Pianist, composer, and arranger Ryan Cohan has returned to the recording scene seven years since his last recording "The River." Not that the Chicago, IL-born-and-raised (and still lives) Cohan has been idle--he's appeared on a slew of recordings plus has been commissioned to write scores for several films, orchestras, and artists. Cohan, before the pandemic, still played throughout the United States as well as conducting clinics for high school students. And, he's been composing music for a story that has been gestating for a decade.
The music for 2013's "The River" was inspired by a tour that took Cohan to Africa. The new album, "Originations" (his debut on Origin Records), has its inspiration in Cohan's reunion with his long-estranged father who lives in Jordan. Even before meeting the paternal side of his family, the pianist felt comfortable walking the streets of the Middle-Eastern country. One can hear that in the music he's created to tell his story. The melodies and rhythms of the music point to that part of the world; his blend of reeds and string, the strident and piercing trumpet, the hand percussion plus the string quartet illuminate his ideas, bringing the experiences to life.
Even though Cohan does not bill "Originations" as a suite, the six-song, 51-minute, program certainly feels like one. The subtext of the music is the composer's coming terms with his parentage and his background, and how the music bridges the gap between countries in the region, doing so without an overt agenda. As he has worked with and recorded with most of these musicians in the past (save for the KAIA String Quartet plus percussionists Michael Raynor and Omar Musfi), he knows how to write for their "voices"--listening to the ensemble maneuver through the tricky rhythm patterns on "Imaginary Lines", one can hear their familiarity with the material and Cohan's trust in their ability. The "dancing" piano lines that open "Sabra" may remind some of the music of Third World Love, the quartet featuring trumpeter Avishai Cohen and bassist Omer Avital. The sensuous strings and bass lines create a flow that is enhanced by the excellent drumming and the use of Geof Bradfield's bass clarinet to shadow the bass lines. The leader's dazzling solo is framed by the hand percussion and the shimmering strings. One can hear the influence of maqam (Arabic melody modes) on this piece (and other songs). The lovely ballad "Heart" is graced by a lovely flugelhorn solo from Tito Carrillo--listen to how the clarinet and bass clarinet, trumpet, and strings move around behind the piano solo.
The final track on the album, "Essence", is also the longest (12:27). The opening 90 seconds spotlight the individual voices of the string quartet--when the full band enters, the music begins a fascinating journey with melodies springing up out of the rhythmical forward motion. A lengthy solo by John Wojciechowski (flute) leads to a drum break, then a restatement of an earlier theme, this time with a few more textures. There is a quick break then Cohan takes off on an wide-ranging and dizzying solo over the bass, trap drums, and hand percussion. One hears Latin beats mixing with Middle-Eastern; as the intensity increases, more voices come to support the percussion until the music comes to an abrupt climax. Makes you want to go back and listen again.
And you should listen again to "Originations." Climb onto the rhythms, cling to the melodies, savor the arrangements, and, after a while, you fell that the emotional richness of the music stands out. Over his career, one that spans two+ decades, Ryan Cohan has been known for his great technique on piano. Listening to his three previous albums on Motema plus here on his Origin debut, you can really hears how he's grown as a composer and arranger as well as a storyteller.