By MORDECAI SPECKTOR
It’s a scenic drive down Hwy. 52, from the Twin Cities to Deccorah, Iowa. My wife, Maj-Britt Syse, and I took the three-hour journey to see the Anat Cohen Tentet perform Nov. 4 at Luther College. It’s good to get out of town now and then.
On the heels of the release of Cohen’s most recent album, Happy Song, on her Anzic Records label, the large ensemble of New York City-based jazz musicians flew to MSP and then drove south by Rochester and through Minnesota’s Amish country around the town of Harmony. Decorah lies just across the border.
In the way of Decorah tourism highlights, Vesterheim, the national Norwegian-American museum and heritage center (vesterheim.org), is located on Water Street, the main drag downtown. We didn’t visit the museum. However, we did visit Toppling Goliath Brewing Co., and sampled some of the award-winning products (tgbrews.com).
Luther College was created, in 1861, by the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to train ministers for its churches in the Midwest. The college, with a student body of about 2,300, sponsors the Center Stage Series, which brings varied musical acts, dance companies and theatrical productions to campus.
The Anat Cohen Tentet concert attracted a smallish crowd. The Center for Faith and Life auditorium was about half full, with students accounting for about a third of the audience.
The ensemble performed songs from the Happy Song album, which ranges over a number of genres, including “Anat’s Doina,” a klezmer suite in three parts. The middle section is “Der Gasn Nigun,” a traditional tune of the klezmer repertory that’s been covered by everybody. “Anat’s Doina” is alternately spooky and soaring, as Cohen takes flight on clarinet over the layer of sounds generated by the large ensemble.
Musical director and arranger Oded Lev-Ari, a Tel Aviv native and Cohen’s partner in Anzic Records, deserves great credit for the band’s sound. He’s really a genius arranger, who likely has studied the Ellington orchestra’s charts written by the great Billy Strayhorn.
It’s an exciting group to see in concert, as the music builds to a crescendo, then goes aslant and segues to solos by the talented musicians onstage. At various times, the sound evoked the Miles Davis band from the Bitches Brew era, the Benny Goodman big band or the classic Ellington orchestras.
In addition to Cohen on clarinet, the Tentet included three horn players: Nicholas Finzer, trombone; Owen Broder, baritone sax; and Stuart Mack, trumpet. On drums was Ferenc Nemeth, from Hungary; and Brazilian Rogerio Boccato also played percussion. Rubin Kodheli was a standout on cello, playing several captivating solos. Vitor Gonçalves, also from Brazil, played piano and accordion. Sheryl Bailey, on electric guitar, provided the jazz ensemble’s rock vibe. And Tal Mashiach, a young Israeli, provided the solid bass underpinning.
At the outset, Cohen led the group through several songs without a break. After nearly an hour of music, she greeted the Decorah audience and introduced the band members.
Oded Lev-Ari came out from the wings to conduct one song, and Cohen introduced him after the number.
The regular set concluded with “Kendougou Foly,” a song with infectious rhythms by Malian musical star Neba Solo, which is on Happy Song. Then the crowd wanted more.
For the first encore number, Cohen introduced the melancholy song “Goodbye,” composed by Gordon Jenkins and part of the Benny Goodman big band repertoire. That was followed by a tune in the choro genre — choro is sort of the New Orleans jazz of Brazil — “Espinha De Bacalhau,” by Severino Araújo, which featured Cohen and Gonçalves alternating fleet solos. Gonçalves’ fingers flew over the accordion keys, in what turned out to be the evening’s closer.
The Anat Cohen Tentet’s scintillating sounds made the shlep to Decorah well worthwhile.
The American Jewish World thanks Luther College Campus Programming, and the group’s director, Paul Atkins, for extending press courtesy.
(American Jewish World, 11.17.17)