Anat Cohen is a phenomenon! She is also a gifted artist/musician who has assembled an equally talented trio of musicians who collectively have blended the traditions of jazz with modern ideas of improvisation. On this evening at the 21C Museum Hotel Durham, she brought her current group consisting of Cohen on clarinet and soprano saxophone, Gary Versace on piano, Joe Martin on bass and Daniel Freedman on drums.

Her set, the second of two performed on this evening (both were sold out), consisted of five pieces, four of which were originals. Many of these had the feeling of a combination of classic jazz, Latin American (mainly Brazilian or Afro-Cuban), and Klezmer music. More than a few times one had the urge to get up and dance. (Cohen did – the audience couldn’t!) Her mastery of the clarinet here, in both dynamics and the ability to bend the notes over a wide range of octaves in a creative and melodic fashion, was a clear demonstration of why she has consistently won awards over the last decade at the top of critics’ and readers’ polls, internationally.

In addition to the basic melodic and unique lyrical tone Coehn attained on the clarinet, many of her solos incorporated so-called “free jazz,” apparently devoid of melody and rhythm; however, this was not the case – the freedom had a pulse provided by her rhythm section. In other words, the music always had continuity and was not “choreographed chaos” that often seems to pass as so-called modern jazz. In fact, it was “swinging.” Of particular note was a piece based on music of the acclaimed Brazilian guitarist/singer Milton Nascimento that featured solos from all with Cohen playing soprano sax. The ballad, “Roses Do Not Speak” (written by Cartola), provided the template for a particularly expressive piano solo by Versace and extraordinary clarinet solo by Cohen demonstrating her ability to conjure up colorful tones and dynamic lyricism that are at once melodic and rhythmic.

As if to indicate that the group is comfortable playing great standards as well as less well-known tunes, the Edith Piaf classic “La Vie en Rose” (Louiguy) with an accented backbeat served as a subtle contrast to the other pieces in the program, but not to their detriment. In fact, it gave credence to the artists that they were just as adept at being creative in improvisation on instantly recognizable tunes as perhaps the less familiar ones, even possibly their own.

The final piece of the evening turned out to be the most innovative. It was a composition by drummer Freedman entitled “All Brothers.” The context was set by establishing an up-tempo rhythmic pattern with a 6/8 backbeat feel on the drums, bells and cymbals using his hands as well as sticks. Interestingly, this morphed into a superb interactive bass solo by Martin. Not surprisingly, the infectious beat obviously encouraged a rhythmically inspired soprano saxophone solo (with Klezmer overtones) from Cohen and one from pianist Versace. An impressive drum solo from Freedman to complete the piece demonstrated not only his musicality and use of dynamics, but his astounding technical ability as a percussionist.

This concert was one in a series of first class jazz events to be held in an intimate setting. As Cohen commented, such venues are becoming few and far between. Duke Performances are to be complimented on continuing to host such occasions in a relaxing venue where good food and drink are available.