Sunday, April 7, 2019

Cole Porter Fellowship in Jazz, the American Pianists Awards' top prize in a quadrennial competition, lands in a familiar pair of hands

Emmet Cohen lived out the "third-time's-the-charm" cliché Saturday night at the Gala Finals of the American
Kurt Elling and Dee Dee Bridgewater flank award-winner Emmet Cohen.
Pianists Awards
in Hilbert Circle Theatre.

A finalist in the 2011 and 2015 jazz piano competitions, the 28-year-old topped the five-man field when all the judges' assessments were tallied. He's the new Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz, ringed round with a host of honors, chiefly around $100,000 in monetary benefits.

The carefully organized summit of a process lasting more than a year brought Cohen and his fellow competitors before a large audience to perform one song each with featured guest vocalist Kurt Elling, then showcased them in a Brent Wallarab arrangement of music each pianist chose, accompanied by the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra.

When I first heard Cohen in 2010, he was inaugurating the Premiere Series, club gigs at the Jazz Kitchen at which the finalists front a trio in the conventional piano-bass-drums combination. In my Indianapolis Star account at the time, though out of context it may sound like faint praise, I wrote: "Cohen strikes me primarily as a responsible artist: loyal to the material that inspires his arrangements and improvisations, very grounded in how to put across what he wants to say."

That's a rare effect for a 20-year-old to have, perhaps, but a sense of responsibility is vital equipment for any young artist, and it seems to have carried Cohen forward to the present. In Saturday's set involving collaboration with Elling, for instance, singer and pianist made good work of the least-known song of the five, "I Keep Goin' Back to Joe's," a male torch song associated with Nat King Cole.

Elling's career, a rare distinction for a male jazz vocalist, has been eminent for over two decades. His expressive range is as vivid as his command of vocal registers is secure. "I Keep Goin' Back to Joe's" put a spotlight on a strain of vulnerability that the Chicago-based singer has always exploited well. (The archetype in American popular song is Frank Sinatra's "Only the Lonely," perhaps the first "concept album.")

Cohen was fully with him in spirit, reinforcing with yearning phrases the lament of a solitary drinker hoping to reconcile with a long-absent lover. He also took flight in solo passages. So, while he may be properly grounded in honoring whatever material he undertakes, he typically allows plenty of room for his sometimes whimsical imagination to soar.

That's why I was slightly underwhelmed by the Fats Waller medley he played with the band on the concert's second half. The excursion through "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now," and other Waller chestnuts was idiomatic enough and showed off Cohen's pearly touch, but it explored only one facet of his artistry. I thought back to the fuller spectrum of his talents displayed in Friday's Club Finals at the Kitchen, when he gave "The Second Time Around" a prismatic treatment spanning both delicacy and bravura.

In any event, his capture of the top prize is fully deserved. It was almost predictable: I told a friend beforehand when asked for my pick: "Well, I think Emmet Cohen is due." I meant not that some sort of justice had to be served by giving a third-time finalist the top prize, but rather that anyone notching three places in the distinguished history of the American Pianists Awards is already in the winner's circle.

Here are the top moments for me from each of the other finalists in Saturday's performances:

*Kenny Banks Jr.'s steamy partnership with Elling in a ripe and rousing "Georgia on My Mind" and his characteristically puckish take, seconded by Brent Wallarab's excellent arrangement, on Harold Arlen's "Get Happy."

*Dave Meder's deep-delving examination of Thelonious Monk's "Work," which came through handsomely despite an open stage environment that didn't flatter the band. (Ideally, the BWJO would have been well served by an acoustical shell that might have gathered its sound and pushed it forward instead of allowing it to scatter upward, sideways, and behind.) With Elling, Meder's Chopinesque interpretation of Alec Wilder's "Moon and Sand" was also memorable.

*Billy Test's "From This Moment On" featured a subtle chorus after Elling's first traversal of the song, which made a nice contrast to the dominant sense of romantic mission that the Cole Porter evergreen encapsulates. The finalist's love of highly charged playing got effective free rein in the program-closer, Bob Dorough's "Devil May Care."

*Keelan Dimick complemented Elling's vocal acrobatics  in "Bye Bye Blackbird" as the performances launched after honorary chairman Al Roker's video greeting.  Dimick quickly served notice that these pianists can stand shoulder to shoulder with an inventive and mercurial vocalist of Elling's caliber. No wonder: they all brought plenty of performance history to the competition. In everything I heard from them over the course of the past season, there was an unflagging commitment to well-modulated ecstasy rising from a jazzman's essential task:  taking care of business.

The upbeat feeling of the evening, capped by the stage-spanning line-up of distinguished musicians and APA supporters as CEO Joel Harrison opened the envelope, had been established from the start by the emceeing of Bridgewater, spectacularly outfitted and exuberantly walking the sunny side of the street. She didn't need gold dust at her feet — she was wearing it.

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

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