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For her multi-year project, Priest chose Ryan Cohan’s hour-long Jazz suite The River for its beauty, intellect, emotional range and panoramic scale. She writes, “In it I hear voices of Latin and Afro-Cuban Jazz, African drumming with its layered rhythms, Aaron Copland’s uplifting compositions, call-and-response forms from Africa and the African-American South, and the gritty Chicago Blues and Jazz tradition Cohan grew up in. The River offers me rich musical spaces and emotional content to work with.”

In 2008 Guggenheim Fellow Ryan Cohan and his quartet were selected by the U.S. State Department and Jazz at Lincoln Center to tour several African nations as cultural ambassadors, working with musicians there. Cohan spent a year digesting his experience and writing The River – commissioned by Chamber Music America and recorded in 2013 with support from the Aaron Copland Fund.

“For me, The River Project is a ‘coming home’ – an embrace embodied in my work,” Priest writes. “Coming of age in the Vietnam era, I have long struggled with the contradictions in America, especially my country’s persistent difficulty embracing the diversity that defines it and makes it thrive. Yet, both the Abstract Expressionism that has provided a critical artistic source and the Jazz (our great American art form) that has been my beloved subject for twenty-five years could only have happened here.

ELLEN PRIEST On Being American/Jazz: Ryan Cohan’s The River #25 © 2017  Flashe and pencil on paper.  30” x 45”