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For Your Consideration: Ryan Cohan's 'The River'

Alex Marianyi
Contributing Writer
alex.marianyi[at] / @alexmarianyi

As humans, we sometimes want to pigeonhole people into one category or another. This is something I’ve spent time talking to Ryan Cohan about, and he always mentions the ebb and flow of being an active performer and composer. Both are always a part of him with some months being heavy on playing and others heavy on composing. While Cohan is certainly the composer behind The River, his facility on piano as both soloist and accompanist becomes immediately apparent.

Inspired by the same trip as reedist Geof Bradfield’s African Flowers, this release follows Cohan’s African journey in a much more symbolic way than literal or linear. More importantly, it’s not an album of African music played by jazz musicians; it’s an album of jazz music that is influenced by present-day African music. While "Domboshava" is the most obviously African-influenced track and "Brother Fifi" the least, this recording continues to find new ways of letting you hear that influence without beating you over the head with it. It’s a delicate balance that is skillfully handled.

The ensemble as a whole could make or break this album, and let me tell you, they definitely make it. They help Cohan walk the line between composer and performer, allowing his compositions and his playing to be magnified by their presence. Not only has Cohan played some of the most inspired solos I’ve ever seen in person, his contributions as soloist on these recordings are not to be forgotten. On “Arrival”, he’s clever and measured, and on “Kampala Moon”, he’s sympathetic and elastic. The many freely improvised sections on The River serve not as a testament to Cohan as a composer or player but to his skill as a bandleader, selecting the right musicians and trusting them with creating entire tracks on their own.

Bradfield and fellow saxophonist John Wojciechowski perform the first example of this on just the third track. When performing individually, Wojciechowski merely scrapes the surface of his intellectually agile musicianship, carefully picking each of his ideas from the depths of his imagination. Bradfield displays his thick, fibrous sound that is much more nimble than you’d expect.

The front end of The River seems pretty saxophone heavy, easy to do when you have two of the best woodwind players on the Chicago scene. This choice is balanced out by having the back half of the album centered around Tito Carrillo’s trumpet playing. So often when listening to Tito Carrillo, whether live or on these recordings, he plays something I’ve always wanted to hear, before I even knew I wanted to hear it.

On "Brother Fifi" and "Last Night At The Mannenberg", Cohan writes one of my favorite things to hear, a bass player with the melody. Despite it being an underused technique and difficult task, he does it masterfully with help from Lorin Cohen’s resonant sound. Kobie Watkins’ dynamic range on drums shines in this group; he booms with the full band and whispers along with soloists. Percussionist Samuel Torres does an excellent job of meshing with the rhythm section that made the initial trip to Africa.

While it seems popular forms of music are heading towards more segmented distribution of music such as mp3s and YouTube videos, many jazz musicians seem to be thinking of their releases as long-form works, where each song can stand alone but is still very much a part of the whole. On The River, Cohan accomplishes a jazz composer’s dream. He is able to give each musician, including himself, the necessary space to stretch out and give their input, but at the end of the album, the listener is left with the memory of the composition as a whole and the story that it tells.

Correction: The article previously noted Geof Bradfield as the soloist on the album's third track. The soloist is instead Wojciechowski.

Alex Marianyi is a musician with an artistic identity crisis based in Chicago, IL. You can follow him on Twitter, and he won’t even file a restraining order.