GRAMMY-nominated multireedist and composer Anat Cohen shifts her focus to an intimate group sound on her newest release, the endlessly colorful Quartetinho (pronounced “quar-te-CHIN-yo,” i.e., little quartet).
The group of New York-based international multi instrumentalist-virtuosos are all drawn from the ranks of her GRAMMY-nominated Tentet featuring bassist Tal Mashiach, pianist/accordionist Vitor Gonçalves, and vibraphonist/percussionist James Shipp. They share a deep love for music in all its heterogeneity and it’s all amply documented on Quartetinho, which includes originals by Cohen, Mashiach and Shipp along with material by the great masters Antonio Carlos Jobim, Egberto Gismonti and more. The result is boundlessly melodic and lyrical, with a wide array of timbres and subtle details of orchestration.
On the bandstand, Anat Cohen is a whirlwind of restless emotion. Her clarinet raised toward the heavens or lowered toward that other place below, she delivers streams of sound that seem to flow through her horn directly from her heart.
Chalk it up, if you wish, to acculturation. Cohen, 42, is a child of Israel, and her sense of musicality reflects the unabashed expressivity of that nation’s people. But, as she unwound on a late-August afternoon in her quiet Brooklyn apartment, a more specific source of her feelings became clear.
“When I play the clarinet,” she says, a smile enveloping her face, “I can be myself.”
Being in the moment
For Cohen, the realization that the clarinet could be a tool of self-discovery was a gradual one. Arriving in New York from Tel Aviv via Boston’s Berklee College of Music in 1999, she viewed herself more as a saxophonist who also played the clarinet. It wasn’t until 2007 that she released an all-clarinet album, Poetica, and several years later that her identity as a clarinetist was secure.
That identity will be doubly affirmed when, on Thursday, Oct. 20, she returns to the Lensic Performing Arts Center. In what promises to be a sonorous occasion, she will be making liberal use of both the standard Bb clarinet and its larger sibling, the bass clarinet — an instrument whose lower register will allow her to plumb greater depths, both musical and emotional.
The vehicle for this adventure will be her latest quartet, Quartetinho, and, truth be told, the bass clarinet is just one of the instruments the group is deploying that will lend it a distinctive flavor. When mixed and matched with her clarinets, the others — vibraphone, synthesizer, accordion, acoustic and electric pianos, double bass, and seven-string guitar — will, in the absence of a drum set, distinguish the sound from that of most jazz quartets.
“It’s an experiment,” says Cohen, a perennial winner of critics’ and readers’ jazz polls.
The appearance of a vibraphone and synthesizer, alone or in combination, will be a first in Cohen’s quartets. Both will be handled by James Shipp, who will also play percussion. Shipp, whose association with Cohen reaches back more than a decade to jams at a Uruguayan bar in Brooklyn, was recruited for Quartetinho based in part on his inventive contributions to Cohen’s tentet. That group’s Triple Helix, released in 2019, earned a Grammy nomination for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album.
“He’s a writer and creator, and he always explores something a bit different, a little bit odd,” Cohen says of Shipp. “He’s not the typical mainstream guy.”
A characteristically idiosyncratic creation of Shipp’s “Baroquen Spirit,” will, she says, likely open the Oct. 20 performance. The piece, written in response to a dispiriting experience Shipp had with an opera company, centers on randomly triggered drone sounds at play under a lyrical melody and juxtaposed against what he called “ugly, weird notes.” To create those notes, the musicians employ extended techniques. Shipp, for example, drags his mallet against the side of the vibraphone’s resonator, conjuring a strangely appealing whine.
Shipp says that, in the quartet’s performances so far — a monthlong tour in March and a handful of other shows — the musicians have gleefully dug into their bags of technical tricks, “mischievously racing each other to get to those weird notes.” The effect can border on the comic, which appeals to Cohen’s taste for emotional content and sense of the absurd.
“Anat loves being in the moment,” he says, “laughing and enjoying each other. And that’s kind of what we’re after in that piece. There are times when it gets pretty out [there], but there’s never any darkness in it.”
Sometimes the emotions in the group’s music do come from a darker place. “Goin’ Home,” a popular tune derived from Antonín Dvorák’s “New World Symphony,” became part of the Quartetinho songbook after Cohen and bassist Christian McBride rendered a duo version in September 2021 at a small ceremony at the Bronx gravesite of impresario George Wein, who founded the Newport jazz and folk festivals.
In adapting the piece, Cohen sought to suggest the scope of the original symphonic version. As often happens with this quartet, the piece achieved its aims through instrumental experimentation, eventually settling on a sonic blend that evokes the string section by combining the sustained tones of Cohen’s bass clarinet, Vitor Gonçalves’ button accordion, Shipp’s tremulous vibraphone, and Tal Mashiach’s bowed bass.
