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Ryan Cohen

Bernhard Theatre, Skidmore College
Saratoga Springs, NY
July 5, 2006

By J Hunter

At the risk of repeating myself, I believe everyone has potential - no more so than the student body of the annual Skidmore Jazz Institute. The key is to realize that potential, and several graduates of the two-week seminar have made that grade: Christian Scott just blew the doors off the Sunday bill at Freihofer's, and drummer Kendrick Scott (no relation) developed a last-minute stand-in gig with Terence Blanchard - at Skidmore, by the way - into an integral role with Blanchard's phenomenal group Flow.

As far as I know, Ryan Cohan is the first SJI alum to appear on the Bernhard Theatre stage as a leader. Wednesday's show wasn't just a “homecoming” concert for the former Nick Brignola sideman, either. Cohan - an accomplished composer whose work has been recorded by Ramsey Lewis - recently completed “One Sky”, a four-movement suite created thanks to a grant from Chamber Music America. Wednesday's Skidmore show would be the suite's debut performance. So… no pressure, right?

I've never heard a jazz sextet referred to as a “chamber orchestra”. However, Cohan's three-man front line (who Cohan introduced as “some of Chicago's best musicians”) each brought at least two instruments to the stage, so Cohan had an orchestra full of colors to work with. And while his piano work is based in the blues, his deep musical knowledge allowed him to paint in every hue that blue can offer, and he was creating right from the first notes of the opener, an unrecorded piece called “Checkmate”.

Cohan showed that knowledge later with a stunning solo rendition of the Ellington-Strayhorn standard “Lush Life”. It wasn't just Cohan's interpretation, which swung from cascading Classical to strutting Stride (and back again); it was also his brief, but thorough, explanation of why the Billy Strayhorn composition is so important, and was so ahead of its time - particularly when you consider, as Cohan pointed out, Strayhorn was only 16 when he wrote it. It is no surprise Cohan has also been a jazz educator, including a stint at SJI.

It's also easy to see why Cohan's work was such a good fit for three Ramsey Lewis discs. Cohan's writing and playing have deep roots in the sharp, slick, big-city style characterized by the Lewis Trio, the Horace Silver Quintet, and Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. The latter connection comes not just from the expertise of Cohan's front line, but also from Colby Watkins' amazing drum work. I'd seen Watkins before the show, talking on a cell phone outside the Bernhard. Anyone could have pegged the thin, bespectacled, well-dressed African-American as a young professional - a lawyer, perhaps, or maybe a financial analyst. Then you see Watkins behind his kit providing thunderous counterpoint to Loren Cohan's resounding bassline - still wearing the same dark suit, slicing the air with a drumstick in one hand and a tom-tom in the other - and you can be forgiven for muttering reverently, “Buhainia lives!”

As with the Messengers, the horns provided the bulk of Cohan's musical images. Multi-instrumentalist Ralph Bowen and trumpet/flugelhorn player Tito Carrillo did the heavy lifting, with Carrillo blowing a horn reminiscent of another Cohan resume point, Freddie Hubbard. While Jeff Bradfield's solos were technically proficient, his best role was using bass clarinet and soprano sax to accent Bowen and Carrillo, giving both Cohan's free-standing pieces and the four movements of “One Sky” the same zest Grey Poupon gives really good chili.

I've got single words scattered around my notebook about the suite: “Meditative”; “Explosive”; “Intricate”; “Stormy”. If Miles had done “In A Silent Way” with the Birth Of The Cool band, it might have sounded like this. “One Sky” is an impressive, well-thought-out work; Cohan told me afterward that he knew the shape of the suite before he even wrote a note, though he kept the piece's subject matter and influences to himself. This left the audience to either interpret it themselves, or just kick back and enjoy.

If all SJI does is cement the love of jazz in young players, then it's done its job. Ryan Cohan is a fine example of what happens when you combine that love with dedication, scholarship, and a commitment to excellence. If I were SJI, I'd frame a picture of Cohan grinning at one of two well-deserved standing ovations and write underneath, “This can happen to you. How bad do you want it?”

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.