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Like all of his brother and sister jazz musicians, pianist Emmet Cohen has had to improvise a path through the new ecosystem that emerged on March 11th, when the World Health Organization officially designated the COVID-19 virus a pandemic. On that day, Cohen had just arrived in Winnipeg to meet his working trio –bassist Russell Hall and drummer Kyle Poole — for a four-night stay comprising three concerts in two nights and an educational engagement.
“We were in a hotel next to the Winnipeg airport, feeling very eerie about what was happening,” Cohen recalled in late October over the phone from his fifth-floor Harlem walkup. “I remember riding the elevator and not wanting to touch it, thinking everyone on it had COVID. We didn’t know how to respond or react. It was like we knew that the end of the world was coming — everything about to shut down, the borders about to close. All university functions were canceled, but we decided to play the concerts. We knew it might be the last time in a while; you could hear the urgency in our playing. Then we flew back to New York.”
[caption id="attachment_30349" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Bassist Russel Hall (left) drummer Kyle Poole and pianist Emmet Cohen. (Photo: Courtesy the artists)[/caption]
Over the ensuing eight months, Cohen and his partners, Harlem neighbors, have done better than most at making lemonade from lemons. Having agreed to maintain a united front on that return trip, they found a New York milieu where, as Cohen put it, “Everyone is depressed, everything is canceled, and people are dying for art and culture and entertainment and community.” A path forward presented itself on March 18th when Cecile McLorin Salvant and Sullivan Fortner presented an interactive livestream duo concert in Salvant’s living room. “We thought we could piggyback on that, using the virtual platform to bring people together through jazz,” Cohen said.
An opportunity to implement that notion arose on Monday, March 23rd, when the trio had been scheduled to play a concert at the Lied Center in Lawrence, Kansas. “They said they’d pay our fee for the night if we’d put something together — all we had to do was say they’d sponsored it.” Cohen said. “That gave us the drive. We moved the drums and bass up the five floors, set up the laptop, turned on the streaming, played our stuff, and had a mediocre quality recording-performance.”
That event launched a weekly Facebook-Youtube livestream show called Live From Emmet’s Place, which ran for the 30th consecutive week three days before Cohen spoke. Episode #29 was a nicely lit multi-camera, sonically balanced show in which the trio interacted for nearly two hours with guest guitarist Mark Whitfield, Cohen’s bandmate several years back in Christian McBride’s “Special Trio.” The repertoire traversed Duke Ellington (“In A Sentimental Mood”), Wayne Shorter (“Fe-Fi-Fo-Fum”), Milt Jackson (“S.K.J.”), Ahmad Jamal (a mashup of “Poinciana” and George Benson’s “Breezin’”), and an array of choice cuts culled from the Great American Songbook.
Previous episodes, Cohen said, included encounters with “people we’ve interacted with individually and collectively over the last eight years in New York” — vocalists Veronica Swift and Cyrille Aimee; tap dancer Michaela Ledrman; alto saxophonist Godwin Louis and trumpeter Bruce Harris from Herlin Riley’s touring group; and tenor saxophonists Tivon Pennicott and Stacy Dillard from Cohen’s weekly, long-run organ gig at the Upper West Side club Smoke.
“Everyone lives in the neighborhood,” Cohen said. “They tell us: ‘Wow I really needed that. I haven’t played a gig in a while, and it felt so good to vibrate with a band.’ I like to think of us as an empathetic trio, and we try to make anyone who comes in to play with us sound better and feel comfortable. It’s given us an added sense of doing something worthwhile. Why do we do this thing? Ok, now, all of a sudden, we’re uplifting our community, and it became even more important to keep it going.”
With remarkable consistency, the trio undertook both the soloistic and comping functions with an attitude both informal and authoritative, relaxed and intense, idiomatic and creative, evoking and refracting fresh takes on the trio concepts of, among others, Wynton Kelly, Cedar Walton, Ahmad Jamal, and Phineas Newborn.
[caption id="attachment_12909" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Emmet Cohen (Photo: Courtesy the artist)[/caption]
“We’ve gotten new music together each week, diversifying the language,” Cohen said. He stated that the trio hadn’t repeated a song for the first two months. “We went through a phase of learning stuff from Birth of the Cool; a phase of learning early jazz; a phase of playing compositions by our peers, like Sullivan Fortner, Robert Glasper and Cyrus Chestnut. We’ve done tributes to Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. We might play something by Louis Armstrong, then something by Ellington, then something by Wynton Marsalis. It’s all repertoire we’ve learned over the last ten years, and we can dig back deep into any of it.
“I’ve also been using the time to practice the piano – practicing classical music, which I stopped doing seriously at 18. It’s hard to do when you’re traveling all the time, because you need to attack it every single day. I spent a lot of time playing stuff by Willie the Lion Smith, by Chopin; I spent some time with Bach and Mozart.”