“It’s a big mass of sound,” Gonçalves says.
After all the drones and long tones, the concert will move to a more percussive phase, with the music of Brazilian composers Egberto Amin Gismonti and Antônio Carlos Jobim helping to set the pace. Brazilian music has been a strong component of Cohen’s artistic profile for years, and Gonçalves, whom she met at jam sessions in his native Rio de Janeiro more than 20 years ago, has helped build that profile.
As it happens, another Gonçalves from Rio, seven-string guitarist Marcello (no relation), has also played a prominent role in that regard. During the pandemic lockdown, Cohen spent more than a year with him in Rio. The result was the album Reconvexo, which features tunes by Brazilians like Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento, and Jobim. The album followed the duo’s Grammy-nominated release Outra Coisa: The Music of Moacir Santos. Cohen has worked on many other Brazil-themed projects. “When I play the clarinet, I can be myself.” — Anat Cohen
Evidence of Cohen’s affinity for Brazilian music was prominent throughout her apartment. Vinyl versions of Reconvexo and Outra Coisa were displayed on a window ledge, and a cavaquinho — a small Portuguese guitar used throughout Brazil — shared space with her clarinet atop the piano. At one point in the conversation, she picked up the instrument and skillfully strummed a few bars.
Cohen’s Brazil connection is so strong these days that she can feel obliged to stress the sweep of her experience, from duos playing mainstream jazz (she was paired with pianist Fred Hersch in her last Lensic performance, in 2019) to small groups interpreting the music of Benny Goodman (a 2009 Village Vanguard homage to the swing master yielded a masterful album, Clarinetwork) to big bands trafficking in a militant modernism, like that of Jason Lindner (the keyboardist in another Cohen quartet). “Triple Helix,” the concerto from which the album of that title took its name, is classical in form and eclectic in the musical idioms it incorporates.
Whatever Quartetinho’s Brazilian elements — and to be sure, it affixes a Portuguese suffix to generate its name, which means “little quartet” — Cohen insists the band not be classed simply as another foray into Braziliana. Nor, she adds, is it properly termed “jazz.” Both contentions are bolstered by the group’s cross-fertilization of influences and its multinational mix of players, which, in addition to the Brazilian (Vitor Gonçalves), includes an American (Shipp), Cohen, and another Israeli (Mashiach). The synthesis they create resists easy labels. Cohen prefers none.
None, perhaps, is needed. Suffice it to say that Cohen’s musical partners become a kind of family, and in some cases are a literal one. Her brothers, trumpeter Avishai Cohen and saxophonist Yuval Cohen, joined her in the 1990s and were among the first wave of Israeli musicians to make a mark in the United States. Alone and together, as the 3 Cohens, they have become major voices on the jazz scene.
They have also shared a musician: Mashiach, who studied with Yuval and played with Avishai. It was, in fact, a 2014 gig with Avishai at the club Zappa in Herzliya, Israel, where Mashiach first met Anat, when she sat in with the trumpeter’s group. When Mashiach emigrated to the United States a few years later, he began playing bass with Anat and has been part of her groups ever since, adding guitar to his arsenal for Quartetinho.
As the youngest member of the quartet and one raised in a rural district of Israel, Mashiach, 29, brings to the music a “naïve” and “sweet” tone that tempers the others’ urban sensibility, Cohen says. That quality comes through in two of his compositions adapted for Quartetinho — “The Old Guitar” (inspired by a Picasso painting) and “Vivi and Zaco” (an homage to his grandfather).
Mashiach also brings perspective on the roots of Cohen’s musical interests, returning, with some inevitability, to the subject of Brazil. He noted that youthful exposure to Israeli producer Matti Caspi’s translation of Brazilian songs from Portuguese to Hebrew fed her love of Brazilian music, as it did his. It is a love, he says, shared by all of Quartetinho’s members — and one that helps foster a collective response to Cohen’s artistic impulses, a wide-ranging and unpredictable lot.
“Anat has always liked the freedom of not only stretching but also changing,” he says. “She’s very dynamic onstage. She can go everywhere.”
1. Baroquen Spirit (3:56)
2. Palhaço (8:21)
3. Boa Tarde Povo (4:58)
4. Birdie (6:39)
5. Canon (3:06)
6. O Boto (6:25)
7. The Old Guitar (4:33)
8. Frevo (4:16)
9. Louisiana (3:30)
10. Going Home (6:51)
11. Vivi & Zaco (4:23)
ANAT COHEN: Clarinet, Bass Clarinet
VITOR GONÇALVES: Piano, Accordion, Fender Rhodes
TAL MASHIACH: Bass, Guitar
JAMES SHIPP: Vibraphone, Percussion, Glockenspiel, Analog Synthesizer