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By Bob Weinberg
Emmet Cohen communes with jazz giants past and present.
Adjusting his headphones, Emmet Cohen makes his way down the five flights of stairs from his Edgecombe Avenue apartment in Harlem, apologizing to his interviewer for the brief silence on the phone line while he attends to this task. “Sometimes I do a little better [answering questions] when I’m walking,” he explains, as he takes me on a virtual stroll through his storied neighborhood in late September. Duke Ellington lived on Edgecombe, he tells me. Mary Lou Williams held court at her brownstone on Hamilton Terrace. Williams and Bud Powell attended church at Our Lady of Lourdes, and Thelonious Monk habituated a corner near Minton’s Playhouse, just a couple of blocks south from here.
“It’s cool to be among the spirits,” says the 33-year-old pianist, whose startlingly successful pandemic era livestream series, Live From Emmet’s Place, stirred echoes of rent parties held here a century ago. “It really does something to you when you’re in such a historic neighborhood. You start putting those pieces together and the music becomes a little more meaningful when you’re in close proximity to everything that had gone on.”
Cohen’s last couple of recordings, Uptown in Orbit and Future Stride, were steeped in Harlem history — the former leads off with a virtuosic take on Willie “The Lion” Smith’s “Finger Buster” — but as the album titles allude, they nudge the music into the 21st century. A vast spectrum of jazz expression was available to the pianist and his trio mates, bassist Russell Hall and drummer Kyle Poole, and they and their guests employed an array of vintage to modern vocabularies.
Upon moving to New York a decade ago, Cohen became fascinated with early jazz. At first he emulated the pioneers of the music, then he began improvising on their compositions, which, he points out, differ structurally from and often pre-date entries in the Great American Songbook. “You do things like take solo piano arrangements and orchestrate them for the trio, or take Duke Ellington big band arrangements and pare them down for the trio,” he says. “And I found some originality in dealing with some of that music that not many people have recorded or played.”
A related part of Cohen’s mission is expressed on his Master Legacy Series recordings, which have featured the pianist alongside revered elders Jimmy Cobb, Ron Carter, Benny Golson/Tootie Heath, and George Coleman. The latest edition, Volume Five, spotlights tenor saxophonist Houston Person, whom Cohen first met on a jazz cruise about a dozen years ago. The two eventually started playing together and discovered they shared a chemistry, as well as certain sensibilities about the music. At the age of 88 — he turned 89 in November — Person was among the guests who climbed the five flights of stairs for an edition of Emmet’s Place, and the pair continue to perform together; this evening, Cohen tells me, they’re doing a duo gig for jazz radio station WBGO in Newark. (Find it on the WBGO website.)
“Houston Person is one of the most joyful musicians that I’ve come across,” Cohen enthuses. “Every time we play, it’s just so much fun. He taught me a lot of things, but especially how to put music together for people, how to play for and respect a listening audience, and then how to lead that listening audience on a journey. Houston’s always thinking about the audience, in a completely natural and beautiful way. It’s not like he’s standing on the table, playin’ the bar. He’s trying to get the tempo just right, to feel the dance in the music. And he always knows what tune to play, after the one we just played, to complement it. Subtle things like that make a difference between good and great in what we do.”
Cohen also appreciates Person’s lyrical phrasing, likening him to a singer. Certainly, both men have worked with their share of vaunted vocalists, Person with Lena Horne, Dakota Staton, and most notably Etta Jones, with whom he had a long musical partnership; and Cohen with A-list up-and-comers Samara Joy, Jazzmeia Horn and Anaïs Reno. Familiarizing himself with a song’s lyric, Cohen says, adds depth to his interpretations: “The lyrics are something that you become finely attuned to, and it helps you phrase and it helps you pace the song and give it meaning, as well.” That lyricism is more than evident across the nine tracks of his and Person’s new release, which features quite moving takes of Songbook staples such as “If You Could See Me Now,” “All My Tomorrows” and “A Sunday Kind of Love,” each infused with deep feeling. Of course, Person can also play the blues with the best of ’em, as he proves with his original composition “Why Not?” the menthol cool album opener.
“He’s such a tunesmith,” Cohen says. “He’s forgotten more tunes than I’ll ever know. I’ve learned so many great songs from him, so many rare songs from musicals and different parts of the American tradition. … So he finds these things that are meaningful, not just to him, but to the world in a way, and begins to reinvent and reconstruct them in the simplest terms.”
Making the session even more special was the fact that they recorded it — with the rhythm team of bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Poole — at Rudy Van Gelder’s famed studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Cohen was in awe as he pondered the legendary sessions that took place there, including John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and the remarkable roll call of pianists whose fingers had touched the keys of the pianos in that space: “Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Cedar Walton, Hank Jones, Bill Evans,” he recites. “And the list goes on and and on.”
During a recent gig with Person at Smoke, Cohen observed a touching scene between Person and fellow saxophonist George Coleman, who had come out to support his colleagues. Conversing outside the club, the 88-year-old jazz vets reminisced, joked, sang old tunes. “They hadn’t seen each other in a long time,” Cohen says. “And it was just the most beautiful moment. It inspired me, you know, that I could be amongst my friends when we’re 88, singin’ and dancing and we’re still inspired by the music and all the beauty that it brings to the world.”
Featured photo by Gabriela Gabrielaa.