CHRISTOPHER PORTER FEBRUARY 27, 2018
Serendipity isn't something that just happens; you have to work on putting yourself in a position to make it happen.
Jazz vocalist Estar Cohen puts in the work.
"On December 26, 2016, I recorded my piece 'Moments' with a string quartet live for The River Street Anthology Project at Cultivate in Ypsilanti," said the Toledo-raised, Ypsilanti-based singer. "Ben Lorenz of Willis Sound happened to be in the audience that night. He told me about a church he was in the midst of converting into a studio and invited me to hold a concert there."
That concert was recorded and released last year as Live at Willis Sound, the second album by The Estar Cohen Project.
"The Estar Cohen Project, formed in 2011, is a vehicle for my songwriting specifically," she said, while her fusion-tinged band Talking Ear is a collaborative project by musicians who first gathered at University of Toledo; her singing there is more akin to another instrument in the ensemble rather than that of a traditional vocalist. "[The Project] gives voice to my passion for storytelling through lyrics and highlights my great love of folk music as well as creative improvised music."
With nary a standard in sight, Cohen wrote all six compositions featured on Live at Willis Sound. Her songs are spacious, impressionistic, and generous, allowing her fellow musicians -- saxophonist Patrick Booth, guitarist Dan Palmer, pianist Josh Silver, bassist Ben Rolston, and drummer Travis Aukerman -- plenty of room for expression: The shortest song, "Mountain Road," clocks in at 6:03; the longest, "Knowing You," hits 11:02.
But one particular song from Live at Willis Sound has had the biggest impact on Cohen's career to date: "Endings" was submitted to the ASCAP Foundation's 2018 Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards, and Cohen was one of 15 musicians to win.
"The ASCAP Herb Alpert Foundation has provided me a monetary award that will be used toward my music," Cohen said. "I am currently developing ideas for a full-length studio album to be recorded this year."
She also gets to perform at the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival in August. But local listeners can see Cohen and Co. much sooner, on Friday, March 2, at the place that suits her wide-open music so well: Willis Sound. Chicago-based keyboardist-guitarist Rob Clearfield will open the night with a solo piano performance in support of his new album, Wherever You're Starting From. But then Clearfield will join The Estar Cohen Project for a set of her originals.
"Rob and I have not worked together before," Cohen said. "It turns out we have mutual friends and have worked with some of the same musicians. I am a fan of his music and reached out to him when I learned he might be coming through Michigan for a tour. I find it important and nurturing to my path as a composer/performer to seek collaborations with new and different artists."
There's that hard work again.
A Night With Estar Cohen
JEFF MILO AUGUST 17, 2017
You might have your own ideas about jazz, but Estar Cohen can likely shake them up for you.
“Jazz has history, but it is not stuck in another time period,” the Ypsilanti-based
multidisciplinary musical artist said.
“(Jazz) is a living, breathing art form that continues to gain new interpreters, new composers and new fan bases.”
Cohen’s voice is a vibrant, spirited entity, able to melodically sprint in staccato bursts over a more frenetic composition with rapidity and agility, and then spread out her intonations into longer measures with a sweeping elegance. This Saturday, Cohen has an ensemble backing up her original compositions for an intimate performance at Cultivate Coffee & Tap House.
“(Jazz) isn’t confined to the combo you hear that was hired to play background music for the restaurant, or, even the other end of the spectrum, say, Lincoln Center. It isn’t the Starbucks Compilation CD! What jazz IS…well, it’s hard to say, because as time goes on, it becomes more and more difficult to put in a box. But that’s what I love about it. It’s a creative music.”
Cohen is still young but already seems like a jazz vet around the local scene. She got her degree in Jazz Performance in 2015 (Univ. of Toledo) where she honed her skills in improvisation and learned composition with esteemed jazz artists/instructors.
Also in 2015, along with putting out her first album and working on jazz clinics with her other quintet, Talking Ear, she was also chosen as a finalist in the Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composers Awards. She taught songwriting with Earthwork Music for a couple seasons, part of their educational endeavors of their non-profit SEEDS. Currently, she teaches music around the Ann Arbor area.
