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Woodwind virtuoso Anat Cohen to bring jazz quartet to JCC

Anat Cohen

Israeli-born clarinetist and saxophonist Anat Cohen will bring her quartet to the Tucson Jewish Community Center sculpture garden on March 22 for an evening of jazz under the stars. The concert, hosted by UA Presents, starts at 7 p.m. and will showcase her new CD “Luminosa,” with its Brazilian inspiration, and other gems from her extensive discography.

Cohen was voted Clarinetist of the Year eight years in a row by the Jazz Journalists Association. She has topped the clarinet category in both the critics and readers polls in DownBeat magazine every year since 2011, and was DownBeat’s Rising Star Jazz Artist of the Year in 2010.

“Luminosa,” Cohen’s seventh album as a band leader, will be released on March 17. The title means “luminous” in Portuguese. “I chose a Portuguese word to describe the way I feel when I play music,” Cohen told the AJP. “It is a celebration of Brazilian sounds, but also includes some of my original songs. This album is complex in terms of guest artists and sounds. It has a lot of different colors.”

Cohen grew up in Tel Aviv in a musical family and began playing clarinet at age 12. She attended the Tel Aviv School for the Arts, but her love for jazz began when she played clarinet in a Dixieland band at the Jaffa Music Conservatory. At 16, she joined the school’s big band and took up tenor saxophone. That year she also entered the Thelma Yellin High School for the Arts, where she majored in jazz. After graduation, she played tenor sax in the Israeli Air Force band.

A scholarship brought her to the Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1996. Her older brother, Yuval, was already a student at Berklee. Her younger brother, Avishai, joined them later.

“I feel very blessed to have two brothers who have inspired me and accompanied me,” Cohen says. “Music keeps us together, keeps us on the same path, although inside music, we’re very different from each other. We each play differently, deal with different kinds of music and have different musical circles.” The siblings have recorded four albums as the 3 Cohens Sextet — three of them produced by Cohen’s own label, Anzic Records. When they perform together, Cohen notes, they don’t even have to look at each other on stage; they feel each other through the music.

After graduating from Berklee in 1999, Cohen moved to New York and spent the next decade touring with an all-woman big band, the Diva Jazz Orchestra. She also worked in Brazilian groups like the Choro Ensemble and Duduka Da Fonseca’s Samba Jazz Quintet, and performed the music of Louis Armstrong with David Ostwald’s Gully Low Jazz Band.

“About 10 years ago the clarinet became more dominant in my life,” Cohen says. “The technique from the saxophone gave me a bigger vocabulary than maybe I would have dared to do if I’d stayed only on the clarinet. … What really brought me back to the clarinet was choro music. Clarinet is part of the traditional sound, of the origin of choro music.”

Cohen describes choro as “beautiful, instrumental Brazilian music that basically would be the equivalent to the music of New Orleans at the turn of the last century. It’s just fun, interactive, collective. You can go as deep as you want with this music.”

Being a female band leader occasionally has its challenges in a field dominated by men, Cohen says, but she holds her own and feels she has earned respect through her music. “Being an Israeli woman helps … as far as feeling comfortable as a jazz musician, knowing how to be direct, knowing how to express my opinions,” Cohen says. “Yes, sometimes I have to work harder. It’s kind of funny that in 2015 … people sometimes still have preconceptions about women. To tell you the truth, it doesn’t happen that often any more. I feel like when I go out there and I headline, people figure OK, if she’s headlining she must be doing something right.”

Her credits as a band leader include serving as music director of the Newport Jazz Festival Now 60! all-star band, which toured the country for the festival’s 60th anniversary in 2014. “Working with musicians, I usually let the music speak for itself,” Cohen said. “I try to first play music and communicate through this international language, and let the music do its job, which is basically to tell a story without words. You say, OK, this is who I am, this is how outgoing I can be, this is how strong I like to convey my ideas, this is how I communicate. And you can do all of that through playing music, without even saying anything. So once you stop the music, the words are just a continuation of the conversation you started musically.”

Tickets are available from Ticketmaster at http://tinyurl.com/anatcohentix or at the Centennial Hall Box Office, 621-3341, 1020 E. University Blvd. Tickets are $40, with discounts for students, seniors, groups and military.

Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is a feature writer and editor living in Tucson. She can be reached at [email protected]