The Anat Cohen Quartet came to Bailey Hall on Friday night to perform a mesmerizing 90 minute set that held the audience unblinking and glued to their seats. Most of this stillness could not be helped, however — the crowd was dominated by white and peppered manes, as is customarily the case in these Bailey concerts. The high ticket prices — undoubtedly justified by the quality of the performers — drives away student attendees and usually leaves the crowds quietly appreciative rather than rather than wildly enthusiastic.
So naturally, I was apprehensive about a noiseless auditorium when the Israeli Cohen took the stage with guitarist Gilad Hekselman, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Adam Cruz. In my experience, live jazz is best enjoyed with a ferocious tug-and-pull going on between audience and musician. The screaming encouragement of a packed jazz club is like a drug to the virtuoso. An indescribable fire takes hold and comes tearing out through the instrument of choice, spreading to the rest of the band and back out at the room. Cohen herself seemed a bit taken aback at first, as her welcoming words were met by stifled murmurs of assent after the band absolutely obliterated Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” followed by a flawless rendition of Cohen’s own “Purple Piece.” Yet no amount of quiet would hold back the quartet. With Cohen leading on clarinet, the foursome created layers of chromatic harmonies that would wander off into the higher registers, almost meandering away from one another before landing together in great swells of rhythmic simultaneity at the end of “Purple Piece” that left the audience shell-shocked by the wall of pristine sound.
After the first two songs, the supposed advantages of taking jazz out of its naturally chaotic setting were finally justified. Each note from every instrument could be isolated and presented as a pure experience, untouched by hoots and hollers. The harmonies hung in the air, most notably when the breathy flutter of Cohen’s clarinet intertwined with Hekselman’s caterpillic precision on the highest registers of his guitar. The performance was both literally and figuratively spotlighted — emotions on the faces of the musicians became a way into the music as their obvious euphoria continued to climb when the quartet ripped into Hekselman’s “Bucket Kicker,” followed by “The Peacocks” and “J Blues.”
The latter provided the surprisingly climactic moment of the concert. Even though all four onstage were flawless throughout, Hekselman and Cohen had provided the most virtuosic moments until drummer Adam Cruz took his solo in “J Blues,” dancing in between 16th and 32nd notes with a sort of casual genius that I had never seen before live. It exemplified part of what I loved about the concert and the inherent nature of jazz: despite the fact that the musicians are constantly changing time signatures and keys, with what amounts to nothing less than a mathematical technicality, the sound still seems to flow out of a very spontaneous place, betraying a latent internal rhythm.
With “J Blues,” Cohen switched to the tenor sax, and the mood of the performance followed suit. The full-bodied blare of the tenor sax is unlike any other when handled with such grace, and Hekselman’s solo, his fourth of the night, once again blew the wigs off the unsuspecting audience. The quartet closed with “After You’ve Gone,” having fully cemented themselves as musicians who can work collaboratively despite individuated brilliance. Their exit served as yet another example of the musicality unique to jazz and its endless possibilities in sound.