Talk about making lemonade out of lemons. The young and great jazz pianist, Emmet Cohen, has created a Monday night streaming jazz session from his Harlem apartment which is nothing short of sensational. He has an irresistible personality, prodigious talent, and a reverence for the history of jazz and its legendary performers. It all converges at Emmet’s Place.
It is probably sacrilegious to observe that in many ways these live, streamed performances are at least as soul satisfying as seeing him and his bassist Russell Hall and drummer Kyle Poole in person. Streaming those performances mandated getting a Fire Stick as soon as Amazon got them back in stock. Now we can enjoy these on the “big screen” with surround sound in the comfort of our home, as good as seeing them in a Club but without people talking, serving distractions or viewing obstructions. The first time we saw Emmet perform was in NYC at Dizzy’s Club and honestly, we were blown away.
It’s just so special to watch him perform in the intimacy of his apartment and interface with his group and with special guests remotely or, more recently, in his apartment, such as the jazz vocalist and scatter supreme, Veronica Swift. Most recently he hosted jazz legend, singer and pianist, Johnny O'Neal who sang his iconic “I'm Your Mailman.” O’Neal also displayed his virtuosity on the piano.
The last time we saw Emmet and Trio live was on the Jazz Cruise back in February, where we made sure to catch as many of his gigs as possible, sometimes having to bypass other sets to get a seat reasonably close to the stage.
We also admire Emmet the man: he is self effacing in spite of his remarkable talent. His reverence for his predecessors and mentors greatly impresses us along with his genuine admiration for his fellow artists. But putting those aside, he is one of the best and most versatile jazz pianists we’ve ever seen and he just turned 30. Yes, 30. We wish we could be around to witness his full maturation.
We’ve been blessed over the years to see some of the jazz piano greats in person: Oscar Peterson, Claude Bolling, Bill Mays, Admad Jamal, to mention a few. I should add Benny Green and Tamir Hendelman to the list, both of whom we saw on the ship. Oh, I also used to see Dave Brubeck but that was in my dentist’s office in Westport!
The Emmet Cohen Trio has coalesced over a five year period to the point where they can playfully hand off to one another at unexpected times and in unexpected ways and it’s never quite clear whether anyone is in charge. They just sense when to dive into the musical conversation or pause and it makes for interesting, mesmerizing listening. His side men bassist Russell Hall and drummer Kyle Poole are outstanding performers in their own right and sometimes carry long solos.
Emmet has given himself over to a Jazz Masters series, playing with some of the greats. He channels them as well as those who are no longer with us, with strains of Bill Evans, Erroll Garner, Art Tatum, Nat King Cole, Bud Powell, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk. The point is, he can and does play all styles, straight jazz, stride, swing, rhythm’n’blues, and in synthesizing these, he creates his own unique, soulful style. He can transition from block chords to light; fast improvised ascending and descending arpeggios which definitively land on the base note. Just listen to him paying homage to the King of Ragtime, Scott Joplin, playing his "Original Rags" at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola @ Jazz at Lincoln Center some four years ago (when he was only 26!).
This is indeed what makes this young man so special. In addition to his talent he has a genuine outgoing personality and a kilowatt smile. A couple of months ago he was soloing at Emmet’s Place, taking requests from the audience via the YouTube’s streaming comment feature and I was typing “please play Johnny Mandel’s ‘Where Do I Start?’ and I wasn’t but a few keystrokes into the message, and he played it! I almost fell out of my chair at how serendipitously that happened! I emailed him afterwards about the strange coincidence and expressing my love of Mandel’s music (and wishing him a happy 30th birthday which was just coming up, noting that it coincided with my wife’s, who is a mere 49 years older) and he was good enough to reply “That's so crazy!! Wonderful when the universe works wonders... Thanks for all the kindness, and happy bday to Ann!!” That’s a mensch.
This last week Johnny Mandel passed away. Perhaps Emmet will mark his passing with another Mandel medley in his next session. I hope so. The afternoon before I learned of Mandel’s death, I felt this strong compulsion to play some of his songs on my piano. I ended up playing ALL of them (at least all of my favorites), even including “Song from M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless).”
It was as if something drew me to his music and that night reading the NYT, I learned that he died. Now that is just plain bizarre. I couldn’t help but think of that stunning medley Cohen played but a few weeks before, and the entry I wrote, now, more than two years ago about Mandel’s place in The Great American Songbook.
As we are self quarantined until there is an effective vaccine, which, who knows, could be for the rest of our lives, we’re hoping that Emmet’s streaming sessions will continue as it is our only way to be so close to the music we love and to preeminent musicians who bring it to life. It’s one of the reasons we’ve joined Emmet’s “Exclusive” Club. It gives members access to a “unique and ongoing creative feed’ and more significantly allowing us to feel that we’re part of his and his group’s journey, one well worth supporting, particularly as their tour revenue has dried up in these times of COVID-19 and uncertainty. This support provides “a path for new innovative and creative endeavors to come to life.” Indeed it does, and thank you Emmet for sharing your creative genius at Emmet’s Place.