authoritatively and at a swift tempo. After playing the melody, she began to improvise, building short motifs into longer, harmonically challenging disquisitions. Over the music she draped long tones that seemed to be kept afloat by drummer Lewis Nash’s rhythmic jabs. She bent and shook notes, projecting sound with a physicality that became a dance. The clarinet seems to have a plaintive, pre-modern quality built in, and her sound evoked at once the blues, antique worlds, and indistinct old countries. As the crowd applauded, Wein, 85, beamed at his protégée from the corner banquette where he was sitting, his hands resting on an upright walking cane. Cohen paused to look at her watch. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” she said, smiling, before introducing the band.
Wein—a pre-eminent figure in the jazz world for five decades and founder of the Newport and New Orleans jazz festivals—met Cohen three years ago at a concert sponsored by the Sidney Bechet Society, named for the legendary New Orleans soprano saxophonist. “I heard her play ‘Shreveport Stomp’ and was blown away,” he said. “Her approach to jazz is total. She’s got big ears and respects the tradition but isn’t locked into it. She just played a festival in Puerto Rico and got a standing ovation from 3,000 people. She wasn’t playing salsa but ‘Memories of You.’ ”
For Cohen the last few years have been a blur, recording, performing, founding Anzic, her record company, and earning accolades. She’s been named Clarinetist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association of America four years running. In 2007 and 2008 she placed at the top of Downbeat Magazine’s International Critics Poll in the “Rising Star: Clarinet” category. This year she was named its top rising jazz star overall.
Watching Cohen play, it’s clear why her popularity is growing. Whether on tenor or soprano saxophone or clarinet, Cohen plays with an emotional directness that connects with the listener, which is rare in the New York jazz scene, where musicians are often more apt to display skill than convey feeling. Cohen entertains without pandering. If Cohen isn’t playing, she’s roving around the bandstand, rooting on the soloist, singing back a phrase she liked, doing a dance. She treats the bandstand like her living room, putting her audience at ease. At one gig, she played like a snake charmer, sitting cross-legged on the floor with audience members who couldn’t get a seat.
Listen to “St. James Infirmary,” from Clarinetwork, Live at the Village Vanguard:
While Cohen’s musical voice is highly individual, she is also one of a growing number of Israelis on the New York jazz scene today. If you look at the jazz listings, you’re apt to see the following names appearing regularly: Cohen, Avital, Degibri, Silberstein, Aran, Ravitz, Mor, Klein, Tal. And younger Israeli musicians keep coming. For the last few years, Israelis have made up about 9 percent of the student body at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. “Ironically, it’s the Israeli musicians that come who are keeping the flame of the bebop tradition alive,” said Martin Mueller, executive director of the New School’s jazz program. “When they come here, they’re able to take it in so many directions. And there’s an intensity to the music that comes from a culture surrounded on all sides by either water or enemies.”
The level of talent from Israel at times seems uncanny: A YouTube video of Gadi Lehavi, a 13-year-old piano prodigy, playing a duet with saxophonist David Liebman at Smoke, the uptown club, is a sensation in music circles less for the teenager’s prodigious technique than for his probing maturity at the keyboard. Recently at Fat Cat, the Greenwich Village jazz club and pool hall, the veteran black American drummer Billy Kaye led his group through a set of taut hard-bop that sounded as authentic and creative as any Blue Note record from the early sixties. It turned out that three members of the quintet, pianist Jack Glottman, bassist Ben Meigners, and saxophonist Asaf Yuria, are Israelis under 35. Between games of ping-pong, Amit Friedman, a young saxophonist who had come to hear his friends before returning to Israel the next day, commented on the level of jazz talent among his peers: “Maybe it’s a little bit corny, but Jews have had to improvise for thousands of years in order to survive. It’s natural to us.”
