Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Emmet Cohen breaks up his busy week interacting with students for solo performance at Eskenazi Health

Emmet Cohen of Miami made a strong impression as the youngest finalist four years ago in the Jazz Fellowship Awards competition of the American Pianists Association.

Performing Tuesday afternoon at Eskenazi Health as part of the Marianne Tobias Music Program, Cohen showed that his return as a finalist this year is more than adequate confirmation of the promise he showed in 2010.
Emmet Cohen brings solo virtuosity to Eskenazi Health.

The format of the APA's participation is solo piano in the lobby of the new hospital building, and Cohen is the third of the five jazz finalists to present an hourlong unaccompanied program there. (That comes in the midst of a week of residency at a local high school; Cohen is at Lawrence Central this week.)

The piano (a Tobias gift) is a marvelously responsive instrument, though rather too bright up high. Cohen is a gifted improviser as well as a young master of piano textures and articulation at all dynamic levels.

He tried out different approaches to a tune, such as the soft, clearly focused repeated notes that set up what becomes a massive interpretation of Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is the Ocean." He backed off from grandiloquence just in time, thanks to a segue into "Just in Time," which incorporated a creditable "stride" chorus before settling into the final measures.

He's a bubbly fountain of ideas, launching into "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" from an unexpected suggestion of a Bach two-part invention at the start of his program.  He closed it indulging in his virtuoso capacity, using "In the Still of the Night" to set up his interpretation of another Cole Porter evergreen, "I Concentrate on You." His manner here could be called flowery, until it began to suggest runaway verdure —  a jungle of piano sonority including clanging treble tremolos. This bravura episode was cannily moderated before the end. Cohen showed himself thereby to be a shrewd showman, putting the "wow" factor foremost as his farewell gesture.

He altered his focus on the Great American Songbook to offer a whimsical, angular take on two Thelonious Monk tunes, "Trinkle Tinkle" and "Four in One." I admired his phrasing, with its deft spacing and clever distribution of the former composition's Woody Woodpecker motif.

In Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me," Cohen lingered over the verse, using it to introduce the familiar chorus taken at a medium-swing tempo, where the tune could sound tender and pleading without getting sappy. Cohen's affection for classic popular songs was particularly evident in his performance of Harry Warren's "I Wish I Knew," where lyricism rode high over romantic filigree.

The young man has a vast expressive range and seems to be able to put to use every technique remotely suitable to jazz pianism. I'd like to hear him put aside some of the virtuosity someday to tell me something new about the blues, however. I have a feeling he could do that well, too.