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Emmet Cohen: Hail the Piano Player

Photo credit: Taili Song Roth

Zachary Weg By

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The piano is a pretty arbitrary thing, a box of strings and hammers, but there's something about it where you can create an infinite number of combinations
—Emmet Cohen
In a plain, gray building off Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem, pianist, Emmet Cohen, gently hammers on his instrument, head bopping to the drum hits and bass thuds that reverberate along the plant-lined walls of his apartment. Thirty years old and one of the finest piano players to emerge in decades, the Miami-born and Montclair, New Jersey-raised musician is not just the poster man for contemporary jazz, breathing 2020s finesse onto early twentieth century swing, he is a supremely gifted and impassioned artist of the highest order. The fact that he can also rollick on this warm spring night, transmitting sweet sounds to thousands of homes via his fifty-third webcast of this grave coronavirus year, only underscores his deep love for jazz and his innate will to play.

By age three, Cohen displayed a reverence for the instrument itself: the piano. "I once heard Herbie [Hancock] say in an interview, 'The piano is a family of 88 members, black and white, all working together under my fingertips to form a great orchestra,'" he says by phone from Orlando where he had a show a week and a half earlier. "I was like, 'Wow, I couldn't have said it better myself.' I think there are some things that humans have created that are just pure magic. The piano is a pretty arbitrary thing, a box of strings and hammers, but there's something about it where you can create an infinite number of combinations."

At age ten, he enrolled in the Pre-College Division at the Manhattan School of Music where he honed his already prodigious talent and, in his teen years, hopped to clubs that he would later headline such as Smalls in New York. Reflecting on his first forays into Greenwich Village and on its vibrant jazz scene, Cohen says, "It's just the culture. New York is one of the most diverse, intense and dense places in the universe. You can have almost any kind of food there, any kind of music or art there and it is not just jazz; it's classical music, it's musical theater, Broadway, opera." Cohen, who more often draws inspiration from individuals than he does other art forms, continues, "There's so much there, even the Brooklyn underground scene and electronic music festivals that all co-exist in this way that contributes to the energy of the city. The energy there is what gives the music life." Already a jazz devotee, Cohen would not only marvel at his heroes like Cedar Walton at the Village Vanguard or Christian McBride back in Montclair but would sit with them after shows and absorb their wisdom.

While still getting a formative education from mentor, Shelly Berg, at the Frost School of Music within the University of Miami, the then early-twenties musician released his entrancing debut album, In the Element (Self-Produced, 2011). Starting with the warm, keys-tinkled "It's Alright With Me," the record immediately compels, as if conjuring a dim séance that lasts for the remaining fifty-four minutes. On songs such as the nocturnal "Where or When" or the cascading "Just Deserts," Cohen announced himself as not merely a technical wizard, able to roll on the keys just as much as he could tingle on them, but also a young player of both fine feeling and great generosity.

One of the remarkable traits of Cohen's is, in fact, his selflessness as a bandleader, his nature to let others shine before himself. Such musical benevolence traverses across his discography, whether it be in the four volumes of his "Masters Legacy Series" where he spotlights the talents of such legends as bassist, Ron Carter, or the late drummer, Jimmy Cobb, but also on his spectral new album, Future Stride (Mack Avenue, 2021). From the beginning, Cohen does turn the spotlight on himself as the opener, "Symphonic Raps" bounces along with hip-hop jubilee but, as the record progresses, he illuminates just how intuitive and dynamic drummer, Kyle Poole, and bassist, Russell Hall, are. On third song, "Toast to Lo," for instance, Cohen lets Poole bask in bossa nova-sprinkled cymbal clasps and enables Hall to stolidly slap the bass all while joyously honoring the late Lawrence Leathers. Guest trumpeter, Marquis Hill, and tenor saxophonist, Melissa Aldana, also glow, the horn players' swiveling lines radiating the merriment that Leathers reportedly exuded.

Speaking about Poole and Hall, who comprise his trio, Cohen says, "They're my soul mates, they're my brothers, they're my family, they're my teachers. I learn from them each and every day about life, music and the world. We've created something that I think bonds us together." Cohen continues that the trio bears his name but says that, in the last several years, the band "would be nothing without them. They're the ones who have put in the love, time and energy, who have slept on couches in the Midwest, rehearsed music endlessly and helped me shape my own compositions and told me when something didn't make sense or when I was handling a situation wrongly. We've learned and grown together."

Hall, who was in his late adolescence when Cohen first met him back in Miami, formidably presents himself on the upright, playing with understated cool, yet it is Poole who flat-out erupts. At the fifty-third webcast, the mid-twenties Poole chopped and dashed with a fire that makes one wonder if he's the rightful heir to Billy Hart yet also conveyed a beatitude that may be his own. Throughout the show, the blonde-dreaded and orange-socked drummer would turn his head and beam a smile at the attendees as he pounced and splashed with his sweat-glistened forearms—himself perhaps the visage of jazz percussion's future.