Anat Cohen, the middle of three children, was born in 1975 and grew up in Tel Aviv. Yuval, her older brother, is a saxophonist, and Avishai, the youngest son, is one of New York’s most prominent trumpeters; together they form the group 3 Cohens. Their grandparents fled Poland in the early 1930s, and their great-uncle helped found Kibbutz Ein Harod. “It’s very difficult in today’s society to live in this idea,” said Anat Cohen, referring to the collectivist ideal of the kibbutz movement, over lunch in Union Square. Earlier, waiting for a table, she’d chatted with a waiter in Portunhol, a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese. “There’s always going to be someone who wants more, who wants something else,” she said. “I could never really figure out why people would live in a kibbutz. I’m such a city girl.”
Her now-retired parents, David and Bilha—he was in real estate, and she was a teacher—supported their children’s growing interest in music. “My father knew classical music very well,” said Cohen. “Driving in the car, listening to the radio he could name every composer, every movement, what piece it was. I was fascinated by the way he recognized who wrote what.”
At age 10, Cohen started on the keyboard and at age 12 switched to the clarinet and began playing in a Dixieland band at the Jaffa Conservatory of Music, where she could begin to feel the rhythm of jazz while still following a written part. At age 16, she began playing tenor saxophone in the big band at the prestigious Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Tel Aviv.
Insipired by Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane records, Cohen began to absorb the jazz tradition, but she found few opportunities beyond school performances to develop her musical voice, and like many young musicians she was daunted by the prospect of improvisation. That changed when she met a saxophonist from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn who had immigrated to Israel and shaken up the music scene, Arnold Lawrence Finkelstein, or Arnie Lawrence.
“Arnie is very much responsible for me being here,” said Cohen, remembering him fondly. “I met him when I was a soldier. Something about Arnie that was always so pure. He would talk to you without any judgment or preconception. I’m a human being, you’re a human being, let’s communicate. That was his vibe. I was not used to that. Israel, as wonderful as it is, it’s a very intense place. The level of life there is just very stressful. People are always alert. They have a famous phrase in Hebrew: ‘respect and suspect.’ You always have to kind of check what’s going on around you. People are not always just, ‘We’re all here, we’re all together,’ because you never know.”
Lawrence, who was born in 1938, was a passionate figure. Tutored at a young age by the tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, Lawrence at age 17 was leading bands at Birdland, once sharing a double-bill with John Coltrane. In 1986 he founded the New School Jazz and Contemporary Music Program. Over the years, he would visit Israel with his wife, Liza, a native, making contacts and meeting musicians and performing. By the mid-1990s, Lawrence found himself with fewer gigs and increasingly at odds with the New School’s administration over his nontraditional teaching approach. Liza’s mother’s health was also declining. So, in 1997, Lawrence and Liza moved to Israel permanently to begin anew.
In Jerusalem, Lawrence founded the International Center for Creative Music, which welcomed Jews and Arabs alike. There he would hold his weekly “Harif” sessions, named for a spice. Whoever showed up would be the band that night.
“Every Wednesday we would go,” said Cohen. “I would get in the car, my two brothers and I, and drive to Jerusalem. It was the most special thing for us to do. Maybe there would be just bass or just drums, sometimes just seven saxophones. Arnie would call tunes, play open grooves, whatever, pointing at people to solo. I was the most insecure one at the time, because I was the latest of us coming into jazz. He gave me confidence. He would talk to me after sets about beauty, about people, wonderful vague conversations, not about this note or scale. He was the first one who told me there were no wrong notes.”
Walking south on Loisada Street in New York’s Lower East Side, toward The Stone, the experimental jazz club, one steamy evening in late May, you had to pass through music to get to music. The neighborhood, which long ago teemed with the street life of Eastern European Jews, was alive with the sounds of the Hispanic immigrants who followed. Two congueros sat drumming near East 4th Street as neighborhood folks, heads bobbing, some singing, gathered slowly to them like flower petals blooming in reverse. Sidewalk barbecues smoked.
Nearby, another crowd gathered on the corner of Loisada and East 2nd, outside The Stone. Approaching, you could hear English speckled with Hebrew being spoken by yet newer immigrants, young, hiply dressed, with black instrument cases slung over their shoulders. Inside, the small club—no liquor, no food, just music—was packed beyond capacity for New York’s first Festival of Israeli Jazz.
