Emmet Cohen, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, and Sheila Jordan at Birdland. Photo by Beth Naji.

With Each Tune, History Flows Through Emmet Cohen’s Keyboard

Cohen translates a slice of Ellington into purely pianist terms in a way that creates a distinct sensation that the piano keys and pedals are somehow airborne and flying all over the room.

By Will Friedwald for The New York Sun


You start with an “old French quadrille,” an archaic dance form of the 19th century. First, you render it on the piano with a jaunty 2/4 beat and sparkling syncopations, and essentially you have ragtime. If you play it in 4/4, generally as a keyboard solo, then it becomes stride piano. You can take the same piece and throw in a few somewhat polyphonic horns, and it’s New Orleans jazz. Add more horns, and it’s big-band swing. That’s roughly the evolution of a folkloric melody into the early jazz standard “Tiger Rag,” and then from there into Duke Ellington’s orchestral jazz masterpiece, “Braggin’ in Brass.”

More recently, the brilliant 32-year-old piano superstar Emmet Cohen has arranged his own piano trio version of that classic 1938 slice of Ellingtonia. In Mr. Cohen’s treatment, you can hear every level of the work’s evolution all at once: The ragtime, stride, Dixieland, and swing manifestations do not simply pass before your ears sequentially but simultaneously. “Braggin’ in Brass” is not only a mini-textbook of the evolution of American music but an explosion of rhythm and harmony. Ellington used a technique for phrasing his tune that musicologist Gunther Schuller has identified as “hocketing,” and Mr. Cohen translates this approach into purely pianist terms in a way that creates a distinct sensation that the piano keys and pedals are somehow airborne and flying all over the room.

Even in a generation rich with outstanding 30-something piano prodigies, like Sullivan Fortner, Jonathan Batiste, and Aaron Diehl — as well as the 19-year-old wunderkind Joey Alexander — Mr. Cohen is perhaps the most visible young keyboard headliner of the pandemic era. He has nine albums as a leader, of which the latest is Future Stride from last year. Still, he is best known for his series of live streams, “Live from Emmet’s Place,” accessible both on his own website and YouTube. They are powered not only by his formidable skills as a musician but his well-above-average affability as a spieler and host.

Mr. Cohen’s big event is a twice-a-year “invitational” week at Birdland, during which his remarkable trio, with bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Kyle Poole, teams up with a rotating variety of guest stars, singers, and soloists. (Yes, that’s the same format as the “Emmet’s Place” live streams.)

The latest started Tuesday with Sheila Jordan, the veteran vocalist whose years of experience easily amount to the equal of all three young members of the trio put together. Three exceptional saxophonists — Miguel Zenón, Ruben Fox, and the storied master, Houston Person — as well as trumpeter Bruce Harris, are all joining Mr. Cohen on various nights this week.

Since we recently covered the wonderful Ms. Jordan in these pages, I’ll just mention that on Tuesday there was no shortage of mock-familial banter between those two extrovert personalities, Mr. Cohen and Ms. Jordan. She continually bantered back and forth with the young pianist in the tone of a strict but loving grandmother.

Perhaps it’s part of the conjoined legacies of Dick Hyman and Bill Charlap that many younger pianists make a point of addressing the music’s history; Mr. Cohen made a short speech in the late set about how a player has to be aware of where the music came from and how it evolved, but also must be flexible with tradition.

He illustrates that in a sequence of pieces, a number of which are originals, like the title track of Future Stride. Some are imaginative recastings of standards and lesser-known works from jazz history, among them “Satin Doll” and “Pitter Patter Panther” from the Ellington band book, and some mix the two approaches. In “Spillin’ the Tea,” he takes “Tea for Two” and spills out the notes as if they were leaves at the bottom of a teacup, showing the connection between ragtime, stride, and afro-Caribbean music — not to mention tea.

The album features some highly original quintet pieces with trumpeter Marquis Hill and tenor sax headliner Melissa Aldana, but it’s the Trio numbers I came to hear. Mr. Cohen starts with “Symphonic Raps,” a 1928 piece recorded by Louis Armstrong and Earl “Fatha” Hines in Chicago that he transforms into a stride tour-de-force. He makes the piece work for a trio — something that rarely works in stride, which is essentially a solo piano idiom — and admirably resists the urge to bop it up. Conversely, “Dardanella” is an exquisitely lovely vintage World War I era exotica that does indeed travel through a more modern passage in the center, achieving a wholly organic, inter-generational mashup.

There are also two songbook standards, an uptempo “My Heart Stood Still” and a touching, heartfelt “Second Time Around.” The Birdland show also included a swinging treatment of the traditional Hebrew prayer, “Chatzi Kaddish,” leavened with quotes from “Oop Bob Sh-Bam” and “Happy Birthday” in minor.

The late set ended with Birdland’s Gianni Valente announcing that Sheila Jordan is coming to the club in November to celebrate her 94th birthday. I’ll be there for that, and I only regret that I won’t be able to make Mr. Cohen’s in 2084.