Acclaimed pianist, composer, producer, and Guggenheim Fellow Ryan Cohan brings his broad spectrum of musical influences and sensibilities across multiple genres into focus through a personal lens in this most ambitious work. Throughout his previous five critically acclaimed albums and as a collaborator with numerous leading jazz figures and world-class ensembles Cohan has consistently proved to be a composer of rare vision as well as a highly versatile, virtuosic pianist. Alongside Cohan is a steadfast ensemble made up of James Cammack (acoustic bass), Michael Raynor (drums), John Wojciechowski (flute, alto flute, clarinet & tenor saxophone), Geof Bradfield (bass clarinet & soprano saxophone), Tito Carrillo (trumpet & flugelhorn), Omar Musfi (riqq, frame drum & dumbek) and The KAIA String Quartet: Victoria Moreira (violin), Naomi Culp (violin), Amanda Grimm (viola), Hope DeCelle (cello).
With the support of a Chamber Music America New Jazz Works commission (his third), Cohan penned Originations – a compelling work of six integrally linked yet independently standing compositions scored for an eleven-piece jazz chamber ensemble. The narrative (quite a serendipitous story below) driving the music boldly illuminates the vital human and spiritual connections between disparate traditions and ideologies, fusing Middle Eastern and North African musical themes, Western classical music elements, modern jazz and impressionistic harmonic colors and improvisation, Cohan’s music creates a vibrant, wholly unique sonic tapestry.
Arriving in Amman, Jordan several years ago on the final leg of a multinational tour, Cohan unexpectedly found himself on familiar ground in a new land. “Although I had never been in Amman, I felt strangely at home there,” Cohan marveled. “After every performance or while exploring the streets, people would come up to me and ask if I was Jordanian. The locals clearly saw something recognizable in me as I did in them. It was surreal.” Cohan only had an inkling his paternal family originated from somewhere around the general region he was in, but he had not realized he had landed, in fact, right in their homeland. The experience catalyzed Cohan to seek out his Palestinian roots for the first time. What followed a few years later was a reunion with his father and uncle (both with whom he had no contact since he was a small child) along with the discovery of three half-siblings. Remarkably, all were based in Amman just a few miles from where Cohan had stayed while on tour. The album explores the assimilation of the composer’s reawakened Arab lineage and his Jewish upbringing and reflects the rich beauty of the two cultures and profound complexities between them from a musical perspective.
The opening “The Hours Before Dawn” is a masterwork of nuance and immediately evokes visual and aural imagery of the region. Cohan states, “Iconic poet Mahmoud Darwish used this phrase in describing the attitude of his fellow Palestinians toward the promise of the future. The hope he alludes to is universal. His sentiment moved me to write something blending maqam (Arabic modal system) influenced melodic cells with my own harmonic sensibilities.” Throughout the work at large, Cohan pulls from elements of the third-stream as well as modern improvisational jazz to create a decidedly fresh, exciting sound.
The cohesion and remarkable interplay of the horn section made up of Bradfield, Wojciechowski and Carrillo attests to the longevity of their collaborative relationship with Cohan. Each of these players contribute brilliant solo statements, as well, while switching effortlessly between multiple instruments. The second track, “Imaginary Lines”, features various instruments playing oud-type parts at times among carefully arranged and open blowing sections, which recede as the strings enter and then rejoin to bring the piece to an emphatic close.
As we get to the third piece, “Heart,” it is striking how the horns and string quartet so seamlessly complement each other. Clearly, this is not easy music to navigate but these players can improvise aggressively when called for and retreat into lush ensemble mode effortlessly, with Cohan setting the tone. Carillo solos robustly toward the end of the piece but the overall result is a driving cohesiveness seldom achieved in such a hybrid ensemble.
“Sabra” is a playful piece built off a simple melody, rife with rich harmonic intrigue and fascinating string parts, stellar acoustic bass and several skittering Cohan runs. Cohan notes “A sabra is a thick-skinned, thorny desert plant with a sweet, soft center and a term used to describe the tenacity and warm-heartedness of Israeli Jews.” “A Seeker’s Soul” is a freely flowing dialogue between piano and expressive soprano saxophone adorned by passages of rich orchestration. To the composer, having a seeker’s soul means “possessing a restless curiosity to discover the world beyond oneself along with the requisite courage to live one’s authentic nature.”
Rhythm and groove are at the center of the album’s final track, “Essence”, which brings the ensemble full tilt and allows the soloists, especially Wojciechowski on flute, and the rhythm section to unleash. Cohan dances all over the ivories, at times reminiscent of bassist James Cammack’s employer for 38 years as a member of the Ahmad Jamal Trio. He and drummer Michael Raynor provide the foundation for all while Syrian percussionist Omar Musfi adds additional color, texture and depth to the feel.
Imaginative, at times breathtaking and cinematic throughout, Cohan has created a riveting work.