Meet the piano man from New Jersey - Emmet Cohen

Emmet Cohen, who recently played at NCPA in Mumbai, talks about his pet project: Performing, recording and talking about jazz

December 08, 2023 01:43 pm | Updated 04:33 pm IST

Emmet Cohen.

Emmet Cohen. | Photo Credit: Gabriela Gabrielaa 

AFTER the intermission, jazz pianist Emmet Cohen and his group played a tune that many instantly recognised. It was an interpretation of the Billy Joel hit ‘Just The Way You Are’, where trumpeter Benny Benack III excelled. Later in the evening, bassist Philip Norris did an incredible double bass solo on the standard ‘Tea For Two’, after which Kyle Poole displayed his intricate drumwork.

Performing on the second day, Cohen was one of the highlights of the NCPA International Jazz Festival held at Mumbai’s Tata Theatre from November 24 to 26. The opening night featured German pianist Thilo Wolf and his Big Band, joined by vocalist Johanna Iser, singer-guitarist Torsten Goods and vibraphonist Florian Buhrich. Day three began with a scintillating recital by Cuba-born pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and his Trio, followed by jazz standards by New York singer Jane Monheit, with saxophonist Joel Frahm making a guest appearance.

NCPA International Jazz Festival 2023:  Emmet Cohen featuring Benny Benack III at Tata Theatre, NCPA on November 25, 2023.

NCPA International Jazz Festival 2023: Emmet Cohen featuring Benny Benack III at Tata Theatre, NCPA on November 25, 2023. | Photo Credit: NARENDRA DANGIYA

The special feature of Emmet Cohen’s act was the band’s cohesion, control and mutual understanding. Each musician contributed equally, playing a mix of known numbers and originals. The first two numbers only featured the Trio. They began with ‘The Surrey From The Fringe On Top’, a Rodgers-Hammerstein piece from the 1943 musical ‘Oklahoma’, and followed it with the original ‘Spillin The Tea’, from Cohen’s album ‘Uptown In Orbit’.

Trumpeter-vocalist Benack, who celebrated his birthday in Mumbai a couple of days before the gig, was the guest artiste. He came in on the standard ‘Old Devil Moon’, and then sang the Duke Ellington classic ‘In A Mellow Tone’. In a tribute to composer Burt Bacharach, who passed away on February 8 this year, he sang ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’. Other memorable moments were provided by the standard ‘Over The Rainbow’, Cohen’s composition ‘You Already Know’, and ‘Benny’s From Heaven’, a humorous take on the James Moody-popularised ‘Pennies From Heaven’.

It was the band’s first performance in India, and they surely created an impact. In an interview before the show, Emmet Cohen said the line-up had been playing together for a while, and understood each other’s musicality. Benack was invited specially for this concert, and wasn’t part of the Trio’s subsequent shows in Tokyo and Singapore.

Cohen said his approach to most shows was similar. He explained, “We have a set of songs we prepare. But we like to see the room and be live DJs and see what people want, be it fast or romantic. We adapt accordingly.”

Born in Miami, Florida, Emmet Cohen was raised in New Jersey. He started learning piano at the age of three. He said, “I soon began learning under the Suzuki Method. That’s a method of learning piano by ear. I always feel this method lends itself to becoming a jazz musician because one has to hear things, internalise them, have to be able to play back and respond quickly.”

The first influence

Cohen’s first influence was Jamaican pianist Monty Alexander, who he heard when he was 13 or 14. “He swung so hard and smiled at everyone so much that I wanted to be like him,” he said. From there, he discovered pianist Oscar Peterson, besides saxophonists Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. “Listening to them, I fell in love with the language of jazz and started observing the way musicians communicate with one another,” he added.

Besides formal music education, Cohen imbibed different styles by visiting clubs, listening to various musicians, and checking out jazz records. He said, “It began with pianists like Cedar Walton, Ahmad Jamal, Art Tatum and Earl Hines, but soon I discovered stride piano, artistes such as Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. I also liked the later stuff like Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner. So I love different eras of jazz, and I try to put them together and combine them in special ways.”

The 33-year-old musician’s passion for jazz and piano has resulted in three projects — the Masters Legacy Series, Live From Emmet’s Place and Emmet’s Place Education. In the first, he teamed up with some great artistes such as bassist Ron Carter, drummers Jimmy Cobb and Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath, and saxophonists Benny Golson, George Coleman and Houston Person. “I spent time around (saxophonist) Jimmy Heath once when I was 21, and he told me lots of stories about Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and all the stuff growing up. I got a feeling for jazz through them and thought we must do something to bring my generation closer to these masters. That’s what inspired me to start this series,” he pointed out.

The other project was started during the Covid Pandemic. Called ‘Live From Emmet’s Place’, it is a weekly video-streaming broadcast and concert series produced by Cohen, and featuring invited guests. In December 2021, he initiated Emmet’s Place Education, a series of free online masterclasses by different artistes. He surely seems to be enjoying himself, balancing his tight concert schedule with recordings and spreading knowledge about jazz.

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