Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen. Photo by Shervin Lainez

Israeli clarinetist brings Jewish style to Brazilian music


It’s no great novelty when a jazz musician announces a foray into Brazilian music. American players, in particular, have been investigating the music of the bossa nova songwriters for well over 50 years.

But rather than a samba excursion or yet another program of Antonio Carlos Jobim tunes, clarinet virtuoso Anat Cohen’s new album, “Rosa Dos Ventos” (Anzic), delves into Brazil’s choro style.

Choro (a Portuguese word pronounced sho-ro) is a string and flute instrumental music made by small, informal ensembles. It’s a kind of Brazilian bluegrass — or klezmer — with a tradition that dates back to the late 19th century in Rio de Janeiro. It’s lively and exuberant, yet, as Cohen shows, it has the capacity to incorporate different musical forms.

This is music made in the corner café, rather than the concert hall. Like the sounds of Cuba, the Caribbean and Africa, it found its way to America’s biggest 19th-century port city, New Orleans. Cohen’s interpretation comes to the Blue Whale in downtown Los Angeles on May 6, as part of a 15-city tour that stretches from Seattle to Milan and takes in Germany, France and the Czech Republic.

Born in Tel Aviv and a longtime resident of New York, Cohen is no stranger to Los Angeles, having played Disney Concert Hall with Cuban diva Omara Portuondo and been featured at the Playboy Jazz Festival.

“Rosa Dos Ventos” (literally “wind rose,” or weathervane) features her horn coupled with Trio Brasileiro, a choro group with whom she recorded in Rio.

“What I love about choro is that it’s open to different influences. I love the mix of Afro-Brazilian roots, samba, baiao, even rock,” she said in a recent interview. Indeed, over the swirling guitar and bandolim (Brazilian mandolin) lines and rhythms, her clarinet exults in soaring joy and heaves in chalumeau sorrow — one minute an ecstatic wedding ensemble, the next a cantor with the sorrows of the world on his brow.

Cohen began on the clarinet but was a multireed player in New York when she discovered choro in 1999. “After years of playing the saxophone, it made me want to play the clarinet again,” she said. “I started to play this music weekly.”

She met bandolim player Dudu Maia at a choro workshop in Port Townsend, Wash. “We were both teaching,” Cohen said. “We met and we played, and I felt right at home.”

Broadcaster Sergio Mielniczenko’s radio shows on KPFK-FM (90.7) are a beacon to Southern California Brazilians and lovers of his country’s music. He has played Cohen’s recordings on his “Brazilian Hour” show.

“She’s excellent,” he said, “because she not only has the feel of choro but she interprets it.”

Reminded of the parallel elements heard in choro and klezmer, Mielniczenko added, “They’re so interestingly similar. Some Brazilian musicians of the late 19th century and early 20th century studied in Paris, and they surely brought back what they heard there. And there are a number of great Brazilian Jewish musicians, like pianist Daniel Taubkin and saxophonist Ivo Perelman.”

Told that the late clarinet great Artie Shaw was dismissive of klezmer music because, in his experience, the people who played it were amateurs, Cohen sounded surprised. “Traditional choro is like klezmer,” she said. “The people who played it originally were postal workers and dentists — anything but professional musicians. And like klezmer, it wasn’t written down, it was passed along from one person to another. It was only notated later on. But you need to have the right heart and the musicianship to play them both.”

“People might hear Jewish elements in everything I play, whether it’s choro, European or New Orleans music, or anything else,” Cohen said.  “I was taught to play like a cantor sings — with a strong sense of melody. I want to take a melodic line and express it as powerfully as I can. You hear that in all of the great Jewish jazz horn players, like Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and Stan Getz.”

So, does an Israeli living in New York and playing Brazilian music feel American or something else?

“I’m a hundred percent Israeli,” Cohen said. “But when I go to Brazil or any other part of the world, I want to feel like I’m part of the local culture, and it’s the same in the U.S. You keep your individuality but respect the surroundings.”

The Blue Whale is a listening room and that seems to suit Cohen. “I’ve got no tricks,” she said. “I’m no magician. We’ve just got great music.”

Anat Cohen and Trio Brasileiro will perform at 9 p.m. on May 6 at the Blue Whale, 123 E. S. Onizuka St., Suite 301, Los Angeles. Tickets are $20. For more information, go to bluewhalemusic.com.

+