Just as consequentially, Cohen — who has displayed enviable left brain-right brain equipoise throughout his brief career — worked hard on the entrepreneurial component of his toolkit, expanding his learning curve incrementally from week to week.
At the beginning, Cohen said, “I realized that I’d have to learn about miking techniques.” He got an inexpensive mixing board, a stereo microphone for the piano to keep it in phase, and condensers for the bass and drums. After watching a slew of Youtube instructional videos about channeling audio into an interface, and channeling that interface into the computer, he downloaded Open Broadcasting Software, a streaming modality that enables him to coalesce “a bunch of things together into a production, and then export that production into Facebook or Youtube.” Then he subscribed to a website that allowed him to multi-stream the feed to separate platforms simultaneously, and investigated ways “to tweak the delay between the audio and video when it hits the stream” on those platforms. He learned to counteract freezing and pixillation by always streaming with an ethernet connection, a modality that became exponentially more effective once fiber-optic internet was installed in his building.
In parallel, Cohen paid attention to marketing, assimilating cross-posting technology that facilitated cyber-ballyhoos to the sizable cohort of fans and followers he’s accumulated through a half-decade of grass-roots touring. “It allows me to run a feed simultaneously on my Facebook page and any number of other pages. I reached out to a lot of venues and places we’ve played that didn’t have much content to show, and suggested that airing our show, which we’d license for nothing, could drive traffic to them. Furthermore, Cohen, who has diligently harvested thousands of email addresses from audiences across the world, sent comprehensive weekly email blasts announcing the upcoming show.
“Those are the people who tune in and watch us play every week,” Cohen said. “Early on, when nothing was going on, we were averaging between 50,000 and 75,000 views on Facebook per week. I think the one with Veronica on Facebook got over 115,000 views.”
On each concert until the end of August, Cohen functioned as a performer-producer, “like doing a TV show and starring in it at the same time,” though suffering no apparent negative impacts on either instrumental execution or creative mojo. Then he replaced OBS with Switcher software, and recruited the gifted saxophonist-composer Alex Weitz to operate a 4-camera setup and lights. He also got a piano student to monitor the comment stream for objectionable language and to do promotions.
He continues to present Live at Emmet’s Place free of charge, relying on sponsors and donations from fans. “I think there’s more value in keeping it free for people who discover it or can’t afford it than charge ticket prices to the same people who come every week,” Cohen said, noting the value of creating a comprehensive Youtube archive of the shows. However, he established “an exclusive member support database on a kind of Patreon-ish model” — perks include periodic, membership-only solo concerts and a vinyl copy of Cohen’s live trio date, Dirty in Detroit.
Cohen has also had to burnish his diplomatic skills towards coexisting with his captive audience of neighbors. “Everybody’s home, and I realize that what we’re doing in the apartment is loud,” he said. “I received some letters and emails from the management company about noise complaints. The cops even came one night, though I don’t think they’re doing noise complaints now after the protests. I started an email thread and said: ‘We’ve lost everything. This is our only opportunity to make our rent and do what we do. I hope you can find it in your hearts to let us play for two hours on Monday nights, and that will be it for the whole week.’ We don’t do drums or music in my apartment at any other time. When we rehearse, we go to Kyle’s house. He lives on the basement floor, and it’s easier, fewer neighbors in his space.”
The neighbors caught a break during the first fortnight of October, when the trio (with Yasushi Nakamura on bass) undertook a tour of Italy, Switzerland and Germany, including concerts in Perugia, Basel and Cologne that live-streamed on Live at Emmet’s Place. “I’m a risk-taker,” Cohen said, referring to having purchased the transatlantic flight tickets with no guarantee that the band wouldn’t be turned back before embarkation or even upon arrival (he left unsaid the risk of infection). But the documents were in order – a letter of invitation, a cultural institution stamp of approval, gig contracts, hotel reservations — and they were admitted into Italy on a work permit that allowed them to skip quarantine, before doing the remainder of the tour under the radar by train and car.
“It was extremely rewarding,” Cohen said. “It was a tiny taste of old times, of hope and community and togetherness and shrinking the world – all the stuff we’d been missing the most.”
Asked whether he expects the streaming model to thrive in a post-COVID world, Cohen was affirmative. “I think streaming will always be part of what we do,” he said. “A lot of people who live in cities that we never go to will tune in and watch. I’d also like to continue to keep the archive moving, document with a lot of different musicians.”
Then Cohen’s pragmatic realist side weighed in. “I think it’s also pretty much an issue of supply and demand. If people consume the thing, then we’ll do it. If we’re doing it and no one is watching, then something needs to change.”