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Album Review: Pianist Emmet Cohen Honors Harlem Locale & Duke Ellington On ‘Uptown in Orbit’

By Jim Hynes for Glide Magazine

 

Pianist and composer Emmet Cohen picks up where he left off with his 2021 Future Stride, while continuing to augment his trio with a couple of terrific horns on select tracks for Uptown in Orbit. The album takes its inspiration from Cohen’s current residence in Harlem, near where Duke Ellington lived, and specifically to Duke’s album, Blues in Orbit (Columbia, 1960). Joining his regular trio mates, bassist Russell Hall and drummer Kyle Poole, are fiery trumpeter Sean Jones and the ever-energetic altoist Patrick Bartley.

Just as Cohen did in the previous release, he celebrates tradition but updates it in the process. This music is no doubt an extension of Cohen’s weekly stream during the pandemic, Live from Emmet’s Place, which was by almost any account, the most highly watched regular online jazz show in the world.

The opening stride piano track, “Finger Buster,” from Willie “The Lion” Smith has producer Poole weaving in sounds from an old-school tape machine as the trio unleashes cascading enthusiasm. As we move to the title track that honors Ellington, Cohen is rollicking and rolling before we hear the horns in unison followed by the blistering, soaring sound of Jones prompting a determined, aggressive turn from Bartley, who builds an intense solo, holding little back. Cohen takes flight, inspired by their energy before the full quintet climaxes in rousing style. There’s little choice but to deliver a ballad next as they do on Cohen’s tender original “My Love Will Come Again,” with Jones and Bartley revealing their gentle sides. Hints of nostalgia weave through a rather melancholy melody. Cohen regathers the trio for another stride number, “Spillin’ the Tea,” at a more relaxed pace than the opener, giving Hall and Poole a chance to stretch out individually, and they each shine brightly.

Neil Hefti’s “Lil’ Darling” is a gorgeously unhurried ballad that goes deeply bluesy rendered by the trio, featuring some stellar plucking from Hall who also penned the late night bluesy “The Loneliest,” where Jones and Bartley return to deliver gritty, soulful turns around the leader’s solo. The reprise of the title track may seem a bit unnecessary except that it allows Poole to add a little extra to the mix from his engineering role. Poole then goes into his improvisatory mode with his bass intro to “Distant Hallow,” marked by the unison horns who then break into an alternating call and response and point-counterpoint in brilliant exchanges. When Cohen solos, the trio motors into full swinging mode; tempo downshifts and the piece fades quietly, not before both Hall and Poole insert a few more statements.

Three trio covers wrap up this exhilarating session. Hall sets a blistering pace for Cedar Walton’s “Mosaic,” another vigorous take with Cohen’s right hand hitting seemingly every possible note. They engage in a swing for Gerry Mulligan’s “Venus de Milo” before nodding to Ellington again in the closing “Braggin’ in Brass,” with Cohen going all-out on the keys as his trio mates both feed off his wild ride and inject their own energy into the track.

Cohen consistently has a way of playing old-school music in new inventive ways. He’s at the vibrant intersection of the old and new all at once. Unequivocally, his trio is one of the best out there in a crowded field of piano trios. Jones and Bartley fit right in with this energetic group.