The fascinating music is performed brilliantly by the musicians who appear on the album. With those flawless performances, Cohan’s compositions are nearly as profound as the music that influenced him in the first place.
It begins with “River (part 1) - Departure” which begins with Cohan’s solo piano. It is straight Jazz—unaffected and homegrown. There is a tabula rasa sense of Jazz beginnings before going to the roots where all things change. There is a hint of Gospel in the track and an openness to what may come. The cascading keys bring the listener to the first turn in the river. It is fine Jazz piano.
“Call and Response” plays off of that Gospel theme and uses the call and response dynamic to introduce the musicians as they echo the motif between each other.
Lorin Cohen on bass, Kobie Watkins on drums and Samuel Torres percussion cast a broad shadow of rhythm as the horns trade between each other. Very creative and imaginative.
“Arrival” reflects Cohan’s landing in Rwanda. According to Cohan, it reflects “the rhythm of the people in the street, activity, night life.” It is passionate and lively. Cohan’s virtuosity is on full exposure here and the rhythm section is remarkable. The horns punctuate the groove with melodic bursts and cool lines.
“River (part 2) – Dark Horizon” is the second bend in the river with an ominous introduction to a more sinister side of Africa’s recent history. It is brief and chaotic with the saxes creating the tension. It is a harbinger of the dark events to follow.
“Storm Rising” is introduced with a chilling piano motif that is picked up by the horns. The rhythm section is furious and textured with piano and horns recreating the clash of outside (colonial) interference and even between rival tribes. The slaughter of the Tutsis at the hands of the Hutus in Uganda, then Rwanda, the conflict in the Congo, even Robert Mugabe’s oppressive (some say monstrous) regime in Zimbabwe are all ingredients in the regional conflagration.
The trumpet of Tito Carrillo against the reeds of John Wojciechowski and Geog Bradfield are hammer and tongs in their display of the conflict. Yet even amidst such turmoil, the beauty remains in spite of the horror.
“River (part 3) – Aftermath” opens a sad recollection of the terrifying events that Africa has suffered. That remembering is picked up in the harrowing themes of “Aftermath” which follows.
The forlorn, muted trumpet and cold piano is like a walk among the ruins in “Aftermath.” Lorin Cohen’s andante bass is a sad stroll. The discordant piano is chilling, perhaps shocking. The horns, however, call out the determination and strength and beauty of a people who have suffered far too much for far too long. Carrillo’s trumpet turns the nightmare into a nocturne.
“Brother Fifi” is a young musician that Cohan befriended in Kigali. He had suffered loss and separation from his family and Cohan formed an inspiring bond with the talented and dedicated young man.
The track opens in joyous refrain. The complex meters and changes are a tribute to the skill and talent of Brother Fifi. Lorin Cohen’s bass is cool and diverse. Ryan Cohan and Lorin Cohen are dynamic and in complete sync with each other. Then Lorin pairs with Carrillo’s trumpet for imaginative cooperation.
Cohan is enthralling with both the piano and the pen on this (and every) track. I admire the structure and melody of this beautiful piece.
“River (part 4) – Beautiful Land” is a stunning Lorin Cohen bass solo. At only 1:46, it is a fully-stocked work of beautiful technique and vision. As in all of the different parts of “The River,” the same theme is reinterpreted and embellished and developed. Lorin Cohen is in his ascendancy as a bass player, composer and improviser. He has the goods.
“Domboshava” continues the bass lines with the addition of the horns. “Domboshava” is translated as “Red Rock” and is a national park in Harare, Zimbabwe. The piece is a Jazz tone poem with colorful imagery that coalesces from the individual artists into a brightly-hued watercolor of someplace beautiful.
“Kampala Moon” is a portrayal of the pale moon over the Ugandan city. It is thoughtful and nocturnal, at peace in a troubled land. Cohan’s piano with the soprano sax is lovely and thoughtful. There is an innocence to the sound that makes the reality of African life all the more heart-breaking.
“River (part 5) – Connection” is Samuel Torres’ and Kobie Watkins’ moment to take center stage. The short burst of rhythmic excitement is a great ride down the cataracts.
“Last Night at the Mannerburg” recalls the final night of Cohan’s African concert tour. The over-crowded venue was the scene pf over-charged music as band and audience exchanged the electricity between them.
The best moments of the track come with the rhythm section lighting it up with Cohan’s aggressive piano. Cohan builds thrill upon thrill as the horns add to the celebration of a night gone well.
“River (part 6) – Coming Home” is the final return of the theme that has wound its way through the entire album. This final installment of “The River” is concerning the return trip from Africa. In each and every return to the theme, something is added. A growing and development (as stated above) takes place. The African trip is showing its influence on the band and on Cohan, in particular.
In “Coming Home,” the pace is slower and more reflective. The motifs are earthy and rich. The piano no longer carries the theme alone, the whole group is in complete participation. It is reflective of a deeper understanding of life and the world. It is much more profound than when the journey began.
Ryan Cohan’s “The River” is a journey of wisdom and transformation. It is the Hero’s Quest. Both Cohan and we are changed by his African sojourn. The joy of life in the midst of political horror and economic oppression is a tribute to those who can find that joy. Cohan has served as a wonderful guide who has broadened the understanding of those who have ears to hear.
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