Pianist and composer Ryan Cohan is a master of creating harmony from contrasts. Over the years his works have incorporated many diverse influences and have become progressively more impressionistic. His acclaimed 2013 release The River even inspired painter Ellen Priest to create an abstract canvas that was displayed at St Peter's Church in Manhattan. Cohan's sixth release as a leader, the sublime Originations, matches his previous oeuvre in brilliance and innovation.
For this album, Cohan has delved into his own Middle Eastern roots and has produced a six-part suite that is simultaneously intimate and cinematic, captivating and provocative. Opening with cellist Hope DeCelle's solemn arco strings, "The Hours Before Dawn" starts off on a definite Western classical note. Cohan's cascading, textured chords, however, brim with Arabic motifs. Kaia String Quartet alternates with Cohan in playing the wistful melody, creating a dramatic East-meets-West tension. Cohan is not making pastiche music here; his own pianism is as steeped in spontaneity as any practitioner of jazz. Percussionist Omar Musfi and drummer Michael Raynor lay down a Levantine groove over which the band adds a multicolored fairy tale that is truly Oriental—yet eschews Orientalism.
The poignant "Imaginary Lines" starts off with multi-reedist John Wojciechowski's flittering flute that soars and dives over Cohan's dense phrases and the rhythm section's percolating vamps. Trumpeter Tito Carrillo and clarinetist/saxophonist Geof Bradfield echo briefly the tune's main motif before Cohan launches into a stimulating improvisation, buoyed by bassist James Cammack and Raynor. The dual violins of Victoria Moreira and Naomi Culp engage in a fiery dance within the symphonic ensemble sound. Carillo's breathtakingly agile solo ushers in the conclusion.
Bradfield's forlorn bass clarinet marks the tender and nostalgic "A Seeker's Soul." The spiritual piece features the haunting, sparse strings of violist Amanda Grimm along with Moreira, Culp, and DeCelle, as well as Cohan's reverberating and ethereal pianism. The main mystical theme repeats in hypnotic patterns before it melts into a mesmerizing silence.
Ingenious and elegant, Cohan's artistry continues to mature with each recording. Over the past decade Cohan has gone beyond the narrow definitions of genrism—creating truly universal music that reflects cross-cultural, polyphonic peace and joy. Originations is singularly unique in its depth and breadth and is a charismatic and absorbing disc.