Feb. 1 2017 01:32 PM

Clarinetist Anat Cohen brings humanist vision to MSU residency

Israeli-born clarinetist Anat Cohen joins MSU’s Jazz Studies program next week for a series of master classes, educational trips to Michigan high schools and a Friday night concert with MSU Jazz Octets.
Courtesy Photo

There is no one in jazz, or in all of music, quite like Israeli-born clarinetist Anat Cohen.

Cohen has taken a horn with a corny aura, the clarinet, into far-flung, fertile fields, from the spiritual realm of John Coltrane to a bubbling pot of Latin-American musical traditions. Her presence on stage is so natural it’s almost startling. She’s not trying to be hip, intellectual or above it all.

“I don’t care if somebody plays the fastest, the hardest — if he doesn’t touch my heart, I don’t care,” she said.

Beginning Saturday, jazz students from MSU and around the state will soak up Cohen’s aura firsthand in a busy week-long residency sponsored by the MSU Federal Credit Union, culminating in a Feb. 10 concert at MSU’s Cook Recital Hall.

For Cohen, improvised music is a social art. At MSU, she’ll try to go beyond technical tips and attune students to the intangibles that make music meaningful.

“You’re not playing with a piano,” she said. “You’re playing with a piano player, a person. Relate to the person. This is the kind of thing I like to talk about — the meaning behind the music, creating the moment.”

Cohen plays with many sizes and types of groups, and each setting brings out a different side of her personality. She morphs with ease, and convincing musical logic, from the sultry Brazilian “Samba de Orfeu” into the quintessential New Orleans tune “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” On her latest CD, “Luminosa,” she pounced on the perky, electronic blips of Flying Lotus’ “Putty Boy Strut” and turned them into an irresistible exercise in acoustic pointillism.

Born in Tel Aviv, Cohen received a classical training and played in all sorts of bands, from big bands to the Israeli Air Force Band. She worked mainly on technical proficiency until a life-changing encounter with Arnie Lawrence, a Brooklyn-born saxophone guru who moved to Israel in the 1990s.

“We were like disciples, going to his evenings every Wednesday in Jerusalem,” Cohen recalled. “It wasn’t about ‘this is bebop and you’ve got to burn.’ He could play anything. But it was beyond the style. It was about getting human beings together to create something meaningful.”

The same could be said of Cohen’s approach to teaching.

“You can’t learn to be who you’re not,” she said. “You can learn to play like Charlie Parker, but you’ll never be Charlie Parker. That’s his vision, his personality; you can only imitate it. It’s not just notes.”

Cohen also plays tenor saxophone, but began to home in on the clarinet as her playing and composing career took off in the 1990s.

“It just happened,” she said. “That’s what I hear, that’s who I am, that’s how I feel. With the clarinet I can just be myself. With the tenor saxophone I’m not as comfortable. It’s too much responsibility just knowing Sonny (Rollins) and (John) Coltrane were there.”

But there’s also a practical benefit to an open musical mind.

“Some musicians think, ‘I’m just going to play jazz from the 1960s and I’ll be ready for life.’ No, no, no. The more music you know, the better off you are. It’s also important that somebody learns to be a dental hygienist,” she said with a laugh. “One job might not be enough. You have to do more than one thing. I’ve played second clarinet in a band, playing repeated notes for three minutes. It gives you more options.”

She credits her experience in New York, where she now lives, and the Berklee College of Music for opening her up her up to a wider world of music.

“I met friends from all over the world that love jazz,” she said. “I wanted to play Coltrane all day and all night. I started to meet people who create songs based on other rhythms, from Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela, from Argentina.”

This year, Cohen is releasing three albums, each one different from the others. The most anticipated of the three is a loving immersion in the music of Moacir Santos, a revered yet under-appreciated Brazilian multi-instrumentalist and composer. Cohen recorded the CD live in Brazil last year in an intimate duet format with a phenomenal seven-string guitar player, Marcello Gonçalves. Cohen also has a new CD with Trio Brasilliero, which is slated to come out just before they tour together in May, and an album with a ten-piece ensemble planned for fall.

“Sometimes traditional, sometimes Brazilian sometimes with an orchestra, sometimes crazy — I like to keep things interesting,” she said.

Cohen is often asked what it’s like to succeed as a woman in a male-dominated field. Characteristically, she answers the question from a humanist perspective.

“Music could benefit from people that accept both masculine and feminine sides,” she said. “We are complex human beings. Nobody is just one or the other.

It depends on what we hide and what we let go.

Music needs everything. It needs softness, it needs caresses, it needs anger, it needs shouting.”

Next week’s residency will be an extra busy week, including master classes at MSU and bus trips with jazz students to teach and perform in high schools in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Mason, Williamston, Fowlerville and East Lansing.

“Staying in one place for a few days, you can go more in depth and create music together, and that’s what we hope to do in Michigan,” she said. “You can relate to each other musically and as human beings and let people digest your vision of being.”

Improvised music and classrooms do not always make a perfect fit, but the touring and performing model embraced by MSU’s jazz residencies comes close to bottling real-life experience without losing the fizz.

“We’re trying to fit the performance world into the academic world, which is hard,” Cohen said. “That’s where somebody with experience is helpful, because students get tangled up in so much information and they sometimes forget that they are human beings.”

Anat Cohen and MSU Jazz Octets
8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10
$15/$12 seniors/$5 students
Cook Recital Hall, Music Building
333 W. Circle Drive, East Lansing
(517) 353-5340, music.msu.edu