Internationally celebrated clarinet master Anat Cohen is well on her way to making her chosen instrument cool again, be it for fans of jazz, Brazilian choro music or the genre-leaping hybrid she performs with both her quartet and her 10-piece band, the aptly named Tentet.
Never mind that Cohen — who earned 2018 Grammy nominations for Best Latin Jazz Album and Best World Music Album — started off with some doubts about the clarinet herself and instead focused on playing tenor saxophone.
“Maybe that was because, in the back of my mind, I thought clarinet was not cool and it took me a while to let it in,” said the 39-year-old musician, who is a former member of the Israeli Air Force Band and a graduate of Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music.
“I am working hard to make the clarinet cool again. When I was young, I was told: ‘It’s not cool! Don’t do it’!”
The resistance to the clarinet was compounded by another issue that had everything to do with geography and nothing to do with the instrument itself, per se.
As a teenager in the 1990s, Cohen had to search to find any jazz albums in her homeland. Finding any in that pre-downloading and streaming era was a major challenge.
“There was only one jazz record store at the time in Israel, not just Tel Aviv,” said Cohen, who will perform with her quartet Thursday at The JAI, the cabaret in the La Jolla Music Society’s new Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center.
“The first jazz album I bought is an album I bought with Oded Lev-Ari , who is now the music director of my Tentet. We bought (sax giant) Sonny Rollins’ ‘The Bridge’ and the album lived with me some and with him some. We had joint custody!
“I was about 16 and just getting to know jazz. Of course, I knew who (clarinet legend) Benny Goodman was and I listened to Sydney Bechet. But when I really got into jazz, I was listening to sax players — Sonny, Dexter Rollins and, later, John Coltrane, Illinois Jacquet, Jimmy Forrest and Gene Ammons.”
Like those illustrious saxophonists, Cohen repeatedly soars when she plays the clarinet. She combines dazzling virtuosity and deep feeling with a command of nuance, texture and daring that is uniquely her own. Equally impressive is the way she can perform all manner of jazz, Latin music, klezmer, blues and classical with equal expertise and élan.
“After you have imitated and assimilated, you have earned the right to find who you are in this music,” Cohen said.
“I think it depends on the personality of the artist. Some people want to sound just like Charlie Parker and you can’t say that’s right or wrong. Some want to sound like nobody else, ever, some on purpose, some without realizing it. I’m just doing what I do and it fits my instrument.”
From Dixieland to Israeli Air Force Band
Cohen started as a classical clarinetist when she was 12, while attending the Tel Aviv School for the Arts.
She first began playing jazz on the clarinet at 16 as a member of the Jaffa Music Conservatory’s Dixieland jazz group. Cohen joined the conservatory’s big band the same year, with the specific goal of learning to play tenor sax. It soon became her main instrument and she played tenor during her two-year stint in the Israeli Air Force Band.
“Being in the military was an interesting experience,” Cohen said, speaking from her Brooklyn apartment.
“You learn about discipline. But I learned about discipline after I moved to New York in 1999 and joined the Diva Jazz Orchestra for 10 years. In the Diva Jazz Orchestra, if you were late, you got a fine. If you left trash on stage, you got a fine. All big bands have a fine system, so maybe I learned more from being in a big band and touring on a tour bus than I learned from the military.
“I learned a lot from the leader of Diva, Sherrie Maricle, the way she addressed the audiences with so much respect, which is something you really have to take into consideration. I like to build a relationship. As a band leader, I want to communicate better and treat people better. The bottom line is that it’s all about communication. When you treat musicians fair, they want to be around.”
Until the release of her 2007 album, “Poetica,” Cohen usually performed just one song on clarinet at her concerts and the rest on tenor sax.
But “Poetica” was an all-clarinet affair. The positive response it received inspired her to switch her focus away from the sax. She has concentrated on clarinet ever since. Like Don Byron, she has devoted herself to demonstrating the instrument’s musical and stylistic range and flexibility. She also champions the clarinet as a vital contemporary voice, not a throwback to the days of swing ling Benny Goodman in the 1930s and ‘40s.
“The fact I wanted to play jazz on the clarinet was a double-whammy,” Cohen agreed.
“Even now, in 2019, when you tell people you play clarinet, they say: ‘Oh, Benny Goodman!’ It’s interesting that, even today, Benny is such a huge name and influence that people still envision jazz on the clarinet — and the clarinet itself — as something old and (related to) New Orleans. They don’t envision it as something that can be part of rock and funk bands. So (since Goodman) the clarinet never got to be in the spotlight for the masses.”
Does that make her more determined?
“Well, I play it and am going to keep playing it, because I like it and get a lot of joy out of playing this instrument,” Cohen replied.
“I feel we are connected and in tune with each other. I hope I can help people think of it as one of the greatest instruments. For me, it’s just a thrill to see young people play the clarinet now. It’s also bizarre for me when young people say: ‘I listen to you and like the music you play.’ I am thrilled if I can inspire anybody with what I do. Just by being from Israel, an artist and a woman out in the world traveling tells people that it’s possible.”
As prolific as she is talented, Cohen has made nearly half a dozen albums in the past two years alone, the majority for Anzic Records
“Rosa Dos Ventos” and “Outra Caiso,” both released in 2017, are devoted to Brazilian music, with the latter consisting entirely of compositions by Moacir Santos.
“Happy Song,” released the same year, showcases her remarkably versatile Tentet group. Last year’s “Live in Healdsburg” is a sublime duo album with esteemed pianist Fred Hersch.
Coming June 13 is “Triple Helix,” a clarinet concerto which was co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Chicago’s Symphony Center. Composed by Lev-Ari, Cohen’s longtime collaborator, it is steeped in classical music traditions but alludes at times to jazz, blues, funk and rock.
“The Tentet has been together for 10 years now and ‘Triple Helix’ is a serious piece with many styles that lets the band be who it is,” Cohen said.
“When we decided to put the Tentet together, we were looking to form the most flexible large ensemble we could, with the clarinet as the center instrument. We wanted to make a creative band that can be flexible in style and sound and complement the clarinet, not just in a Benny Goodman (style), but also Brahms. We want to be able to funk it up, and to play African music, klezmer, you name it. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved.”
Anat Cohen Quartet
When: 7 p.m. (sold out) and 9 p.m. Thursday
Where: The JAI, Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla
Phone: (858) 459-3728