Listen to “Washington Square Park,” from Notes From the Village:
“If you have to lose liquid, let it be sweat and not tears,” said the trombonist Rafi Malkiel, from the stage. It was both a reference to the heat in the room and an epigraph to his composition “River Blue,” binds Jewish and Arabic melodic traditions together within the traditional 12-bar blues form. Malkiel’s newest music, heavily informed also by the Latin groups in which he’s played, is inspired by the concept of water, of life’s liquid nature, its currents of influence.
The ensemble, which includes Cohen and her brother Avishai, began to weave together in rigorously arranged polyphony, grooving muscularly through the Middle Eastern-tinged minor blues. When it finished, Malkiel, an Israeli of Moroccan heritage, thanked the festival’s organizer and curator, Roberto Juan Rodriguez, who stood in the back.
“It takes a Cuban to put on a festival of Israeli music in New York,” said Malkiel, smiling. “I promise you, next year we’ll have a Cuban music festival in Israel.”
Rodriguez, 51, whose close-cropped silvering hair belies his youthful enthusiasm, is a drummer, composer, and the founder of the Sexteto Rodriguez Cuban Jewish All Stars, which appeared this summer at the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow (or, as he calls it, the “big powwow”). His group, accented by clarinet and accordion, combines Cuban son and klezmer, evoking an imaginary world where the Buena Vista Social Club and a chapter of the Jewish Labor Bund might exist on the same street.
“I grew up in the Jewish community. I did weddings, bar mitzvahs, and Yiddish theater down in Miami Beach,” said Rodriguez by phone from the Catskill home he shares with his wife, drummer Susie Ibarra, and their young son. “It’s interesting to see the similarities between their culture and mine. I’d go over to my friends’ houses, and their furniture would be covered in plastic. I’d go over to my aunt’s house and their furniture would be covered in plastic. ‘You can’t sit on it! You can’t touch it!’ They’re warm cultures, passionate cultures, and they both have a certain kind of schmaltz. It was easy to just blend in. I never considered Jews to be white. They’d say ‘I’m white.’ ‘No, you’re Jewish.’ ”
Rodriguez’s artistic enterprise, to showcase the various ways Israeli musicians are combining these influences with jazz, was not, however, immune to the political pressures that follow Israelis wherever they go, regardless of their politics. Shortly before the festival began, Rodriguez received an email from Andrew Fellus, a New York music producer and organizer of Artists Against Apartheid, a group that works in concert with the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and its counterpart in the United States. Some performers have heeded the groups’ call to boycott Israel. Elvis Costello characterized his cancellation of a recent show as “matter of instinct and conscience.” Carlos Santana and the Pixies have joined in the boycott. Fellus’ email to Rodriguez read: “I noticed that you are curating the upcoming Israeli jazz festival, and curious if you realize this event is being promoted by the Israeli Consulate? You might not want to have your event associated with a government that is responsible for the ongoing ethnic cleansing, colonization and dispossession of Palestinian land.”
Rodriguez replied to Fellus by email: “I am a friend of all musicians and artists from all over the world regardless of what country they are from. I do not appreciate your actions against me curating a program of Israeli musicians who live in New York City, or anyone else for that matter.” He ended the letter: “Where politics and boycotts fall short, music and art goes a very long way. I am inviting you to come and listen to the music. I hope you can make it.”
The first Festival of Israeli Jazz ended without controversy. But the day after its last show, Israeli forces raided a flotilla of ships attempting to break its blockade of the Gaza strip. A battle ensued aboard the lead ship, the Mavi Marmara, that resulted in nine deaths, sparking international outrage and further energizing the movement to boycott Israel. Next year’s festival, which Rodriguez hopes to expand into the Abrons Art Center, may not proceed so smoothly. Fellus’ group was planning to protest an upcoming concert by the Jerusalem String Quartet. The quartet’s April concert in London’s Wigmore Hall was disrupted by hecklers, which forced the BBC to stop its live broadcast of the recital.
