Anat Cohen TentetTripe HelixAnzic Records

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n a stirring follow-up to its 2017 debut Happy Song, the Anat Cohen Tentet reaches a new crest in its evolution with Triple Helix. The album’s centerpiece is a three-movement concerto composed for Cohen and the tentet, the Grammy-nominated clarinet virtuoso, by her longtime collaborator Oded Lev-Ari, the Tentet’s musical director. Commissioned by New York’s Carnegie Hall and Chicago’s Symphony Center for live world premieres earlier in 2019, “Triple Helix” won raves from The Chicago Tribune as “a work of considerable expressive reach” and a “sensuous tonal palette,” with Cohen “sounding like a musician transformed.” 

Those qualities are abundantly evident in the album version, conducted by Lev-Ari as he also did onstage in New York and Chicago, highlighting Cohen at her most “fresh, sophisticated and daring” (JazzTimes). The Tentet, a vibrant mix of ace New York players, bring a wealth of color to the new work, which defies all stylistic pigeonholing: weaving in and out we hear the sumptuous brass of Nadje Noordhuis and Nick Finzer, the robust baritone sax of Owen Browder, the sonically enriching vibraphone and percussion of James Shipp, the lithe and versatile cello of Christopher Hoffman, the radiant piano and accordion of Vitor Gonçalves, the edgy yet ingeniously integrated solid-body guitar of Sheryl Baileyand the decisive and driving rhythm section work of bassist Tal Mashiach and drummer Anthony Pinciotti.

       “Oded knows my playing as well as anyone, and he never reaches for the obvious, so there’s an edge of surprise to whatever he does,” Cohen marvels. The concerto, Lev-Ari explains, “wasn’t designed as a feature for Anat as a soloist with just an ensemble backdrop. I wrote it for her as the leader of an organic, interactive band, the Tentet, and the way they play together live. I composed the concerto like a tailor leaving a lot of slack in a suit: we can really let it out and expand it if we want to. It’s the most technically demanding thing I’ve ever written for her, knowing as I do what’s in her fingers and what she’s capable of on the clarinet.” Indeed the longstanding musical relationship of Cohen and Lev-Ari finds precedent in the storied bond of collaborators like Miles Davis & Gil Evans, or in Duke Ellington’s use of specific idiomatic writing for featured soloists and band members. 

Continuing to blaze a trail as a poll-winning clarinetist and far-sighted bandleader, Cohen delves into the wealth of ideas summoned by Lev-Ari on “Triple Helix”: classical and contemporary sounds, Americana lyricism, Latin and Middle Eastern rhythms and more. The clarinet trill at the outset hints briefly at Rhapsody in Blue, subtly proposing a 21st-century perspective on Gershwin’s model of hybrid-genre works for the concert hall. 

Opening the album is one of the six non-suite tracks, Lev-Ari’s luxuriant arrangement of “Milonga Del Angel” by the late Astor Piazzolla, setting a slow and haunting South American mood from the outset. Cohen reveals her unsurpassed clarinet tone as the Tentet’s adroit, endlessly subtle approach to counterpoint, call-and-response and texture comes clearly into focus. Cohen later weighs in with her own “Miri” and “Footsteps & Smiles”: the former a model of balladic restraint working up to harmonic passages of beguiling modernity; the latter a riot of clave rhythm and momentum, with shades of boogaloo and what one could call chamber-funk (solos by Shipp and Cohen, a breakout piano statement from Gonçalves, and a funk breakdown with bari sax and pizzicato cello keep this whimsical, anarchic tune on steady course). “Morning Melody (Epilogue),”Cohen’s brief sendoff and set closer, coaxes the distinctive voices of individual instruments in turn, then places them in combination, offering a more intimate view of the band’s inner workings.        

  Two more resourceful Lev-Ari arrangements complete the program: the traditional Mexican “La Llorana” (crying woman) opens in an abstract rubato vein with achingly dissonant sectional harmony, setting up another breathtaking clarinet melodic feature for Cohen and an ensemble showpiece for the band. “Lonesome Train,” composed by Gene Roland for the Stan Kenton band in 1952, is recrafted by Lev-Ari to suit the Tentet’s idiosyncratic strengths. Cohen and her bandmates seem to evoke the swinging, noir-ish vocal part performed by Kay Brown. On both these arrangements, Bailey contributes enticing elements of grit and grain, well outside the more traditional jazz guitar approach. 

The Anat Cohen Tentet has grown from workshops at Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn to multi-night runs of rousing club experiences at the Jazz Standard in Manhattan as well as high-profile engagements at the Newport, Monterey and SFJazz Festivals. The band’s upcoming Los Angeles double bill with the great Maria Schneider Orchestra (at Disney Hall, April 19, 2020) positions the Tentet in the first line of large ensemble jazz of our time. In addition to Cohen’s staggering versatility (on clarinet and tenor saxophone as well), and her mature command of such a wide range of musical idioms, she has found in the Tentet a vehicle like no other: one band that can explore all the styles and artistic pathways to which she’s so eagerly dedicated herself. In the process she weaves these diverging strands into a style and an experience all her own.     

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