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Renowned Jazz pianist takes the pandemic in stride


APR 11, 2023 | ISSUE 5

Emmet Cohen by Kalya Ramu

Joining in from the book-and-houseplant-lined walls of his Harlem walk-up minutes after getting off the yoga mat, renowned jazz pianist Emmet Cohen cut a different figure from his slick, tuxedo-clad appearance on the cover of his newest album, Future Stride. Both personas, however, are very much part of Cohen’s creative philosophy. Buoyed by his deep gratitude for both the contemporary New York jazz community and the older generation of jazz masters he’s studied and performed with in his ongoing Masters Legacy Series, Cohen’s thoughts give an invigorating glimpse at the insight and innovation behind his contributions to a genre he calls “forever modern.”

sM | We’ve been hearing a lot about how “New York is back”. What’s your sense of the current artistic atmosphere?

EC — It seems like we’re almost on the other side of it now, but a lot of people were in dire straits this year, and I think it was a tough period to get through—particularly for people who made their rent doing a $100 gig here and there. Seeing that economy evaporate created a lot of dissonance among freelance, independent artists. I think it was very difficult to know what to do at that time.

But there were a few people who stepped up for the community at large. My friend Benny Benack III, who plays trumpet, was out on the streets playing outdoor gigs, creating environments where people could come and play outside at a socially distanced jam session. We were out there playing in the freezing cold! But you adjust. Jazz music has always adjusted, and it’s always adapted. That’s what it preaches and teaches: it’s about flexibility, it’s about adaptation, and it’s been amazing to see how the music has evolved in that time and space.

That’s what we tried to do with Live from Emmet’s Place through a virtual channel. It’s 100 years after the roaring 20s, since the Harlem Renaissance, since Prohibition, and here we are 100 years later throwing a Harlem rent party—in the same spot, on the same street. I live on Edgecombe Avenue, the same avenue Duke Ellington and his whole band lived on, in addition to Billie Holiday and so many others. And we’re doing our modern-day Harlem rent party virtually, which is an adaptation a century later.

I think what it really comes down to is the sense of community—and how we can continue to feed life and energy into that sense of community for people who need it most, especially when they can’t get together in person.

sM | How has the pandemic inspired you to think differently about the New York jazz scene and your role within it?

EC — What I’ve noticed about the jazz scene now is that I’ve become someone who can offer opportunities, who can raise someone up who needs to be discovered. It’s become less about me me me me me, and more about how I can help the people who need it.

I try to take it one day at a time. The longer distances can be harder to look ahead to, but as we look at the next year or year and a half, things are opening back up, so I’m going to be on the road a lot more. Probably more than I was even before the pandemic, since everyone’s trying to make up for everything that was cancelled, and there are new things on top of that. People want us to license Emmet’s Place and take it around the country. So, a lot of exciting things are happening, but at the same time I’m trying to remember to be whole, pure, and down to earth.

sM | What is the inspiration behind the name Future Stride, and how did the events of the last year or so contribute to the atmosphere and spirit of the album?

EC — Funny enough, the album was recorded before the pandemic. But the concept, basically, is that there are so many paradoxes in jazz. Like in life, there are so many opposite forces that work to create the balance of what something is or can be. With Future Stride, we have really gone back into the lexicon as a group and as a community. There are many people in our New York jazz community, like Joe Saylor, Bryan Carter, Evan Sherman, Yasushi Nakamura, Tivon Pennicott, Bruce Harris, Patrick Bartley, Benny Benack III, and Ruben Fox. These are all people I grew up playing around and in a community with. The whole trend of the community really reached back into the history: we wanted to know about all the decades and eras of jazz.

One particular style and movement we were interested in was the early jazz movement, from people like Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Mary Lou Williams, Earl Hines, and James P. Johnson. I didn’t find much of their music in the New York scene that I was part of, so I really wanted to go back and explore that, and I spent many years dealing with their music. I really wanted to find a way to incorporate it, because this stuff is forever modern. It can make people feel things that are current and relevant in this time. When I play stride on the piano, people react to it like it’s affecting them currently—it’s not like I’m playing this old, antiquated thing. It’s very much now, very much present, and very much forever modern. In that sense, it’s like all great art.

So, Future Stride is about dealing with that music, revitalizing it, incorporating it, and mixing it into the other styles of music and other decades of jazz. It’s about dealing with 100 years of music, but in a natural way. It’s not about how to put all this stuff together mathematically. It’s about the fact that we love all this stuff, and we’re going to play it! Maybe we’ll take the solo piano piece and orchestrate it out into a piano trio, then play it for 20 days in a row on the road, and all of a sudden it’s our own. That’s how so much of the music was developed.

The other part of the album is that we’re looking into the future, and how we can affect the atmosphere and the landscape of music and humanity. And stride right into it, smooth. You know, smooth the edges.