“I have an ambivalent feeling about the Israeli army,” said Cohen. “Growing up in Tel Aviv, being involved in the arts, the last thing artists want to do is fight.” Young Israeli musicians can audition for a limited number of spots in Israel Defense Force bands; the result can determine whether you end up playing Ellington or invading Gaza. Cohen was accepted into the Air Force Band prior to her induction.
“Basic training was not fun, but it was an interesting experience,” said Cohen. “You’re finishing high school, summer vacation, everything’s beautiful, you’re an optimist, you’re a kid. You finish your exams and very quickly, in July, my mom takes me in the morning. I get on the bus, and they close the doors. Someone’s shouting, ‘Don’t look out the windows!’ Your parents are still standing outside the bus. Immediately”—Cohen snapped her fingers—“you lose your identity.”
Cohen hadn’t known that the First Festival of Israeli Jazz had become politicized, but it came as no surprise.
“I avoid as much as I can any political conversation mainly out of fear,” said Cohen. “It depends on the environment. I went to Dartmouth College to play and went to Chabad House. I had no problem engaging in talking about politics. But I’m afraid of hostile reactions. With cab drivers I always say I’m from Brazil. I don’t say I’m from Israel. It’s happened more than once that someone is blaming me for the government’s policy. And I say, ‘Listen, I live here. I’m a musician. I don’t call the shots.’ ”
As a kid, Cohen traveled abroad as part of youth orchestra. Its members were told not to wear yarmulkas or clothing with Hebrew slogans. “Just hats,” said Cohen. “Try to mingle. It’s a good rule in general. Why be a target if you don’t have to? I remember taking a cab at 3 in the morning, with a Muslim driver. He was explaining that he was not allowed to listen to music because it distracts attention from God. I revealed I was from Israel and as we were just near my street, suddenly he locked the doors. And I freaked out. ‘Please don’t lock the doors.’ I immediately imagined the worst. Maybe he wanted to intimidate me. That was the last time I told a cabdriver that I’m from Israel.”
Listen to “Hofim,” from Poetica:
Cohen returned to Israel last year during the incursion into the Gaza Strip. “Conflict is so rooted in the culture,” she said, pondering whether she would ever return to Israel to live. “Everything is a consequence of something that happened before, and not seeing the end of it, it’s so difficult. You cannot live there and not be involved in what’s going on. It got under my skin so deep I couldn’t shake it off. For the first time I told myself, maybe not.”
Now that Israel may face the existential threat of a nuclear Iran, many have suggested that its best and brightest will increasingly choose to live elsewhere. This summer, the Israeli Cabinet implemented a plan to stem “brain drain” among the country’s scientists. Academics are also choosing increasingly work outside of the country.
Cohen suggested that it’s nothing new. “They don’t have to wait for a nuclear weapon from Iran for people to say this is an insane place,” she said. “I keep meeting people who have been here for 30 years. They’re 100 percent Israelis, in their behavior, they way they talk. They visit Israel, they’re connected, and have families there. Israel is a wonderful place to visit. But think about raising kids there. Suicide bombers? Having to send your kid to the army?”
Cohen also noted that there are far fewer jazz stages to play in Israel.
“I’m having a great time and love being on stage, but the amount of stages in a small country is limited,” said Cohen, betraying what seemed like a faint twinge of regret. “Going back to live in Israel is a serious decision.”
“If people just understood that jazz is about life, it’s about taking people from different backgrounds, put them in one room and say, ‘OK, start talk, and communicate, make sense, explain where you come from, respect and listen, react and suggest and don’t take over, be polite,’ ” she said. “How many times have you heard someone playing jazz but not really communicating? I don’t get it, just monologuing. It’s about dialogues and conversations.”
Ben Waltzer is a jazz pianist, journalist, and assistant director of the Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance Program at Columbia University.
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