Jazz clarinetist and saxophonist Anat Cohen is a familiar presence in the Twin Cities, having played the Dakota three times between 2010 and 2015.
But her main-stage concert at this week’s Twin Cities Jazz Festival marks the first Minnesota performance of her hand-picked Brazilian ensemble, Choro Aventuroso. In fact, Friday’s concert is the band’s first U.S. performance outside New York City.
An Israeli native, Cohen is an unorthodox champion for a Brazilian style known as “choro” (pronounced “shoh-roh”), a beguiling music that sounds like a mixture of samba and ragtime.
“I love playing choro,” she said simply, speaking by phone from her home in New York City last week. “The music is light but complex. You have this joy and playfulness, but at the same time it demands study and skill.”
Cohen was introduced to choro in the 1990s by some international classmates at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, though she later realized she heard variations on choro growing up in Tel Aviv. She studied tenor saxophone at Berklee. But because choro gives primacy to the clarinet, she soon found herself dusting off that instrument and discovering how well it suited her in this context.
A trip to Brazil in 2000 cemented the love affair. “My life was never the same,” she told the Chicago Tribune last fall. “That’s what brought me back to the clarinet, much more than Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw.”
Even so, Cohen spent much of the ensuing decade winning awards and establishing her credentials as a saxophonist, clarinetist and composer of mainstream jazz. Her long-standing quartet was a beacon of postbop jazz excellence, but it increasingly began flirting with Brazilian themes with the release of “Luminosa” in 2015.
Cohen explains that she “fell back in love with choro” a few years ago when asked to teach it at a music camp outside Seattle. “You have to internalize all these cues in the music,” she explained of the music’s appeal. “It is like an actor trying to deliver this huge monologue and make it look like a piece of cake at the same time.”
The Brazilian-oriented songs on “Luminosa” were a promising foray, but Cohen still was determined to assemble a band steeped in the complexity of choro yet also capable of creating the more freewheeling improvisation of jazz. The three musicians she found were all Brazilians who had relocated to the United States. Although they retain the traditional instrumentation of a choro group, Cohen praises their versatility.
She says Vitor Gonçalves “is a wonderful pianist and accordionist who I met when he was much younger” on one of her first trips to Brazil.
She describes how pandeiro player Sergio Krakowski “can break that binary feeling and create interactive conversations unconventional to choro” on his tambourine-like percussion instrument. For the Twin Cities show, Nando Duarte will round out the group as a replacement for Cesar Garabini on seven-string guitar.
The appreciation is mutual. “Anat has mastered the tradition, her groove is authentic,” said Gonçalves. “You could say she speaks choro without an accent. At the same time, her spirit is fearless. She doesn’t like to rehearse, she wants to be in the moment. It’s quite a combination.”
In April, Cohen released two albums of Brazilian music — a collaboration with Brazil’s Trio Brasileiro and duet interpretations of Brazilian composer Moacir Santos’ music with guitarist Marcello Gonçalves. But as of yet, no recordings with Choro Aventuroso have materialized.
“It’s coming,” Cohen promised.
In the meantime, Friday’s concert will bring forth the “choro jazz” that she was seemingly destined to play.
Britt Robson is a Minneapolis freelance writer.
Twin Cities Jazz Festival
What: Dozens of free jazz concerts in downtown St. Paul. • When: Thu.-Sat.
Where: Various indoor and outdoor venues in Lowertown and beyond.
More information: twincitiesjazzfestival.com.