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Story by Brad Walseth
Photos by John Broughton
In early 2008, pianist Ryan Cohan and his quartet toured East Africa as part of U.S. State Dept. outreach program. The tour - which took the musicians through Rwanda, the Congo, Uganda and Zimbabwe - immersed Cohan and his band in the rich culture of the region and allowed them the opportunity to connect with the people they met. The group's travels through these countries - not only performing for the people, but also with local artists - affected the members deeply. The hardships the people endure and their life-affirming spirit in the face of poverty, corruption, violence, genocide and misery obviously touched the Americans and inspired them to compose new music based on their experiences. Saxophonist Geof Bradfield performed his stellar suite based on his African journey last at the Cultural Center. Now, on three occasions last week, bandleader Cohan's highly anticipated composition, entitled The River was premiered.
Assisting Cohan in presenting this project was one of finest groups assembled: Bradfield on saxophones and bass clarinet, John Wojociechowski on saxes and flutes, Tito Carillo on trumpet and flugelhorn, Jon Deitemyer on drummers, Lorin Cohen on bass and Victor Gonzales on percussion. The first half of the concert consisted of this exceptional group performing Cohan original's "Roscoe Street" and "You and Me" (from Ryan's soon-to-be-released quartet album), along with Victor Feldman's "Joshua." These songs showed the power of this ensemble - with each player a master of his instrument. Wojociechowski started out on tenor, with Bradfield entering on soprano, but neither reed player would stick to any one instrument the entire night. Carillo's golden tones were entrancing as always, while the tight rhythm section mates produced powerful locomotion.Cohan himself is a marvelous player - effortlessly producing waves of glorious notes with his large, yet sensitive hands (not unlike Mulgrew Miller). Elements of such players as Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Monk, classical composers and even jazz fusion players like Chick Corea and Don Grolnick can be heard in his style, but he has merged these influences into a sound of his own. Hearing these excellent songs performed by such first class musicians would have been more than enough for most nights, but the second half was still to come.
Before beginning, Cohan spoke of the effect his African experience had on him and the depth of sincerity shone in his eyes. It was clear that he had returned from the continent as a changed man. Starting things off with a bluesy solo piano, he was joined in a "Call & Response" with the other members of his band. "Arrival" featured an exciting percussion section, Lorin Cohen beating his bass, Tito on flugelhorn, Bradfield on bass clarinet and Wojociechowski on soprano sax. Before the end of the song, Bradfield would be on tenor - and this type of switching made for compositions richly enhanced by the various colors that can be produced by these players working together. Between each composition, short improvised sections in solo or duo cleverly acted as a bridge between the thorough-composed main songs. "Storm Rising" presented the image of the violent conflicts of the region, driven by an insistent piano motif and swelling to violent heights, before kicking into a walking bass, burning jazz number with Carillo on fire and members trading fours.
The haunting "Forsaken" (dedicated to the victims of the Rwandan civil war) featured sad, bluesy piano and Carillo on miles-like muted trumpet. Here Wojociechowski switched to bass flute, and one could feel the composer's deep sadness at his experience with the people living and dying in the throes of genocide. Lightening up considerably. "Brother Fifi" told of a naturally talented pianist Cohan met, who displays positive spirit in the face of adversity. Here, as elsewhere, Cohan showed that the rhythms and note choices of East African musicians have affected his playing. This pleasing number in 6 swayed brightly and featured a tenor sax, muted trumpet, and regular flute front line. Cohan's lightning quick, quicksilver lines conveyed perseverance over misfortune. Meanwhile, "Domboshava" felt like a lonely soul standing in the face of infinite mystery of the universe. This sense of loneliness was conveyed by a lovely bass flute solo from Wojociechowski.
The beautiful "Kampala Moon" featured delicate piano and Bradfield taking the melody on his soprano sax. This too-short piece was truly lovely. Deitemyer and Gonzales performed a crowd-pleasing call-and-response duet, which led into "Last Night at the Mannenberg" with Cohan playing lines on his piano imitative of a mbira (kalimba or thumb piano). Here the audience felt all of the joyfulness that Cohan felt in his African experience.
This astounding celebration of the universal joys and sadness of the human experience was the best concert of the year so far, in large part due to the stunning level of performance of these especially perceptive and masterful musicians, but especially to the depth of sincerity and real feeling and exceptional compositions and arrangements Cohan has written. One hopes this work will be reproduced in concert in the future and that a recording will be in the offing as well.
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