Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey couldn’t share a bandstand without coming to fisticuffs. And the much missed Jones brothers, Elvin, Thad, and Hank, were so deep into their own creative pursuits they never even tried to launch a family combo.
In jazz, sharing parentage offers no guarantee that musical siblings will go on to work harmoniously together. But in the case of the 3 Cohens, familial ties have surmounted distance, career ambitions, and other potential obstacles. At the forefront of a torrent of Israeli jazz talent that has poured into New York City over the past two decades, the 3 Cohens, all horn players in their 30s, have forged a sumptuous group sound built upon a selfless love of blending their instrumental voices.
“Playing together like this is not a miracle because we are siblings,’’ writes Yuval Cohen, a supremely lyrical soprano saxophonist, in an e-mail. “We owe it to the heritage of jazz, and to great teachers who taught us the meaning of playing together. But knowing each other so well, loving each other and trusting each other, makes a hell of a difference.’’
In addition to Tel Aviv-based Yuval Cohen, the sextet, which performs Thursday at Scullers and Friday at Rockwood’s Shalin Liu Performance Center, features reed expert Anat Cohen and trumpeter Avishai Cohen, who both live in New York City. As the eldest, Yuval blazed the trail they all followed, from the vaunted Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts near Tel Aviv to Berklee College of Music, where they quickly gained recognition as standouts.
“I never thought of it as a rivalry,’’ says Avishai, not to be confused with the Israeli bassist of the same name. “Sometimes it could be like a game, where you try to play a Bird solo and see who will make a mistake, or who can sight read better than the other. Now, when we’re onstage it’s not like I’m trying to outplay my big brother. In other situations when a bandmate is killing I might feel, ‘Hey, I want to get the same applause.’ With my brother and sister it’s never like this.’’
Anat was the first of the Cohens to gain national attention. A lithe, silvery toned tenor saxophonist and exceptionally fluent clarinetist, she’s dominated the Jazz Journalists Association clarinetist of the year award since 2007. Her latest solo album, 2010’s “Clarinetwork: Live at the Village Vanguard’’ (Anzic) is a bravura quartet session focusing on standards from the 1920s and ’30s. While she plays both tenor and clarinet in 3 Cohens, the latter horn has become her truest voice.
“For many years I let whatever music I was into dictate which instrument I’d be focusing on,’’ Anat says. “In choro the clarinet was more prominent, but playing Brazilian jazz with Duduka Da Fonseca I brought only the tenor. It’s always a question, who am I? I’ve found a comfortable way to be myself on the clarinet.’’
Avishai’s career has shifted into high gear in recent years through his work in a disparate array of ensembles, including the SFJAZZ Collective (in which he took over a spot previously held by trumpeters Nicholas Payton and Dave Douglas), and the tuneful world jazz quartet Third World Love. His latest solo project is Triveni, an expansive trio with drummer Nasheet Waits and Israeli bassist Omer Avital (who also holds down the bass chair in 3 Cohens and Third World Love).
Yuval, not surprisingly, is the least well known in the United States, since he moved back to Israel after graduating from Berklee. An essential part of Israel’s enviable jazz education establishment, he teaches at several schools, including his alma mater Thelma Yellin and the Tel Aviv Music Conservatory.
Determined to spend more time in New York City, he recently released his second album under his own name, “Song Without Words’’ (Anzic), a luxuriantly melodic duo session with pianist Shai Maestro (no kidding). On the latest 3 Cohens album “Family’’ (Anzic), he displays a gift for writing memorable themes, such as the buoyant “Rhapsody in Blake’’ inspired by drummer Johnathan Blake. He joins the group at Scullers, while Eric Harland takes over the drums in Rockport. Pianist Aaron Goldberg is on board for the entire East Coast tour.
While the band’s first CD, 2007’s “Braid’’ (Anzic) displayed a recognizable Israeli sensibility, incorporating an array of Middle Eastern and Latin American influences, “Family’’ is a straight ahead affair with two tracks featuring legendary vocalese innovator Jon Hendricks. If anything hints at the Cohens’ origins, it’s the way they blithely embrace the entire jazz tradition, from Anat’s intricate arrangement of the hoary New Orleans standard “Tiger Rag’’ to Avishai’s vivid evocation of Charles Mingus in “With the Soul of the Greatest of Them All.’’
“Whether it’s ‘Tiger Rag’ or a bebop tune, it doesn’t matter,’’ Anat says. “It’s not like bebop is modern and ‘Tiger Rag’ is old-fashioned. Everything is old school, and there’s nothing wrong with that.’’
Andrew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.