The following conversation was recorded in person in Paris. It was transcribed by Michelle Lynch, and has been edited for concision and currency.
Daniel Medin: I’m curious about the Woman to Woman project, which now goes by the name of Artemis. How did it come about?
Anat Cohen: Renee Rosnes put the band together, basically we got together and we rehearsed, and then we performed at the Philharmonie in Paris and Luxembourg and it was a really great experience. It’s great, getting to work with the piano player Renee and Cécile [McLorin Salvant] and Noriko [Ueda] and Ingrid Jensen. I also got to play with Sylvia [Cuenca]. It’s nice to be in an all-female project where everybody is really putting in their positive energy and amazing musicianship. I love it.
I was wondering about the status of your other collaborations, like The Three Cohens, or the quartet. It seems a tremendous feat, given the separate careers and geographical distance between musicians, to keep all of them running.
Well, I think this is very different. Woman to Woman was supposed to be a one-time thing. The Three Cohens and my quartet—my quartet especially—those are ongoing projects. We’re going to be meeting, we’re going to be writing new music, making new albums, and doing more tours. The Three Cohens, for example, happens more in periods when we all find time and are available, and then we go on tour. Hopefully, we’ll have a good plan to have a new album released, in order to create some attention, and people will write about it and the shows, and then share the new music with others. Of course, we would like to play more. I love playing with my brothers—I’d like to be with them onstage all the time. I also like to be not onstage with them, because I love them very much. We often don’t get to be on the same continent at the same time. They’re going back to India. Avishai loves it there, and he keeps touring. He’s very busy and he’s doing well. It doesn’t always work with the two of us, and definitely not the three of us. So we have to, you know, do like adults do and plan much further in advance. We say, like, let’s meet next year in March, because we have to clear space. So it takes planning.
My quartet is an ongoing project. I have the same bunch of people that I’ve been playing with, regulars and subs, so if I get a gig tomorrow for my quartet I know whom I’m going to call and most of them already know the music. And of course, there’s always preparing a new album and writing and learning new music. For that, we get together to rehearse. If somebody can’t do it, I might call somebody I’ve never played with before and say, “Okay, meet you in sound check, and these are the songs we’re gonna play.” It’s like throwing a dinner party; you hope that the people are going to fit with the other people, because the music is inseparable from people’s personalities when you play jazz. It’s not like calling in a sub at a factory, where you just tell them, “Okay, you have to cut this, to this size, and you put it in this pack.” Maybe, then, the people are interchangeable, but when things become creative and one part has to fit with another part, you have to be flexible, and that’s when the music becomes tricky. People can be really amazing musicians, but their personality might clash with other personalities. So when you find a winning collaboration, a winning team, a bunch of people that like each other… Because, remember, we’re playing maybe one hour, and the other twenty-three hours of the day we’re traveling and sitting together, so those twenty-three hours have to feel good. Not every band even cares about it. I care about it. And of course, that one hour on stage has to feel really good, because the musical experience is ultimately about feeling. It’s what you create with the other musicians, the emotional impact you make, the emotional availability of everybody that enables you to express who you are and what you are without any walls. And we’re talking about music, but this is psychology.
It’s life… It’s everything.
Yeah, you hang out with people that make you feel that you can be who you are. You can be stupid, you can be funny, you can be smart. And they just let you be who you are. It’s the same in music. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a wild guess, but… Every project that I have started, every person that I played more than once with, it’s because it felt good, and so those were the people I would be playing with again. And some things are more mutual. I did a duo with Fred Hersch, a great piano player, and from the first time we played together it felt good. And there’s always the interest in playing together, but sometimes we have to wait two years until we see each other, sometimes we play four times a year. And it’s going to always be an ongoing thing because it felt right the first time.
The same thing happens with a lot of the Brazilian music projects that I do—because I’ve been playing choro music for a long time. I’ve also played with a fantastic drummer called Duduka Da Fonseca. He’s an amazing drummer, he played Jobim for many years. His wife, Maucha Adnet, sings; she also sang Jobim for like ten years. They are such an authority in Brazilian music, especially in bossa nova. The first time I played with Duduka, it felt right, and then he invited me to play in his band. Now, we’re talking about fifteen years ago already. And we’re not playing all the time. Sometimes I can’t, I’m too busy to even play with him once a year. But you know that when you play together, it feels right. It feels like we would always want to play together. But with this busy schedule as a touring musician, I don’t get to just experiment all the time with new musicians. You get to hear people—you go out to a festival and you hear somebody, and you’re like, “Wow. I want to play with that person.” Then, you sometimes have to wait a few years until you get a chance to do it. It doesn’t always happen right away.
How did Brazilian music come to you, or you to Brazilian music? What was the order?