The live pyrotechnics by Cohen and his bandmates blaze through Future Stride, too. On the title track, for example, the pianist twinkles as Hall hits his strings before Poole quickens the pace and makes for a joyous, carnival-esque end. On the Duke Ellington song, "Pitter Panther Patter," the players similarly rise to the fore as Cohen jaunts on the keys and Hall sizzles on the bass. On the love-struck "My Heart Stood Still," Poole makes his own ascension, steadily lapping on the kit in the background while Cohen's fingers unabashedly spin and swirl to evoke sheer romance.

When Cohen first discusses the album, which followed him winning the 2019 American Pianist Awards and which he recorded over just two days in a Manhattan studio, he projects an almost enviable assuredness. "It's something that we wanted to do for a long time, that we'd been on the road and preparing to do for a long time, so the opportunity kind of met our readiness," he says. "I wanted to really bring the concept of the 'Masters Legacy Series,' and all of the lessons that we've learned, to our generation, to the newer masters. So I got two great musicians who I've connected with in New York and who've inspired me over the years, Marquis Hill and Melissa Aldana, and wrote some stuff particularly with their sound in mind." Cohen goes onto explain that Hill and Aldana "were kind of the direct paradox to the stride concept that Kyle, Russell and I have fostered and integrated into what we do. Marquis and Melissa are kind of the future, and we kind of paired those things together and made a cocktail of a bunch of different music and things that were meaningful in our lives at that moment."

Cohen turning thirty-years-old was amongst the impactful instances in the making of Future Stride. As he offers, "I think whenever you approach a new decade in your life, there is that introspection. You become acutely aware of the passing of time, and it's weird because time passes at the same length that it always has, but I think thirty is an important age. People are trying to figure it out a lot of times in their twenties and thirty is a big year in the sense that things firm up and reveal themselves in a lot of ways." Of himself and his band, Cohen says, "I think we've been working very hard in a number of ways, practicing the piano, writing music, doing all of that, hustling, playing gigs, building audiences. I think this is a good culmination of my twenties."

The musician's birthday, however, coincided with the plague of an era: the deadly coronavirus. A forward-thinker at his core, Cohen didn't let the virus deter him. "The world was changing, aching and developing and the pandemic was a big wake-up call," he says. "It was one of the first times in our lives that the entire world went through some version of the same thing; whether you lived in Europe, South America, Russia, China or anywhere, there was fear and uncertainty and the world just slowed down for a brief time. And that landmark right there kind of taught a lot of people a lot of different things so to have a thirtieth birthday during a pandemic allowed for a lot of reflection. While putting the album together, I was able to incorporate what all of that meant to us, as well."

Consequently, in the wake of the record's release this past January, Cohen feels "grateful," saying, "We put our hard work into the album. We put everything we had into it, we put our spirits and our souls into the creation of it. We made some beautiful moments and that's what jazz is about. It's about encapsulating a specific moment in time that represents something larger." He continues that he always comes "to it from that perspective. I'm just glad that people like it, are reacting to it and responding to it. There's so much music out there from so many of my heroes. It's an honor to have it exist, that it can live on somebody's shelf alongside a Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington record. For me, it's just an honor to be able to put something out in the world."

A significant part of Cohen's oeuvre is not just his recording catalog but also the weekly webcasts from his apartment, which is tidily walled with records (including a bright, old one by Jelly Roll Morton that hangs on the back wall) and which has hosted, like on this night, celebrated trumpeter, Warren Vache, and tenor saxophonist, Harry Allen, but also, on past evenings, new singers such as Samara Joy. Commenting on this series and his plans going forward, Cohen says, "I'm always planning and I think that, for the next little while, virtual shows will still be a big part of what we do. I think that we've found a community and people that really need the music. For me, that's really special to be able to reach people that really need this music. So I think we're going to continue that but I'd also love to get back out there and play live."

Ahead of his first New York show that's open to the public in over a year, Cohen leads his trio and guest brass men through an array of songs, whether it be the zipping "Ragging" by Duke Ellington in celebration of the late great's birthday this week, the Hoagy Carmichael song, "Rockin' Chair," which elegantly stands out with Vache's sloping trumpet, or "Might As Well Be Spring," which, with its apparent samba tinge, makes one wonder what else could possibly matter in the world. A Bossa nova rendition of Cole Porter's "Dream Dancing" follows during which Cohen gently strides on the piano before the night closes with a song that is Harlem, and jazz, at its most celebratory core: Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train." Cohen, as ever, nods his head in gratitude for his fellow musicians as much as for the songs themselves and the individuals who listen to them. A consummate artist but also a thankful host, he bids farewell to his audience, waving his hand and smiling on this breezy evening that carried everyone away and into a brighter, piano-sparkled dawn.

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