Ryan Cohan – The River (2013)

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When we last visited Ryan Cohan three years ago, the Chicago-based pianist, composer and bandleader had just issued he third album. Having established himself as a fine composer of modern jazz, Another Look exploited the cohesion Cohan had developed with his working band from so many years on the road. The River is a project he views as seeing the pendulum moving back toward composition somewhat, but it can’t shake the touring experiences of he and his quartet, particularly the month-long excursion through East Africa in 2008.

That provided the impetus for the music Cohan wrote for The River, but it didn’t necessarily inspire the way you might think. Cohan didn’t make an “African jazz” record even though there are African shades in it (as jazz is derived from African music forms, it should be). Rather, this is music reflecting on how the journey impacted he and his band on an emotional level. Cohan considers the eleven pieces as a continuum of one motif to another, representing a narrative flow, just like a river.

For these recording sessions, Cohan expanded that quartet into septet: reedist Geof Bradfield, bassist Lorin Cohen and drummer Kobie Watkins are joined by saxophonist and flautist John Wojciechowski, trumpeter Tito Carrillo and percussionist Samuel Torres. Cohan’s acumen as a bandleader is tied to his mastery of composition, as he arranges his songs to leverage the talent at hand, and his arrangements are inseparable from the compositions themselves.

The continuity is so strong, the first three tracks feel as of one, sectioned piece. “River [i] Departure” is a simple ostinato with plenty of inspiring right hand, gospel-leaning action. That segues right into “Call & Response,” where Cohan rouses the rest of the band, one by one. “Arrival” signals the full arrival of the band, and Watkins and Torres do a stellar job of grafting African rhythms into Cohan’s very American harmony.

The bonds among the songs are further strengthened by the interspersing of different sections of the “River” suite, each showcasing different band members, until a return to the original “River” segment performed by the entire combo at the end, a curtain call technique that could easily work in a live concert.

In between are many wrinkles in Cohan’s complex songwriting and arrangement prowess. He calls to mind one of his heroes Don Grolnick with the way he’s able to make his little band sound voluminous on “Forsaken,” where Carrillo’s superb trumpet takes the spotlight, too. The trumpeter and Torres do a stellar job in molding an Afro-Cuban groove on “Storm Rising,” and the whole group expertly navigates through the abrupt shifts and tumultuous antics. “Brother Fifi” has that Corea styled cadence and harmonics, but it’s also more soulful than what’s typical of Corea. “Kampala Moon” is a sparkling gem: virtually a duet between soprano sax and piano (with Cohen assisting), it’s a beautifully melancholy melody that needs nothing else to accompany it.

Cohan has long attained a high artistic level with his last two releases, but that didn’t stop him from aiming higher for The River. He hit his mark square on.

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The River goes on sale July 9, by Motéma Music. Visit Ryan Cohan’s website for more info.

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