Jon Ross | 11 NOV 2019
Without more than a quick glance at the audience, clarinetist Anat Cohen took her place in front of a horseshoe of musicians at Kennesaw State University’s Bailey Performance Center on Saturday and sounded the first few introductory notes of “Happy Song,” an original, danceable rallying cry for her large band, Tentet. Those rosy notes soon turned to liquid lines of swing eighths before the rest of her 10-piece band slowly joined in with the melody. The band then moved through song after song, without pause, for nearly 90 minutes.
Cohen is a vibrant and joyful clarinet player, and her exciting band is an odd sort. The standard piano-bass-drums rhythm section – which was led at KSU by the phenomenal Gary Versace, who switched between the keyboard and an accordion – was buffeted by an electric guitar, a vibraphone and a cello. Cohen’s clarinet was supported by a front line of baritone saxophone, trumpet and trombone. But even with so many varied instrumental voices on Saturday, not a single note seemed excessive or out of place.
In the metro area, hearing top-flight jazz performers outside of a festival requires an embrace of the concert hall. Atlanta no longer really has a club setting that attracts the top international players of the day (although surprises abound at Gallery 992, the Bakery and other inventive venues). University performing arts centers in the area offer a wide range of listening experiences, and the performance space at Kennesaw State is one of the best. The room is intimate enough for small-group settings, and for larger bands, the sound is pure and clean.
Cohen’s Tentet is built on original music that is intricately constructed from an encyclopedic knowledge of music history. Many of the pieces feel like cousins to the contrapuntal, collective improvisation of New Orleans Jazz, and other tunes contain Jewish and Middle Eastern music, especially the oom-pah rhythms and the vertiginous, intoxication of klezmer tunes.
The breadth of the music meant that things worked that shouldn’t have. Guitarist Sheryl Bailey at times sounded like she could have been sheathed in clouds of fog as lasers danced off her white Stratocaster, an adoring crowd thrusting their lighters in the air, but it was perfect in the moment. Christopher Hoffman’s cello should have been superfluous, but his solo dialogue with bassist Tal Mashiach was a highlight in an evening packed with musical delights.
As single units presented on a recording, these pieces can be electrifying. On Saturday, solos bridged the gaps between songs and tunes blurred into one another, so that there wasn’t a break in the action. The show built and built and built, and the result was so much more than a collection of jazz tunes by an accomplished ensemble. Anat Cohen’s Tentet created a joyful, giddy feeling in the hall that was almost startling to behold. The phrase “jam band” came to mind.
Saturday night, Cohen was the conductor, main musical voice and leader of an evening that created an elevated sense of her band’s music by expertly bridging separate pieces into one longform work. The effect was simply astonishing. Perhaps Phish, that famous band of noodlers that paste together tunes to create lengthy sprawls of music, has had it right all along. ■
Jon Ross writes about jazz, pop and classical music for Downbeat magazine, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta Magazine and other publications.