I did not know that I grew up listening to Brazilian music, I wasn’t really aware that it was Brazilian—by great artists like Matti Caspi, who wrote Brazilian music in Israel. There were probably other people, but he did the really big translations of songs; and he did a lot of songs from the Tropicália Movement, but with Hebrew lyrics. So then he brought some musicians from Brazil to play, and also had some Portuguese lyrics combined with Hebrew lyrics. And I mean, I heard it, but I didn’t think about the world so much when I was growing up, I was in my little world. Even though I played jazz, it was just like, I knew the United States was somewhere. It was less global because it was before the internet, and we were just growing up in Israel. I thought many times that those were Israeli songs, with those rhythms that felt good for me.
And then years pass, and I go to study at Berklee College of Music, and there’s a great bass player there called Leonardo Chiolia; he was a student there and he asked me to play in his band. And then—this was really my biggest introduction to Brazilian music—Leonardo made a jazz quartet, but the repertoire was only Brazilian music. Now, it wasn’t Jobim songs, it was really MPB [Música Popular Brasileira]. The four of us were Berklee graduates, so we all had the jazz approach, and so we were like, “Okay, how do we take those songs, play those rhythms, Brazilian rhythms, but also improvise and make it jazz?”
And this went beyond bossa nova, right? Was it a different musical universe for you, a new vocabulary?
Well, the vocabulary and the rhythm is the same, I would say. The basic thing is always the same. For us, the challenge at that time was really how to figure out the form, because the American songbook was, at the time, a lot of standards. So you’re in AABA form, very simple forms. In Brazilian music, especially in a lot of the popular songs, there’s a different kind of form; if you want to make it jazz, you have to figure out how to improvise… it’s not as simple. You also have to figure out the rhythm. But I felt comfortable with those rhythms. It just felt natural for me. I started to play a lot in Boston with the Brazilian people that were playing there.
I played some shows with a flute player called Fernando. And he said, “Oh, here’s this music you can play for clarinet, it’s called choro music.” He arranged everything; I got a bunch of music to read. At the time, I was still focusing on the saxophone because I was playing tenor sax at Berklee. And when he said, “Oh, here’s some music to play on the clarinet,” I was like, “Okay, great!” Because I always felt like I was trying to play clarinet in jazz and everyone was like, “Why? Play saxophone, don’t play clarinet. It’s not cool to play clarinet.” So when I encountered choro music, I started practicing more seriously because it’s a lot of notes, it’s a lot of complex music. I had already started touring with a big band, and I remember going on the road and starting to practice the clarinet so I could play choro. This music, at the beginning, seemed impossible to me. It seemed like, “Oh, it’s so complicated, and I don’t understand those melodies. They’re not square… How do I even leave the melody? If I leave it, I don’t know how to…” It seemed impossible to me, really! But we did a few shows at Rial’s at Davis Square, I think, once a month for a few months.
That’s where I became exposed to Brazilian music, too—it was the community of expats in Boston.
Right, the community—again, we’re talking about people and music. They’re inseparable. So I was living in Boston, meeting those people, and it was 1998. The World Cup comes. It was always interesting to see how people prepared the party before the game—the kind of vibe, the hats, the warmth, together, and passion. There’s always passion in everything. Passion in drinking, passion in arguing, passion in playing, passion in being together. Really, there’s something so wonderful about it. It was really refreshing to me, the way people were celebrating life. And everyone was showing up to support the gigs, and dancing, and singing the songs. It was so new to me. Even now, you think about jazz in the United States, and you think about Israel… People sing old songs in Israel if they come to one of those evenings where everyone sits together and sings, but if you go to a party or a bar to listen to old music—unless they really love it, it’s not the same. It’s really mind-boggling. It’s really a beautiful thing.
So I was playing with these guys in Boston, and then I moved to New York. You know, in New York, even today, you don’t go to any gig with your music degree and say, “Hey, I graduated Berklee. Hire me.” It doesn’t work like that, you have to show up and play. If you can play, good. So I would take my saxophone, and show up to these gigs I’d been told about. No matter if it was late or not, I would go, and I would know one person who would introduce me to another person and they would say, “Oh yeah, she can play. Sit in!” So then I started to go every Sunday to sit in at the Zinc bar and do soprano. I was doing soprano sax a lot. It’s easy to carry. And then, I went to this place that had Brazilian music every Monday, really MPB. And there were singers: some people sing their music from Bahia, some people sing their samba, but the four singers rotate, and there are two guitars, and drums, and bass. I started to play with the band, learning some percussion; and I started to learn Portuguese. And I said “Okay, I love it, I will rehearse it every week.”
