With a ferocious, rafters-rattling sound, scurrying, cutting-edge improvisations, dizzying eclecticism and, by all accounts, a charismatic presence that overflows the bandstand, Anat Cohen appears on the brink of taking the jazz world by storm. And since the clarinet has emerged as her primary instrument, the Israeli native could become the most prominent jazz player on the long-neglected licorice stick since Benny Goodman.
It's a comparison that might rankle her a bit, simply because the clarinet's fall from grace has kept it overwhelmingly associated with the King of Swing.
"It's pretty incredible how famous and successful he was in 1938, and we are in 2010 and yet the clarinet is still associated with Benny Goodman," Cohen said by phone from New York recently. "Most people know it as a swing instrument -- a specific style. It's not the same as a tenor saxophone, as far as the evolution and how many people were innovating on the instrument."
Still, she said, "Benny Goodman has a respected place in my heart." In fact, Goodman essentially is responsible for Cohen's first local visit as a bandleader. Next Sunday at the Dakota Jazz Club she'll lead a stellar quartet -- pianist Benny Green, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash -- premiering the road version of their just-released album "Clarinetwork: Live at the Village Vanguard," recorded last July at the iconic New York jazz club.
The session came about when Vanguard owner Lorraine Gordon asked Cohen to put together a celebration of the clarinet.
"Realizing that it was Benny Goodman's [birth] centennial, and knowing how much she loves Benny Goodman, I figured it's a great opportunity to play his repertoire, which I really hadn't done," she said. "So I called some of the swingingest musicians I know. Choosing the repertoire was very easy because Benny Goodman recorded almost every possible standard. We didn't really try to play a certain way -- we just let the music take us wherever it wants to go."
All the destinations are dazzling, from wonderfully warm versions of ballads such as "Body and Soul" to wild, kinetic runs through "St. James Infirmary" and "Sweet Georgia Brown."
Now in her mid-30s, Cohen has had a profound impact on the New York scene since arriving in 1999. She has played in a boggling array of ensembles and styles: traditional and modern jazz, big band, chamber music, samba, choro, tango. She recorded four additional, critically acclaimed albums as a leader, as well as discs with brothers Yuval (saxophone) and Avishai (trumpet) as 3 Cohens, Waverly Seven (a tribute to Bobby Darin) and the Jason Linder Big Band, among others. All were released on her own label, Anzic, which has been credited with invigorating the New York jazz scene.
"I've always belonged to a bunch of different bands," she said. "The best part about living in New York is that you are able to play with different people in different styles in the same week. It's really part of who I am as a musical person. I try to incorporate everything that I encounter."
Although she started studying clarinet at age 12 in Tel Aviv and was soon immersed in traditional New Orleans music ("I absolutely adored it"), she eventually took a long detour on tenor sax. "When I got into high school, clarinet was not really in fashion. Everybody had electric bands."
It wasn't until she attended Boston's Berklee College of Music that an instructor overheard her playing clarinet and urged her to pursue it, which she did with a growing arc of atypical influences, particularly Brazilian choro, a predecessor of samba.
"My influences, I have to confess, are less of the clarinet players and more people like [saxophonists] John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon, and [trumpeters] Miles Davis and Lee Morgan. The music that really brought me back to the clarinet was folkloric music, from Brazil, from Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela. Choro music, there is interaction, improvisation, melody interpretation. It can be very virtuosic, it can be very melancholic. It was just wonderful and very demanding, so my fingers had to run up and down the instrument."