Thursday, September 19, 2019

APA Cole Porter Fellow Emmet Cohen shows his staying power at the Jazz Kitchen

Emmet Cohen brings loads of personality and chops to the keyboard.
The winning ways of Emmet Cohen, as linked to his local trio buddies (bassist Nick Tucker and drummer Kenny Phelps), were in full cry Wednesday night at the Jazz Kitchen. Cohen has a big reputation here not just for the quality of his performances, but for his persistence in pursuing the American Pianists Association's Cole Porter Fellowship in Jazz, which he won last April. He had made two previous attempts that put him in the finalist position.

"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 wrote about Cohen's daytime solo gig at Eskenazi Health several years ago, when he was vying for the big award a second time. That remains true, and he has added the Hammond B3 organ to his arsenal.

The instrument was placed at a right angle to the piano Wednesday night for this Indy Jazz Fest event, and provided a complex flavor to the trio's performance of Ellington's "Such Sweet Thunder" and a brace of gospel-inflected favorites, "Amazing Grace" and "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free." Cohen commanded both instruments together, having piano and organ speak unanimously as he stretched his arms out to either side and delivered rollicking accounts.

For the second set, the trio seemed primed to hit the ground running.  I would be surprised if they had to take much time to get adjusted at the first set, though. Cohen, Tucker, and Phelps thrived on maximizing their rapport out of the gate. They started with Tadd Dameron's "Our Delight" at full blaze, then made a smooth segue into a slightly less intense swinger, Cedar Walton's "Holy Land," which showcased the unfailing note selection in Tucker's command of the walking bass. "Distant Hallow," an unconventional Cohen original, featured oblique harmonies and quasi-gamelan inside-the-piano playing. Afterwards, that justified Cohen's initial words to the crowd: "Welcome to the weird set!"

The audience didn't have to wait long for Cohen to salute the Hoosier songwriter whose name will be attached to his for a few years — and in resume form, perhaps for a lifetime. The Cole Porter medley opened with "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," which displayed Tucker as a master of melody, then moved energetically into "It's All Right With Me," which featured incandescent duo work between piano and drums.

The medley concluded with the ballad "Every Time We Say Goodbye," with extensive decorative display by the pianist. But the core of it took your breath away for its wealth of tender feeling amid the filigree. (It also revealed that the top two octaves of the piano weren't quite in tune.)

From there, the magisterial blend of two songs associated with the black church and black liberation led up to a finale Cohen has played here before to honor his Jewish heritage, "Hotsy Kaddish." The rendition started with Phelps applying his hands to the kit, reinforcing the piece's folk legacy. He moved smoothly to brushes and sticks as the account heated up in fervor. The crowd went wild, and the trio came back for a ballad encore and a ragtime evocation that naturally incorporated the pianist's mastery of the demanding "stride" style. There's nothing that Cohen can't do in embracing the whole spectrum, and his Indianapolis associates were with him every step of the way.

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