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“Cohn had a broad, heavy tone; he played in an uncomplicated style, employing regular phrase lengths and idiomatic bop figures.”
- Leroy Ostransky, The New Grove Encyclopedia of Jazz
“Cohn was the consummate jazz professional His arrangements me foursquare and unpretentious and his saxophone-playing a model of' order and accuracy. He was perhaps never more completely himself than as one of the Four Brothers, the legendary Woody Herman saxophone section. Later in life, though, his soloing took on a philosophical authority, unexciting but deeply satisfying.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.
“Cohn was a swinging, modern Basie-oriented arranger and a tenor saxophonist of the Lester Young School. … Underrated by the public, his playing was always admired by his contemporaries for its structure, sound and swing.”
- Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler, The Encyclopedia of Jazz.
While working on a more extended piece about tenor saxophonist and composer-arranger Al Cohn, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles wanted to celebrate his memory with a brief recapitulation of some of the highlights of his career.
Influenced by the vibratoless, "cool" sound of Lester Young, Cohn was greatly admired for his playing, especially with Woody Herman's band of the late 1940s and in tandem with tenorist Zoot Sims during the 1950s and 1960s. Cohn was also an accomplished arranger of both jazz and commercial music.
Born in 1925, Cohn grew up in Brooklyn listening to musicals by Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. He took piano and clarinet lessons, but had no serious interest in music until his early teens, when he heard Benny Goodman and Lester Young. Cohn had little formal training on the tenor, but he did play it in his high school band. He also arranged for the band by transcribing big-band charts from recordings.
Cohn first worked for Joe Marsala (1943) and then for Georgie Auld's band (1943—46), where he began composing and arranging in earnest. After brief stints with Buddy Rich and Alvino Rey, Cohn replaced Herbie Steward in Woody Herman's Second Herd (1948—49). He became part of the "Four Brothers" sax sound with Sims, Stan Getz, and Serge Chaloff— all of whom had developed personal interpretations of Lester Young's sound. Cohn contributed two standards to the Herman book, "The Goof and I" and "Music To Dance To"
Limited to brief solo parts, Cohn left Herman's group to work for Charlie Ventura and Artie Shaw. During the early 1950s, he recorded as a leader (The Progressive Al Cohn, Savoy) and began a long career as an arranger for television, working for Sid Caesar, Ernie Kovacs, and The Hit Parade and other shows.
In 1957 Cohn and Sims fronted a respected band that was known through its performances at the Half Note in New York. The Cohn-Sims band, with personnel changes, remained intact until 1969. Their music remained cool, well ordered, and lyrical. During the early 1970s, Cohn was active in Hollywood studios as an arranger and played the sax solos in the film Lenny, about the life of comedian Lenny Bruce.
He also returned to collaborations with Sims (Body and Soul, Muse). In 1976 Cohn's jazz reputation was revived by a series of albums for Don Schlitten's Xanadu label (Play It Now, Al Cohn's America, True Blue, and others). He later appeared in small groups with his son Joe, a guitarist (Overtones, Concord Jazz).
Cohn died of cancer in 1988 at the age of sixty-two.
When the celebrated tenor saxophonist Stan Getz was asked who his favorite tenor saxophonist was, he would often reply: “My sound; Zoot Sims’ swing; Al Cohn’s ideas.”
The meaning of Stan’s quotation speaks for itself, but perhaps, it also implies what I’ve always thought about Al’s playing and that is he played his solos like a composer which was his fundamental strength.
As to the title of this piece, Al had Many “brothers” including Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Jimmy Giuffre, Allen Eager, Bob Cooper, Bill Holman, Dave Pell, and a host of other tenor saxophonists who played in the manner of Lester Young’s “cool style,” but two of my favorites from Prez’s tenor sax school are Bill Perkins and Richie Kamuca.
Fortunately for me and for lots of other Jazz fans, the “complete sessions” that Al, Bill and Richie recorded for RCA along with some previously unreleased tracks from June 24th and June 25th, 1955 sessions have been gathered onto a CD entitled The Brothers: Cohn, Perkins and Kamuca [RCA BMG 74321477922].
The following video tribute features Al, Bill and Richie on Bill Potts’ Hags from the June 25, 1955 date along with Jimmy Raney on guitar, Hank Jones on piano, John Beal on bass and Chuck Flores on drums.