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Cheryl North Interviews Jeremy Cohen

Classical Music Column for ANG Newspapers, January 11, 2002

On October 5, 1957, a lot of people on the planet were mesmerized by Russia's succesful launch of Sputnik, the first man-made object to be set into orbit around the earth. But for Mr. and Mrs. Cohen of Oakland, an earthbound event on the next day, October 6, eclipsed even Sputnik. That was the day their third son, Jeremy, was born. Now, 44 years later, it has become a day that aficionados of jazz violin and country fiddling have come to appreciate.

Cohen, the youngest of the musical Cohens' three very musical sons (his brother Joel is a cellist with the Boston Symphony, while brother Joshua plays both double bass and violin with various chamber ensembles in the Bay Area), has become the heir of such jazz violin legends as Joe Venuti, Eddie South, and the great Stephane Grappelli. Yet, listed among his favorite teachers is none other than the great classical violinist Itzhak Perlman. Not exclusive in his musical tastes, when Cohen is not playing jazz or country music, he might be performing as the concertmaster in touring musicals such as the recent San Francisco performances of Fiddler on the Roof, The Phantom of the Opera; or Forever Tango. Or, he might be sighted playing Mahler among the strings of the San Francisco Symphony where he is an occasional substitute, or simply jamming it up with a few colleagues gathered in someone's living room playing Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time.

Cohen's next public performance will be as guest soloist with the Peninsula Symphony, under the baton of Mitchell Sardou Klein, in concerts scheduled for 8 p.m. tonight at the Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware Ave., in San Mateo and again at 8 p.m. Saturday at Flint Center on the DeAnza College campus, Highway 85 at Stevens Creek Blvd., in Cupertino.

The concert is entitled "Jazz and Richard Rodgers," since 2002 is the 100th anniversary of the late Rodgers' birth. As a fitting tribute to the American master, Cohen was commissioned to write a special new work for violin and orchestra, "Rodgers without Hammerstein," which will receive its world premiere during the upcoming concerts. Other works on the program will be orchestral renditions of the Overture to Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific; Carousel Waltz; and Slaughter on 10th Avenue.

Following the intermission, Cohen and his Trio, consisting of Don Turney, piano; Dix Bruce, guitar; and Jim Kerwin, bass, will combine to perform Black Gypsy; an Ellington Medley; Wild Dog; Sweet Georgia Brown, and the wildly successful Jeremy's Hot Fiddle Soup. (Cohen loves to cook, as well as to ski, snorkle, and more, in his spare time).

During a recent telephone chat, the multifaceted Cohen explained that the "Rodgers without Hammerstein" piece is actually his own arrangement of Rodgers' Blue Moon and My Funny Valentine." He noted that many of Rodgers' best melodies were not particularly "jazzy," but rather, sweet, simple, and gentle and that they resonated with the needs of the troubled, insecure mid-20th century.

The other Cohen piece, Jeremy's Hot Fiddle Soup, is another matter altogether. Jazzy, fast-paced, and hot, it was a featured work when he and some colleagues were invited to participate in the "Django Reinhardt Festival at the Hot Club in Paris, France last year. A follow-up performance happened last October when Cohen and the combo called the Hot Club of San Francisco, were invited to play in a jazz festival in New Caledonia.

"It was one of the best three weeks of my life," Cohen said. "In addition to the great musical experiences, there were beautiful landscapes, and time for snorkling in coral reefs."

He also found time during his busy 2001 to participate with the San Francisco Symphony as a country fiddler, clad in a cowboy costume, for the Symphony's special concert honoring retiring board president Nancy Bechtle. According to Cohen, the Symphony's conductor, Michael Tilson-Thomas, asked his string players during a rehearsal if any of them could do genuine country fiddling. Jeremy Constant, who had been Cohen's college roommate, volunteered his friend's services. So, to honor the country music-loving Bechtle, MTT wrote a special fiddling tune which Cohen, a percussionist, a bass player, and MTT at the piano, performed for the celebratory event.

In addition to his multiple Bay area musical activities, Cohen has spent a year and a half playing viola and violin with the famed Turtle Island Quartet, performing in a number of movie soundtracks and recordings at the Skywalker Studios, making three CDs of his own, doing more and more orchestrations and arrangements; and working as the co-chair of the string department of the Henry Mancini Institute, which is housed on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles. He is also a devoted father to two sons, an 18-year-old who is aiming for a football scholarship, and a 6 foot 2 inch 14-year-old.

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