By Sydney Pollack for NYS Music
In the 1920s, “Rent Parties” were commonplace in Harlem. As the end of the month approached, with rent looming and no way to pay, tenants would host a musician and invite friends, raising money and having fun, dancing and listening to music with their community in a place safe from discrimination. In 2020, as the pandemic struck, esteemed jazz pianist Emmet Cohen started hosting Rent Parties in his own Harlem apartment. He played with his trio and live-streamed the event, calling it “Live From Emmet’s Place.” This event isn’t where his inspiration from Harlem’s jazz scene ends, though; Emmet Cohen’s newest record was made in Harlem’s spirit as well — Uptown in Orbit was released on October 28.
Uptown in Orbit presents huge energy through bright and powerful chords while showcasing immense talent and control. When listening, you see the view of bustling Harlem like you’re looking down on the streets from an upstairs apartment window. It’s all perpendicular and over-excited, but still perfectly harmonious, timed absolutely naturally. It feels like the song’s subject is orbiting–either we’re all circling around it or it’s circling us–either way the album brings the listener straight into this orbit.
The highlight of this album is the title track, “Uptown in Orbit.” The use of hemiola gives the song a veritable bounce, as the ¾ rhythm is coupled into rhythmic pulses of three against two beats. The timing is swinging, and though Cohen likes to call back to the jazz hay days of the early 1900s, this track still has a modern feel with its energy and brightness. A saxophone comes soaring in during the second half of “Uptown In Orbit” — wailing with so much passion and grace, before turning brassy and raspy, almost like the voice in Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig In The Sky.”
Cohen has said jazz boils down to connections; between the musicians performing and the audience, as well. This album exhibits that connection flawlessly, with brass that floats over Cohen’s dextrous, easy-going piano, and drums that shake the background, adding fuzzy sparkles and backbone to the other instruments’ colorful musicality.
Since he was three, Cohen has been devoted to the piano. He earned a Master of Music from the Manhattan School of Music after graduating from the University of Miami and has since performed in international events, such as the Newport, Monterey, Detroit, North Sea, Bern, Edinburgh and Jerusalem jazz festivals, in addition to playing in some of the most storied jazz clubs across the world.