One day, this guy Pedro Ramos shows up, who was a guitar player from Sao Paolo. His friend, who also went to Berklee and used to play with me in Boston, was living in New York and was like, “Ah, there’s this girl, she likes choro.” So Pedro shows up and he’s like, “I hear you like choro, okay. Where do you live? Oh, Astoria, me too.” The next day he shows up to my place on his bicycle and walks into the living room. He gave me three songs, three choros, and a piece of paper and said, “Learn these three songs, we’re gonna go make a demo. I’ll pick you up in two days.” And we drove somewhere out of the city and we recorded, and then he started to look for gigs, and he got us some gigs playing choro in restaurants. I played this music with him, and there was a six-string guitar player named Gustavo who was playing the 7-string guitar lines, and there was a pandeiro player named Maurizio. And I was reading the music mainly, because I didn’t know anything that hard. But I was studying, slowly, every week. We always had a gig somewhere—restaurants, coffee places… And we played the same repertoire, slowly improving it.
That seems like a very organic way of learning the music. These days, I look up recommendations on Spotify and find the albums there—and it was a similar approach at the music libraries of universities before that. But what you’re describing is the traditional way.
Yeah, to learn by playing. Only Pedro really knew what choro was. Gustavo, the guitar player, had never played choro in his life. We were all learning this music as we went, and then I said, “You know what, I want to know more about this culture in Brazil. I’ve got to go to Brazil at some point.” And then at Cafe Wha?, this girl Daniela Sperman showed up. Daniela’s a saxophone player from Rio de Janeiro; she also specializes in choro. So she showed up, she said hi, and we got together the next day and we became friends. And she said, “Oh, you’ve got to come to Brazil.” Everybody said, “You’ve got to go to Brazil.”
So I went, at the end of 2000. I bought a ticket to stay for two months. Daniela had said, “You can stay at my house.” That was all I knew. And I really only knew Daniela—I mean, I knew some people from Brazil, but they were in New York. I knew the mother of Duduka, the mothers of various people, but not people I had met before. Daniela was single at the time, and so was I; she had a spare room, and she had a studio, and basically every day, morning to night, we just played choro. She was always working in town, playing in lots of bars and restaurants and clubs at the time. In the audience, you just grab whoever’s next to you and you start dancing. And people sing together and everybody’s participating. Somebody plays the spoon on a cup, and it’s okay, it’s not bothering the musicians when other people participate. It’s okay, it’s for everybody to share. I was like, “Wow, man, you should really belong to the people. Music is for everybody.”
So my introduction to choro, for real, was being in Rio de Janeiro with Daniela, meeting everybody through her. Because at that time, a lot of young talents were moving to Rio de Janeiro—the top names of today, the biggest stars. I met all of these people, and I started playing with them, and I got to learn some new song every day with Daniela. We practiced, we played, we’d go out, we’d play with everybody, and my life was never the same.
Back in New York, Pedro and I had this weekly gig playing in a French Bistro in the East Village. And I tell Pedro, “Listen, we have to expand the show community. Because I’m realizing how important that is, how music can bring people together.” I said, “It’s such an amazing music—I want to create this atmosphere of inviting, of sharing.” For seven years we played every Sunday at Jules Bistro; and whoever liked choro, heard about choro, was curious about choro in New York, knew we were the only band playing choro music. Musicians would come in busses, for example, touring; they would always come by New York and they would sit in. And we would always try to expand the community, we would tell all the jazz musicians, “Come learn this music, learn one song and play with us.” But it wasn’t so simple, because this music is complex. Jazz musicians develop their hearing for so long, and they want to come and just play solos—but with choro music, if you don’t play the melody, there’s no point in playing solos because it’s all about how to deliver the melody.
So between playing choro, playing with Duduka, playing at Cafe Wha? every week—I was doing a lot of things, but Brazilian music really filled a big part of my life. Choro is the music that really connected me to Brazil in the most serious way, and connected me to a lot of musicians. It showed me that being an improvising musician and being a person that can play in the moment… The word jazz is a very wide term and, of course, it’s American music, but there is a way to use instrumental music and improvised music which is not under the category of jazz for me. It can be Brazilian music, instrumental Brazilian music, and there’s such a big variety there.
Can you tell me a bit about the collaboration with Marcello Gonçalves?
I went to Brazil for a month in January 2016. A couple months before I showed up in Brazil, Marcello emailed me. “I have a dream”—that was the subject of the email. And in it he said, “I think I want to play the music of Moacir Santos, just guitar and clarinet.” And he sent me three songs that he was working on, but I wasn’t really paying attention. Of course, I didn’t reply, because I’m terrible at replying to emails. And then when I was in Brazil I saw Marcello and I said, “Hey, do you wanna hear these songs that you sent me?” And he was like, “Yeah, sure!” And I said, “Okay, let’s try.” He always likes to listen in a nice studio, and I said, “Well, you’ll want to record them so you have a reference of how it sounds, and maybe in the future you can record it.” And then we got to the studio and we just start playing and he shows me the music.
