The time was right for Cohen to make a big statement. Instead, she made two.
Can a talented Israeli jazz saxophonist/clarinetist find peace and prosperity in the U.S.? Uh, yeah. The world is Anat Cohen's oyster. She has already played in several well-ballyhooed ensembles (including the awesomely-named the Three Cohens together with her brothers Avishai and Yuval) and been hailed by critics like Gary Giddins, Nat Hentoff, and Terry Teachout for her debut album, 2005's Place and Time. She's young, she's attractive, she's ambitious -- that's the big three right there.
So the time was right for Cohen to make a big statement. Instead, she made two: Noir and Poetica are being released on the same day, but they are very different albums. The former is a big band record bristling with 18 different musicians in different configurations; the latter is a quartet date where Cohen puts her saxophones down and sticks with clarinet only. But despite these differences of scope and scale, both records share her round romantic tone and her restless world-embracing spirit.
No matter how you slice it, Noir is just a huge record. It starts with Ernesto Lecuona's ultra-swank Cuban composition "La Comparsa". At first, Cohen quietly leads the way on clarinet over an ensemble of interlocking orchestral strings, but soon the whole band explodes into lushness, allowing her to soar. The orchestration by Oded Lev-Ari -- a childhood friend of Cohen's -- balances the band's tonal richness with his star's pinpoint solos. The band is credited as "The Anzic Orchestra", and it has almost too much talent; Erik Friedlander, the jazz cellist who released one of last year's great solo records in Prowl, and many other prominent musicians make up this group, including Yuval and Avishai Cohen, the great percussionist Duduka da Fonseca, Billy Drewes on sax, and both Ali Jackson and Antonio Sanchez on drums.
The set covers classic Tin Pan Alley songs like "Cry Me a River" (done here as a long slow slink), a Sun Ra tune ("You Never Told Me That You Care"), and a Johnny Griffin obscurity that really pops, plus a lovely reading of Johnnie Ray's hit "Cry". But she seems most at home covering Brazilian and Cape Verdean songs -- her version of "Carnaval de São Vicente" is jumpy and highbrow, and she gets extra points for taking on Hermeto Pascoal's tricky and intense "Bebê". (You heard it here first: Pascoal, a big-hearted and brilliant composer, is way overdue to be recognized by jazz cognoscenti as the finest living composer in Brazil or anywhere.)
Where Noir is large and all-embracing, Poetica is tighter, sharper, and more personal. Here, we get to hear Cohen's compositional voice on two numbers. "The Purple Piece" is all over the place in true post-bop style, but it swings right along thanks to nifty drum work by Daniel Freedman and some of Cohen's most impassioned clarinet playing. "La Casa de Llano" is an uptempo Latin number inspired by Cohen's visits to Venezuela and Colombia -- when she lets it fly here (over perfect pointillist counterpoint by pianist Jason Lindner), it stays flown.
The other songs here are an extremely mixed bag. I am very impressed by "Cypresses", a moody tune by bassist Omer Avital. Not only is the melody extremely pretty without being too-too, but it gives Cohen the perfect setting for her solo voice. (This is also one of the four songs on Poetica to benefit from the addition of a string quartet -- it's a bold move, but it mostly pays off.) The opener, "Agada Yapanit (A Japanese Tale)" is a gorgeous waltz by well-regarded current Israeli musician Ariel Zilber, while several songs here are adaptations of older Israeli jazz and folk tunes. She also covers John Coltrane and Jacques Brel, as well as Brazilian composer Nelson Cavaquinho.
If you think this sounds a bit diffuse, you wouldn't be too far wrong. Cohen's tone is perfect and full throughout, but with all these stylistic explorations, it's somewhat hard to tell who and what she really is. But this is not a bad thing; musicians are always best-served by not painting themselves into corners. It is fine for Anat Cohen to be all over the place; the world is not only her oyster, it is also her smorgasbord. Let her be free to be who she is, a restless soul who embraces every musical tradition. Anyone who tries to pigeonhole her and force her to become narrow is just doing her, and the jazz world, a disservice.
(P.S.: One cautionary note that bodes not well. Anzic Records seems to be owned or at least dedicated to Anat Cohen. When one owns one's own label, one gets a lot of artistic freedom, and that is a good thing. But one does not need sycophantic (albeit informative) liner notes in the booklet; it smacks of insecurity. Cohen is so good that she does not really need this sort of self-promotion. Please, powers that be, don't let Dan Morganstern, or anyone else, do this on any subsequent release.)