4 1/2 STARS
There is a risk in creating art that reflects in essence, one's own personal journey. What that journey reveals within the context of one life may not carry the same value to a collective audience. In the case of Chicago based composer/pianist Ryan Cohan, his explorative delve into his own bi-cultural roots as presented on his new release, Originations (Origin, 2020), would not resonate with listeners if the music itself was not thrilling. Music provides unity like no other communicative medium, the absence of linguistic perception enables the art to reverberate in a truly dynamic way. It engages the heart, soul and mind in such a way that engenders empathy, understanding, and justice. On Originations , Cohan convenes a wide array of musical influences steeped in his familial origins in Jewish and Arab culture. Cohan's original pieces are scored for an eleven-piece chamber jazz ensemble, consisting of his usual septet, and a traditional string quartet. The narrative of the music reflects the human and spiritual connections between disparate cultures. The seamless blend of contemporary classical music, jazz harmony and improvisation, and Middle Eastern/North African influences enables Cohan to speak to his cultural roots in an original and expressive way.
Cohan added The Kaia String Quartet to his usual septet format that employs the talents of top shelf Chicago jazz musicians. He accessed his Jewish upbringing assimilated with reawakened awareness of his Arab lineage rooted in Palestine. Removing border lines and faith-based biases, Cohan composed and played through this bi- cultural lens. The result is a dynamic suite of compositions created from a broad palette of musical traditions.
The opening salvo, "The Hours Before Dawn," begins with a cello line that ascends like a prayer of hope. The following ostinato, featuring Cohan's piano, gives the listener the first glimpse of Arabic influence that stretches from Palestine to Andalucia. The piece winds into "Imaginary Lines," reminding us of the indifference music has for artificial borders of any kind. It finds a way to express that Cohan's perceived work of musical dualism indeed reflects a powerful whole, vibrating on the same wavelength. Multi- reedist John Wojciechowski delivers a clarinet solo that can easily glide between klezmer and jazz mediums. Wojciechowski makes major contributions throughout the album on flute, alto flute and tenor saxophone as well. The melodic interludes combined with spaces provided for improvised solos encapsulate the vibe of the piece as a whole. What one would anticipate, a wandering back and forth between two distinct musical cultures, instead resounds as the intermingling of two voices singing from the same text. Cohan's rollicking solo reminds us of his pedigree as a jazz pianist, and his broad imagination as an improviser. Bassist James Cammack, drummer Michael Raynor, and percussionist Omar Musfi deserve major recognition for underpinning the winding, angular narrative that unfolds from start to finish. Trumpeter Tito Carillo takes this, the suite's most dynamic point, out with his fluttering, thick sound. The improvised solos from the entire collective are as melodically spirited and vibrant as the melodies scored thoughtfully by Cohan.
"Heart" lays back a bit emotionally, building again on Carillo's elegant playing. Cohan's brilliant articulation and broad-based imagination are aptly present as he weaves his solo within a dense harmonic canvas. There is a tremendous, emotive peak to the tune that settles into a balanced, centering vibe. It is a perfect segue into "Sabra," a tune that ultimately opens up the music rhythmically, with Raynor and Musfi supplying the energy that enables the music to blend dynamic currents into one main flow. Sabra is a desert plant, whose sweet, soft center is encased in thick skin and thorns, a way to represent the tenacity and warm-heartedness of Israeli Jews. Cohan's solo features a powerful left hand driving the music forward, adding colorful passages that flow into Wojciechowsky's brief, edge-defining tenor solo.
Saxophonist Geof Bradfield leads the ensemble into "A Seeker's Soul," a piece that Cohan describes as "possessing a restless curiosity to discover the world beyond oneself, along with the requisite courage to live one's authentic nature; a sense that where we are heading is more important than where we came." That wisdom is expressed beautifully by Bradfield, who bears a haunting similarity in terms of actual sound to the great Wayne Shorter.
The closer, "Essence," is a bit more spatial, opening in lively pizzicato, featuring the fine string quartet that is the tie that binds Cohan's wide-ranging work together. Violinists Victoria Moreira and Naomi Culp, violist Amanda Grimm and cellist Hope DeCelle, provide the current that runs through each piece. Whether playing scored melodic passages, or providing support for improvised solos, the textural dynamic they provide makes Cohan's conception as a whole, work in a unified manner.
Music is the language of the world. It is there where world culture can freely dance as one. We learn that our perceived differences are actually strengths that create an indomitable peace. With Originations, Cohan takes us yet a few steps closer to just that.