So he had already written several arrangements?
He’s been working on this music for a year. I mean, he’s known the music of Moacir Santos for a long time, but it’s usually written for big bands, and for other large ensembles. It’s like, “What is he gonna do with this music, as a guitar player?” Usually people transcribe from the album, but he just opened the song database and he said, “We’ll try to play all the piano parts, the melody, and everything, on the 7-string guitar.” And they said, “Whoa. It feels like it was written for the 7-string guitar. This is amazing.”
He started to work on this repertoire, arranging on the 7-string guitar with the clarinet. I don’t know if it was me or the clarinet. It’s such a nice range. So, basically, we went to the studio and he had everything. I was reading, he said, “Look, I don’t want to play the melody, da-da-da,” and gave me some instructions, and we started playing and it was magic from the beginning. We really, really liked it and we recorded a few songs. I said, “Listen, I’m going now away for ten days. When I come back, I have another day and a half here in Rio. If you want, let’s get together again and finish the album.” And that’s the album. He was so happy. And I fell in love with the music. It’s so jazzy, in a way, but also so Brazilian. It has what Moacir Santos used to call the “mojo,” the groove, the kind of African groove.
The arrangements on Outra Coisa resemble a kind of chamber music, the album sounds so intimate.
Yes, because it’s a duo. And we’re also sitting, and playing acoustically. We don’t have headphones, we’re just playing, working together. He had already been working on the arrangement, so it became very intimate, very fresh, because I was playing it for the first time. And that’s the album Outra Coisa. I really fell in love with his beautiful melodies; they’re really a turn on. Moacir Santos’ music, it’s beautiful. And so that’s kind of the quick way of the story about the new album.
The other guys, the Trio Brasileiro, those are people that I’ve recorded with before. It’s a trio that I also met through choro—we met teaching choro in a choro camp outside of Seattle. From the first time we played together, it felt like, “Wow! Something here feels really right. It’s amazing.” So we got together in 2013. I know it came out last year, but we recorded Alegria Da Casa in 2013. I said, “Guys, I’m coming to Brazil.” I was going to play a concert there. I said, “Guys, let’s get together and make an album together.” We put it out, finally, in 2015. And then when I knew I was going to be in Brazil again, I said, “Guys, we can make another album.” The idea for Rosa Dos Ventos was the wind rose, which is basically what sailors use to check the wind. So the idea was that we bring all our influences, the four of us, and each one brings something to the music.
As opposed to, as it were, choro standards and originals inspired by earlier albums. This one, I recall listening to and going, “Wait. This is oriental.”
Exactly. So, each person brought their own music. It’s only original compositions; we’re not doing any covers or anything. And it was really beautiful. Dudu has his home studio—a lot of people record in his house—so we all came to stay for one week in his house, and we just played the songs for each other, taught each other the songs, and learned them. “Okay, this feels right? Okay, let’s record. Boom.” One song. Next song. “Let’s learn, let you play that, I’ll play that, da-da-da, okay, let’s go, record.” And every day we started to accumulate more: two songs, three songs. And then, after a few days, we had an album. We just finished a long tour for the release of Rosa Dos Ventos, the green album. For me, it’s been a wonderful experience, because we’re playing original compositions. We would start the show with one traditional choro so people knew what it was, and then we would just play our own music. People reacted so beautifully to the songs, and it was a really wonderful experience to share our own music. It feels so personal, and people feel that it’s personal, and they get attracted to that. Of course, the duo is also really personal because it’s so intimate. I love the guys, I love playing with them. It’s like some kind of chamber music. It’s just awesome.
You have to know about Brazilian music to play choro. If people want to play bossa nova, they can sound more or less in the style maybe; samba is more common, too. But choro is so specific, and it’s really hard to get people to play it. I can play the melody with jazz musicians sometimes, I’ll play one choro. But the feel is really… It’s hard to get. My quartet is people that have been really dealing with world music a lot, and they have certain flexibility in expanding the lexicon of phrases. So, it takes a minute. You have to listen to get a certain feel, and then you work on it.
Anat Cohen is a New York City-based jazz clarinetist, saxophonist, and bandleader from Tel Aviv, Israel. Her most recent recordings of Brazilian music include Outra Coisa: The Music of Moacir Santos (with 7-string guitarist Marcello Gonçalves) and Anat Cohen & Trio Brasiliero: Rosa Dos Ventos. A complete listing of recordings can be found at her website.
Daniel Medin, co-editor of Music & Literature, is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at the American University of Paris and a director of its Center for Writers and Translators.
Banner image: Anat Cohen (center) performing with Artemis at the Newport Jazz Festival 2018. Credit: Irene Trudel, reproduced with permission.