Her real joy, is not just performing, but more so: composing. “Story is important,” she said, of starting out the lyrics of any arrangement. “I love personal stories; attempting to see a life through someone else’s eyes, and to relate my experience to others. My lyrics often focus on story, and I do my best to have the written music reflect that. I am so fortunate to work with musicians who also care deeply about this.”
Cohen’s dynamism springs from her strong sensibilities for improvisation. After a recent concert, someone from the audience asked how much of her performance was written, and how much was improvised, a question she often finds herself fielding. Her improvisation is blended, by design, into the composed material. That’s her signature approach; considering every instrumentalist or vocalist who could likely be joining her in bringing a fledgling work to life as it comes to be performed later down the line.
“Because their voices will be a huge part in how the song will actually take shape,” said Cohen. “In any moment of one of my performances, someone will be, in some shape or form, improvising, because the music is meant to grow and change from performance to performance.”
Cohen was drawn to music from a young age. Her siblings (Ben/Sarah) are also songwriters and musicians. She said that she was exposed to the idea of supporting and experiencing local music from original songwriters at an early age. Her parents even crated and ran their own music venue called the Happy Badger.
When it came to her first encounter of jazz, back in high school during a concert at Murphy’s Place in Toledo, she may not have immediately grasped it, but nevertheless profoundly felt the energy of the music. From that point, she started listening to jazz as much as possible and eventually studying it.
“Going along with that, my whole journey leading up to this point has been shaped and elevated by the masters willing to pass on their knowledge to the “next generation.” At Murphy’s Place, pianist Claude Black, who is unfortunately no longer with us, and his musical partner bassist Clifford Murphy opened the stage to young musicians, allowing us the opportunity to play and learn from them - a true instance of “learning by doing.” To be treated as an artist as a young person is motivating. It makes you start thinking as an artist. Then you begin to expect more of yourself!”
The Estar Cohen Project started six years ago; it’s featured different artists at different times and is designed to be flexible for allowing to do so as it evolves. While Cohen collaborates in other jazz groups, this band is where her compositions are the driving force.
MATT JONES DECEMBER 28, 2017
One thing that is nearly as awesome as hearing/seeing so many people play their songs, is getting to witness how people manage their nerves. Ypsilanti's Estar Cohen recorded her contribution for The River Street Anthology the hard way: performing with her 8-piece band live, in front of a dead-silent, full house at Cultivate Coffee & TapHouse in Ypsi. She confessed that she had only met one of her violinists earlier that day. There were maybe 3-4 feet between Estar and the nearest audience member, as well as Misty, Charles, Sarah, and myself bumbling around with our microphones, cameras, and pencils in the free space. Needless to say, I would have been barely restraining myself from screaming had the roles been reversed. She and her mini-orchestra then laid down a dynamic track of about 8 minutes in length. In one take. Perfectly. Some musicians are always one technical glitch away from total meltdown on stage. Others feel compelled to always let the audience know just how nervous they are- a disclaimer that serves as sort of a "nowhere to go but up"-type security blanket. Others just keep breathing, trying not to think too much about the potential crash-and-burn, and just doing the thing they love. That last is the feeling I got from Estar, and many other contributors to the RSA. Sarah calls it "singing to the universe," and I love it. Then I don't get nervous for anyone, and all there is, is the song. Epic night. Epic performance. Thanks so much for coming, Estar.
Watch the full performance here: https://vimeo.com/205820724
JEFF MILO, DEEP CUTZ MUSIC BLOG, MAY 25, 2017
I am thrilled to finally feature some jazz. Not just jazz, but world-fusion, prog, and classy vocal-music. Ann Arbor-based ensemble Talking Ear unveil the next single for their forthcoming album here on Deep Cutz...
Check out "Face It," from the forthcoming album self-titled album (available June 16). Talking Ear's next show is Friday, June 16 at Ann Arbor Distilling Co. in Ann Arbor with Saajtak.
It's far too rare that I can engage with a piece of jazz music. And this one is an odyssey, a stir of different styles, sensibilities, era's and experimentation. Talking Ear sumptuous soul with an avant-garde modernism, splashes of Spanish guitar, lavish piano cascades, intricate percussion, and a mesmerizing vocal performance. This blog often covers indie-rock, hip-hop or electronica, but let's listen to Talking Ear's new single, "Face It."
