Emmet Cohen Wins American Pianists Association Competition


Emmet Cohen holds his first-place trophy at the American Pianists Association finals at the Hilbert Circle Theatre in Indianapolis on April 6.

(Photo: ©Mark Sheldon)

The American Pianists Association crowned Emmet Cohen as the winner of its 2019 competition on April 6 in Indianapolis. During the final round of the competition at the Hilbert Circle Theatre, Cohen teamed with singer Kurt Elling to deliver an elegant duo rendition of Marvin Fischer and Jack Segal’s “I Keep Goin’ Back To Joe’s.” During the second half of the evening, Cohen performed an invigorating Fats Waller medley with the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra.

As the recipient of the 2019 Cole Porter Fellowship, Cohen will receive a $50,000 prize, the opportunity to record with Mack Avenue Records, two years of career management, and a two-year stint as artist-in-residence at the University of Indianapolis. The 28-year-old Miami-bred, New York-based pianist is a veteran of several jazz competitions.

This year marked Cohen’s third participation with the American Pianists Awards. In 2011, he placed third at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Piano Competition.

Joel Harrison, the American Pianists Association’s artistic director and president/CEO, has witnessed Cohen’s musical growth over the years, since he first participated in 2011. Harrison noted that Cohen would make a wonderful ambassador to the American Pianists Association, and then added: “He came beautifully prepared, focused and [displayed] marvelous pianism with imagination. That all came forward and it worked for him in every way possible.”

“Emmet’s a fantastic player. I enjoy how he works the keyboard in a fashion as if it’s a part of his body,” said Will Wakefield, one of the judges. “All of [the finalists] can play. But it’s the artistic choices they make about the arrangements and their approach that tells the story. There needs to be an arc to that story.”

The other judges were Helen Sung, Renee Rosnes, Stanley Cowell and Chris Mees. Singer Dee Dee Bridgewater served as host.

Cohen already has a burgeoning discography that includes the 2019 leader project Dirty In Detroit, as well as studio sessions with trumpeter Brian Lynch and drummer Herlin Riley. Cohen has played with numerous jazz elders, including drummers Billy Hart and Jimmy Cobb and bassist Ron Carter. Those collaborations with jazz masters and deep investigations inside the jazz canon have informed his playing in terms of idiomatic dexterity and inventiveness.

“Each one of those experiences with masters has taught me something different,” said Cohen, who documents such collaborations in his “Master Legacy Series.” “I learned consistency, groove and playing straight down the middle from Jimmy Cobb. From Tootie Heath, I learned how to add humor and how to find the funny moments in life and relate it to the music. From Ron Carter, I learned about being serious; he’s committed to every single note that he plays.”

During an April 5 semifinals performance at the Indianapolis jazz club the Jazz Kitchen, Cohen performed in both solo and trio settings (with bassist Jeremy Allen and drummer Kenny Phelps). Cohen displayed his fondness for early repertoire during two sets that included rapturous readings of Duke Ellington’s “Black And Tan Fantasy” and the Carroll Dickerson-penned gem “Symphonic Raps” (popularized by Louis Armstrong).

“I’ve connected deeply with the music of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, Fats Waller, James P. Johnson and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith,” Cohen said. “All of them brought something different to the foundation of jazz. I love connecting with the ancestors through music. That’s why I choose to play early music.”

The other finalists were Kenny Banks Jr., Keelan Dimick, Dave Meder and Billy Test. Each of them won $20,000 in cash. Of the four, Banks was Cohen’s stiffest competition during the semifinals and finals. The 30-year-old, Atlanta-based Banks infused his playing with gospel and blues elements gained from formative years in Columbus, Ohio, at his father’s church. (His father is also a noted jazz pianist and organist.) At the Jazz Kitchen, Banks delivered a thrilling, modern arrangement of Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance” (from 1965’s Maiden Voyage), a suspenseful original, “Dream Waltz,” and surprising jazz renditions of “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic” and “America, the Beautiful.”

At the finals, Banks and Elling delivered a soulful version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia On My Mind” and a capricious version of Harold Arlen’s “Get Happy” with the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra. “I love people,” Banks said. “I’m always trying to share my love of the music with them. I want people to feel something when I play.”

The last two days of the APA competition were the culmination of a process that spanned 13 months. It included preliminary rounds with about 40 pianists. After the five finalists were announced in May 2018, they attended a high-profile media event at Dizzy’s Club in New York and a community-wide Jazz Pizzazz event in Indianapolis. Between September 2018 and February of this year, they performed at the Jazz Kitchen in trio and solo settings, offered solo recitals at the Sidney & Lois Eskenazi Hospital and conducted three-day residencies at five local high schools.

Harrison explained that having the finalists perform at the Jazz Kitchen is essential to preparing them for a successful career in jazz. “If we are grooming them to be major artists, we need to put them in places that seem right for the genre,” Harrison said. “A jazz club is the right spot, even with the dining tables, candles, people drinking and eating—that’s part of the setting. A jazz musician needs to be able to function in that setting.”

The APA awards began in 1981 and are held every two years. Since 1992, the event has alternated between being a classical competition and a jazz competition. Other jazz winners include Sullivan Fortner (2015), Aaron Diehl (2011) and Dan Tepfer (2007).

“I’m really grateful and surprised by winning this year,” Cohen said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity. I just have to take it and do the best I can with it. But I have to remember that music is a marathon. How I use that music in the world is the most important thing. I always have to keep that in mind.”

For more information on the American Pianists Association, visit its website. Information on Cohen, including his tour schedule, is posted at his website. DB

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