Sunday, February 24, 2019

Third time's the charm?: Emmet Cohen returns as APA jazz finalist, a position he first held in 2010

Local fans of the quadrennial American Pianists Awards in Jazz have had the opportunity to become familiar with Emmet Cohen over a longer time than usual.
Emmet Cohen in a portrait reflecting his impulsive and thoughtful sides.

At 29, the New York-based musician is back for the third time as a finalist in the quadrennial American Pianists Association jazz competition — unprecedented in its history, according to APA CEO and artistic director Joel Harrison, who introduced Cohen Saturday night at the Jazz Kitchen.

The Miami native concluded the Premiere Series, in which the APA presents five finalists in trio settings over the course of a season, accompanied by local musicians Nick Tucker, bass, and Kenny Phelps, drums. From here on out, the contestants will be judged during Discovery Week in April, with the result that one of them will be named the Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz and thus taken under the APA wing for two years.

Heard in the second of two sets, Cohen struck me as more focused on distributing his ample resources cleverly than he had in an Eskenazi Health performance four-plus years ago. Sometimes it seems that, whether a musician is in competitive mode or not, unaccompanied excursions can bring out displays of virtuosity that may slightly obscure a pianist's control and depth of personality. I was impressed by Cohen then, but a combination of further seasoning plus the collegial trio format seems to have inclined him to "load every rift with ore," to quote John Keats' advice to his fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Like so many up-and-coming jazz pianists since the bebop era, Cohen is encyclopedic in his coverage of historical styles and subgenres. His musical literacy seemed to embrace Claude Debussy in an impressionistic original, "In a Dream."

The knowledgeable centerpiece during the second set was his four-part tribute to Cedar Walton, an eminent pianist-composer who died at 79 in 2013. Cohen and his bandmates found original ways of finding the core of four Walton tuens: "Hindsight," "Holy Land," "Dear Ruth," and "Mosaic."  The trio's accounts were fully individualized as well. The value of honoring the past, less by mimicry than by reshaping its gifts to the present,  was intensively engaged. There were firmly rooted solo displays from both Tucker and Phelps, plus a crowd of deft two-bar exchanges between piano and drums.

Cohen's sense of fun as well as another part of his heritage came into view with "Hotsy Kaddish," a setting in different tempos and moods of a Jewish prayer. The pianist's rhythmic acuity was particularly in evidence — the performance really jumped. That exhibition by the excellent trio amounted to a well-coordinated prelude to the set's lickety-split finale, Cohen's arrangement of the chordally animated "Braggin' in Brass," an early Duke Ellington showcase for his seminal big band.

Previously, there had been both wit and tenderness suffusing the Hoagy Carmichael evergreen "Two Sleepy People." The trio's repeated pause between "Here" and "we are" in the song's first line was an especially droll touch. The set began with Cohen's unaccompanied soloing in Scott Joplin's "Original Rags," which was restrained and respectful of the pre-jazz idiom, but never staid or academic. One of Ellington's Shakespearean turns – "Such Sweet Thunder," a portrait of the warrior Othello — then brought the trio on. It opened, naturally enough, with some tom-tom drum rolls — sweet thunder indeed — and gathered bluesy energy from all three musicians as it swept across the battlefield.

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