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Rising Star Pianist-Composer-Arranger Ryan Cohan Releases His 3rd Motéma CD, The River,
A Suite for Septet Based on Travels In East Africa As A U.S. State Department / Jazz at Lincoln Center Jazz Ambassador, Out July 9, 2013
A river is both a place and a journey, intimately connected to the locales along its route while moving inexorably forward. On his fifth CD, The River (2013, Motéma Music), pianist/composer Ryan Cohan navigates a path that courses through East Africa and his native Chicago, reflecting the sights, sounds and emotions along its shoreline. In its sweeping musical landscape, Ryan’s vivid suite fluidly commingles the ancient and the modern, the spontaneous and the impressionistic, the cerebral and the passionate.
Cohan’s most ambitious work to date, The River was inspired by a trip that his quartet made to the tumultuous regions of Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of Congo sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Chosen by a panel that included State Department officials as well as Wynton Marsalis and other members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Cohan was chosen as a musical ambassador in the tradition of Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington, all of whom toured conflict-riven nations to spread goodwill through jazz.
“It was really about connecting to people through the music,” Cohan says of the tour. “We didn’t know what to expect, because in some of these countries they were being fed propaganda on what the U.S. is about. But once we started playing, it was really incredible how the tone and the tenor of the rooms would change dramatically. It was real; we experienced it in every country that we visited.”
Cohan has since undertaken three more tours under the State Department’s auspices, taking his band to Europe and the Middle East. But that initial voyage to Africa made such a powerful impression that he decided to depict it via the concert-length suite that comprises The River. The ensemble is expanded to a septet, with woodwind players Geof Bradfield and John Wojciechowski, trumpeter Tito Carrillo, bassist Lorin Cohen, drummer Kobie Watkins, and percussionist Samuel Torres.
That expanded palette allows Cohan to explore his expansive orchestral ambitions, as he draws upon influences from Ellington, Gil Evans and Vince Mendoza to Ravel and Debussy. He achieves effects through his gifted ensemble that showcase his stunning arrangements, recently spotlighted on a larger scale in his orchestral arrangements for vibraphonist Joe Locke’s concert recording Wish Upon A Star, which featured Lincoln’s Symphony Orchestra.
The suite, commissioned by Chamber Music America’s New Jazz Works program, takes on the form of a river journey. Each movement reflects a stop on the adventure, with improvised solo and duo intervals representing areturn to the ceaseless momentum of the river itself. It begins, as any journey must, with a departure: a virtuosic solo turn by Cohan that is by turns elegant and explosive, flowing as a river does from the placid to the turbulent. The same theme recurs in the suite’s closing piece, “Coming Home,” here expressed by the full ensemble and reflecting the rich tapestry of sensations and experiences now behind them.
The dialogue at the heart of improvised music from African folk drumming to cutting-edge jazz is vigorously evidenced on “Call and Response,” one of several pieces inspired by the opportunities Cohan found in each city to perform with local musicians. “Arrival” moves to the rhythms of Rwanda’s bustling streets, while “Last Night at the Mannenberg” brims with the exhilaration of playing at a famous Zimbabwe club in front of 250 eager listeners crammed into a space meant for 175, with the experience of hearing a Shona mbira choir earlier in the day.
“It’s a very spiritual thing, playing with local musicians and experiencing how music is part of their culture,” he says. “It’s part of their daily lives and their religion. Seeing how music fit into their cultures and their communities was really inspiring. Often we couldn’t speak the same language, but an incredible conversation and understanding would happen immediately through the music.”
The beauty of the African countryside is also portrayed, the moon over Uganda inspiring the tender and lustrous “Kampala Moon,” or the portrait of a breathtaking landscape on “Domboshava,” named for an historic national park in Zimbabwe that features 10,000-year-old cave paintings and 360 ̊ views of Harare from atop red rock formations.
The Dark Continent’s darker aspects come to the fore on the taut, ferocious “Storm Rising,” inspired by the tensions that scar the region from Zimbabwe’s brutal dictatorship to the frightening lawlessness of Congo. A visit to Rwanda’s genocide museum brought the country’s horrific past to life, resulting in the haunting “Forsaken,” highlighted by Cohan’s somber, sharp- angled bursts and Carrillo’s mournful wail. One of the genocide’s survivors is sketched in “Brother Fifi,” which recalls Randy Weston in its blend of African rhythms and vibrant swing.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote that you can never step into the same river twice, for it’s never the same river and you’re never the same person. As Cohan wades into this particular river, he brings to it his experiences working with many notable artists and jazz luminaries such as Freddie Hubbard, Curtis Fuller, Paquito D’Rivera, and Ramsey Lewis; four prior CDs of original music that have met with critical acclaim, with the latest, Another Look, hailed as “a model for modern jazz piano albums” by ICON
Magazine; and two decades of compositional brilliance that have led to a Guggenheim Fellowship and grants from Chamber Music America, American Music Center and the Aaron Copland Foundation, among others.
Release Date: July 9, 2013
About Ryan Cohan:
Motéma recording artist and Guggenheim Fellow Ryan Cohan has distinguished himself as a vital original voice to be heard amongst the elite young pianist/composers on the global music scene today. Leading his own groups and as a sideman, Ryan has performed at premier venues worldwide and has worked with such jazz luminaries and stellar ensembles as Freddie Hubbard, Curtis Fuller, Joe Locke, Paquito D’Rivera, Bob Cranshaw, Victor Lewis, Jeff Hamilton, Orbert Davis and The Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, Kurt Elling, Jon Faddis, Pat La Barbera, Andy Narell, Regina Carter, Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW Ensemble, The Chicago Jazz Ensemble, The Grant Park Symphony Orchestra, Otis Clay, and The Chicago Chamber Musicians among many others. Ryan has written extensively for and toured with NEA Jazz Master Ramsey Lewis, contributing more than a dozen pieces to several of Mr. Lewis’s albums and the theme music to Lewis’s nationally syndicated television show The Legends Of Jazz. Recently, Ryan penned orchestral arrangements for Joe Locke’s live concert recording, Wish Upon A Star (Motéma Music) featuring Lincoln’s Symphony Orchestra and recorded with Locke’s quartet for his upcoming CD release, Lay Down My Heart: Blues and Ballads, Vol. 1.
The Ryan Cohan Quartet was twice selected for Jazz at Lincoln Center's highly competitive Rhythm Road program which was cosponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Consequently, his group embarked on multiple extended tours in Africa, Europe and The Middle East as cultural ambassadors. Ryan has produced four critically acclaimed albums of all original compositions: Real World (Real World Music, 1997); Here and Now (Sirocco Jazz, 2001); One Sky (Motéma Music, 2007) which was hailed as one of the best recordings of the year by the Chicago Tribune and many other journals; and Another Look (Motéma Music, 2010) called "a model for modern jazz piano albums" by ICON magazine. The River, Ryan’s fifth CD featuring a concert length suite inspired by his travels in Africa that was performed at Millennium Park in Chicago to a crowd of over 8,000, will be released July 9, 2013 by Motéma Music.
As a prolific writer for over twenty years, Ryan has created original works ranging from solo piano pieces to full orchestral arrangements and has scored two independent films. In recognition of his work, Ryan has received the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship for composition, three grant awards from Chamber Music America, The Aaron Copland Recording Grant, two Illinois Arts Council Fellowships, the Composer Assistance grant from American Music Center and three creative arts grants from The City Of Chicago. As an educator, Ryan has been on the faculty of The Skidmore Jazz Institute in New York, The Bloom School of Jazz, the University of Illinois at Chicago and continues to work as an artist clinician at universities and high schools throughout the U.S and abroad.