Anat Cohen's itinerary offers a glimpse into a fruitful jazz career that swings and moves almost as briskly as her music does.
So far this year, the Israel-born clarinetist and saxophonist has performed in France and Italy, and gigs in almost every major jazz or jazz-related venue in her adopted home, New York. Before her concert Thursday at Berea College with her own quartet, which includes the industrious pianist Bruce Barth, Cohen will play as part of a new big-band project assembled by celebrated trumpeter Nicholas Payton at Lincoln Center, and with the Mingus Orchestra in one New York's most monstrously hip jazz joints, The Jazz Standard.
But on the afternoon of our phone conversation, Cohen found herself in the unlikely jazz metropolis of Portland, Ore. She was there to teach several clinics before heading to a festival gig with her brothers, trumpeter Avishai Cohen and soprano saxophonist Yuvai Cohen. After that, she would board a red-eye flight to New York and head directly into rehearsals with Payton's band.
Dizzying? Yeah, a little. But here's a Portland moment that Cohen eagerly describes as her "coolest gig ever:" playing the National Anthem solo on clarinet before a nationally televised NBA game between the Portland Trailblazers and Los Angeles Lakers.
"I have to say that standing in the middle of a basketball court playing solo clarinet with 20,000 people around me was so much fun," Cohen said. "But there was no illusion. I knew they were not there to hear me. It wasn't about that. It was just so special to be part of that moment.
"There was this incredible tension. Everybody always finds it in that moment toward the end of The Star-Spangled Banner when people start screaming. I was like a little kid."
Ironically, the immediacy of such a seemingly non-jazz moment is at the heart of what drew Cohen to jazz in the first place.
"My challenge, wherever I go to play jazz, is to communicate this experience of creating something in the moment," Cohen said. "It really doesn't matter what music we're playing. The intention is to create something special and share it and communicate with you, the audience. We want everyone to come out of our shows saying, 'These people, they mean what they play.'"
When Cohen and her brothers were growing up in Tel Aviv, Israel, jazz was not plentiful. She learned clarinet, and she played in a Dixieland group and big band at the Jaffa Conservatory as a teen. That introduced her to the tenor saxophone.
"That's how I got into jazz. It was more by playing it than hearing it. Then people started giving us recordings. Finally, a record store opened that just sold jazz. Then it was like, 'Hey, check this out' and 'Here, listen to this.'"
Among the first jazz masters to click profoundly with Cohen was the great New Orleans clarinetist Sidney Bechet.
"There was this fire, this passion in his playing," she said. "Bechet recorded in an era when people really needed to play with a full sound just in order to be heard in a band. There was something so strong and powerful about his playing. People who play with that kind of passion, those are the musicians I am attracted to."
Cohen, who is in her mid-30s, moved to the United States in 1996 to attend the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston. From there, she began forging a name for her music in New York's numerous jazz haunts while broadening her artistic profile in Boston by playing Brazilian, Argentine, Afro-Cuban and klezmer music.
Today, Cohen is very much the jazz entrepreneur. Her newest recording, Clarinetwork, a celebration of Benny Goodman music recorded at New York's Village Vanguard, is the latest in a series of fine albums on her own Anzic label. Cohen's music has earned some impressive accolades of late, including clarinetist of the year in a 2010 readers poll conducted by the longstanding jazz magazine DownBeat.
"I'm grateful for the recognition and I'm grateful to be in all of these wonderful situations that allow me to grow," she said. "But this music is part of an endless journey for me. It's a journey where I constantly play with people that make me want to get better by inspiring me to dive into new territories.
"So the recognition is incredible. But I also feel it hasn't changed my journey."