Talking Ear are a prog-jazz ensemble featuring five masterful instrumentalists, each a composer in their own right, with keen sensibilities for arrangement, dynamics, and an adventurous experimentalism.
Talking Ear's lead vocalist Estar Cohen has a majestic and elemental voice that catches you as a windstorm, something graceful and natural, yet whimsical in its melodic trajectory. Daniel Palmer is on guitar, putting on a clinic of Wes Montgomery marvels during one of the songs most energizing movements. Just as Cohen studied piano, as well as attaining a degree in Jazz Performance, Palmer is also an adjunct professor at Albion College, teaching guitar! This band is stacked!
Meanwhile, Ben Rolston, who's on bass for Talking Ear, has been in several music projects (including the Appleseed Collective) and released his own solo album of compositions in 2012. A product of U-M's Jazz Studies Program, he has wound up traveling the world as a professional musician. Then there's Travis Aukerman, the band's percussionist, who academically mastered the magic of all things drum via the University of Toledo's jazz program (graduated magna cum laude). He attained sensibilities for classical jazz, as well as music and culture from the Caribbean Islands, South American, Northern India, and West Africa. He contributed to Cohen's solo album.
Then there's Benjamin Maloney on piano. This composer and arranger from Toledo was a finalist in the 2013 ASCAP young jazz composers competition. He's also been featured twice at the Jazz Master's Concert Series at the Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor. Like Auckerman, I love the energy he rhythmic energy that he brings to his own instrument, balanced by these cinematic and forceful sweeps across the keys.
I just love how this group has this murmuration quality to the way their five-piece flock bends, sways, and swoops from furtive and feverish improvisational movements, to the calmer waters where the vocals are given space to soar. Detached from set downbeats, they find grace and harmony in what could otherwise be havoc. The rhythm is aerobic, the vocals are so emotive, the pianos crackle like fire and the guitar's velocity during one part of the solo almost breaks away from the formation.... But these five young virtuosic jazz talents have a chemistry that keeps it all together, throughout even a 7+ minute blast.
JORDAN KILLAM, TOLEDO CITY PAPER, OCTOBER 5, 2016.
For local jazz vocalist and musician Estar Cohen, this past year has been about letting go of assumptions. This meditation has inspired an upcoming concept performance, “What We Can’t Know About Forever,” to be performed at The Toledo Museum of Art’s GlasSalon on Friday, October 7.
What we know
“Sometimes I feel like I walk through life with tunnel vision,” Cohen said. “There are things that I cannot possibly know. When I think of all the people I have loved and lost in my life, it is difficult to define; I don’t think I truly understand it and I don’t know if I ever will. In each case, there was a time when I thought our relationship would last forever. And maybe the moments we shared do still exist somewhere.”
You may have seen the Estar Cohen Project playing at events city-wide. The rich, ethereal quality of Ms. Cohen’s voice paired with the band’s thoughtful and complex arrangements are a soothing combination. This time, the performance will be focused on the listening experience, meant to be consumed from beginning to end as one full narrative, with each song and story leading into the next. It’s a delicate balance of thoroughly composed music and also improvisation. “I believe each set will feel unique to the listener. Large-scale performances like this are not an easy endeavor. I am hoping this will lead to a studio project.” Ms. Cohen said.
What we add
This performance brings with it new challenges for the group, displaying the band’s growth and experimentation in other forms of music and art. For the first time, the Estar Cohen Project will blend the sounds of a string quartet into their work. Before physically composing music, Ms. Cohen takes time to sit by herself quietly in order to find inspiration.
“When I hear a beautiful string arrangement by Billy Strayhorn or Brad Mehldau, I want to close my eyes and fall into it,” she explained “When I was conceptualizing this project, I heard a string quartet. This is the first time I am writing for a group like this and it has pushed me into a new space.”
The performance will also feature spoken word. This summer, Ms. Cohen was inspired to write for pure enjoyment. She began to write poetry daily, sometimes well into the night.
“It was wildly fulfilling for me to be out by the water in Northern Michigan, reading the poetry of Richard Brautigan, Rumi, and Jim Harrison. Then, I heard May Erlewine at The Ark and she incorporated spoken word so gracefully into her performance. I was so moved by it, I also felt a pull to begin exploring how spoken word could fit into my personal journey as an artist.”
There will be two performances of “What We Can’t Know About Forever” in one night. Each performance lasts about 50 minutes, with variations in each show in the music, lyrics, and spoken word. Audiences are encouraged to attend both performances.
6:30pm and 7:40pm. Friday, October 7
The Toledo Museum of Art GlasSalon | 2445 Monroe St.
419-255-8000 | Toledomuseum.org
KELLY THOMPSON, TOLEDO CITY PAPER
Waiting for Dawn is a collaborative project, and there are several local musicians involved. How did the idea for this album come about?
When the band (Josh Silver, Travis Aukerman, Steve Knurek, and myself) had decided we wanted to set a recording date, we had been working together for a couple of years. We felt that it was time to document our musical process as an ensemble and put ourselves up to the challenge of capturing some of these compositions live in the studio. As a writer, I felt a desire to share some of my work with a larger audience, rather than being limited to sharing the music with only those who have the opportunity to hear the group at a live performance.
How did you choose your musicians for the album?
I have been fortunate to work closely with Josh, Travis, and Steve since the Estar Cohen Project first formed in 2012. As for the featured soloists on the album; I have the utmost respect for David Bixler, Ben Wolkins, Dan Palmer, and Corey Howe. Each of these musicians brought their unique personality to the music, and I was certain that I wanted their voices on those particular pieces. I am so grateful for their collaboration and I have certainly learned a lot by working with them.
You recorded at Big Sky in Ann Arbor. Was this a positive experience? Can you tell us a little bit about the recording process overall?
This being my first full length recording, I came out of the experience having learned a lot, and I believe this was the case with some of my bandmates as well. We had a limited budget which definitely made us think carefully about our methods and value our time. Our first session was about five hours long and in those five hours, we recorded each tune live two to three times. We wanted to capture a similar feeling to what we produce when we are playing a concert. After we chose the takes that would appear on the album, we made a decision to be quite minimalistic when it came to any layering or overdubs. A big realization that I came to was how much time and work goes into a thoughtful mixing and mastering of a project. As someone who is pursuing music professionally, I am so happy to have walked away with a plethora of new knowledge. Also, I am very thankful for our Kickstarter backers who lent us their financial support for the recording.
There are a lot of Jaco Pastorius-esque, sparse basslines on this album, and experimental chord work, but also traditional jazz and bop signatures. What are the major musical influences on Waiting for Dawn?
The major influences in my writing come from composers and poets who are great storytellers. A current songwriter in the modern jazz realm I pay close attention to is a vocalist/multi-instrumentalist named Becca Stevens. What I love about Becca is her ability to draw you into a different world through her lyrics and then illustrate that world through the music. This past year, I also came into the music of pianist and vocal duo Ran Blake and Jeanne Lee. Their recordings of the Jazz Standard Repertoire opened me up to entirely new meanings of the tunes I had previously thought I had a good understanding of. If a musician can really bring out different colors of a piece to demonstrate a particular mood, that can be very special. No matter what style I am drawing from when writing something new, I always strive to tell a compelling story.
Lyrics are heavily focused on time passing and loss. Can you talk about the inspiration for "The Good Life," "Dreamer," or the title track?
In 2012, I lost my mother Donna Cohen to a rare form of cancer. Coping with the loss of someone you truly love is a theme that is threaded delicately through the album. In The Good Life, we enter a world in which the song’s main character is in the very early aftermath of having lost a family member. As the story unfolds, we witness her make a rash decision in response to the stress that accumulates with the appearance of estranged family members, the expectations of her religious background, and her own revelations in response to the death. Dreamer is intentionally more abstract, and exists to lament the passing of time in hopes of finding a way to cope with its inevitability. The anxiety of the grieving process is especially apparent in Waiting For Dawn, a piece that is meant to explore the feelings often associated with utter restlessness. It isn’t until Praise that the lyrics demonstrate a sense of acceptance of significant loss, and thus a form of resolution. I intentionally placed Praise near the end of the album with the other three songs at the front because I believe that coming to understand the loss of a loved one is a journey that takes great time and often means journeying through darkness in order to find light.