2023 APA Awards Achieves Liftoff, 5 Finalists Introduced


Dee Dee Bridgewater (right) with the five finalists for the American Pianists Association’s next Cole Porter Fellowship.

(Photo: Mark Sheldon)

Every four years, the American Pianists Association recognizes five aspiring American pianists as finalists to compete for the Cole Porter Fellowship. Past winners have included rising stars Emmet Cohen (2019), Sullivan Fortner (2015) and Aaron Diehl (2011) in the APA’s history of featuring jazz in its organization, beginning in 1991 with the winner Jim Pryor.

The five finalists made their debuts performing solo for two sets on May 25 at Dizzy’s Club in New York. Dee Dee Bridgewater hosted the event — engaging in brief chats with each young pianist and cheering them on from her front-row seat as they played short pieces for the sold-out crowds. It served as an audience introduction to the artists — Caelan Cardello, Esteban Castro, Paul Cornish, Thomas Linger and Isaiah J. Thompson — who are embarking on a challenging yet ultimately refined 13-month jazz excursion.

Their tour will include an Awards Kick Off concert at the Madam Walker Legacy Center in Indianapolis on Sept. 18 and continues through a series of performances at the city’s Jazz Kitchen along with community outreach events, from Sept. 24 through Feb. 25, 2023. The finals are scheduled to take place on April 21 in the Indianapolis club The Cabaret with the Gala Awards show taking place the next night at the city’s Hilbert Circle Theatre featuring the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra and special guest Cécile McLorin Salvant.

“We love the role the APA plays in promoting this American art form,” said Peter Mraz, who has taken over the role of president/CEO after longtime leader Joel Harrison retired from the position (Harrison continues in his role as artistic advisor). “Over the course of the year, the contestants will better understand who they are as musicians. During this time, they will continue to grow and experience the future of jazz. That is at the core of the APA’s mission.”

The five finalists were chosen in a blind audition with nominations solicited from more than 1,200 nominators, ranging from piano educators to established artists, from jazz labels to jazz clubs. With their ears to the ground, they name the next best jazz talents who deserve to be supported. For the APA 2023 Awards, the first round resulted in 46 names, Mraz said. That was scaled down to 28 pianists who were asked to apply by sending 30-minute audition tapes of standards and originals. Multiple jury rounds ensued to come up with the five finalists. “The quality was unbelievable at all the rounds, “ said Mraz, who noted that piano talent is at a high level across the U.S.

By virtue of their selection, each finalist wins a cash prize of $25,000, with the winner being awarded more than $200,000 additional career assistance including performance tours and connects to Mack Avenue Records and New York booking agency B Natural. As such, the APA’s program represents the world’s largest and most lucrative jazz competition.

In a Lincoln Center conference room before the Dizzy’s shows, the five finalists talked about their backgrounds and their aspirations. Several started out as toddlers who received toy pianos for gifts. Originally from North Carolina, New York-based Linger got a little keyboard for Christmas when he was three. “I opened that gift up and I didn’t move on to the other gifts for two hours,” he says. “I had a natural inclination and curiosity for notes.”

The same happened with Cardello, whose godparents gave him a toy piano. “I was fascinated by all the different sounds,” he says. “I started piano lessons when I was 4.”

Others mentioned that their parents pushed the piano on them to “keep me out of trouble,” said Juilliard graduate Thompson, who didn’t feel passionate about playing until he hooked up with Jazz House Kids in New Jersey. “That program challenged me to see what is possible as a young student. I fell in love with jazz.”

Castro, another Juilliard student, also champions Jazz House Kids. When he joined the program’s first music exchange trip to Peru in 2015, he had been playing jazz and also studying classical. “But I truly fell in love with jazz when Jazz House Kids went to Peru and played a lot of shows in various towns,” he said. “In one community, we set up to play and the piano only had 40 keys and the drum set just had the snare and no hi-hats. We played and afterwards were flooded by the kids who wanted to meet us. That’s when I learned that jazz can move people.”

Some hadn’t started on piano, gravitating at first to bassoon, cello or drums. Cornish, originally from Houston and now based in Los Angeles, said, “I did want to play piano as a kid. I was always beating on things, so I wanted to play drums. But my mom told me that if I wanted to play drums, I needed to learn how to play piano first. When I was in the performing arts middle school, there were too many drummers, but they needed a pianist. That was it for me. And I figured that I could be a drummer on the piano. I took an immediate interest.”

Later that evening, the finalists showed their promise at on stage at Dizzy’s, with an audience that included former teachers such as Fred Hersch and Bill Charlap as well as former APA Award winners Diehl and Cohen. The five pianists played unique versions of standards. Castro played magic into Cole Porter’s “It Had To Be You,” and Cornish dazzled in his explorations through Benny Golson’s “Along Came Betty” and Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance.” More Porter was served up by Cardello’s tasty “Anything Goes.” Then, Liger played emotion into ”Search For Peace” by McCoy Tyner, after which he offered his whimsical original “A Lonely Encounter.” Thompson finished the first set with two originals, including the poignant, show-stopping “A Prayer.”

Mraz marveled at the talent the APA assembled this year. “We’re keeping the cycle alive, passing on the passion,” he said.

“This is a unique opportunity for us to honor the tradition as well as have a platform to share our own voices,” Linger said. “We’re watching each other as we grow and develop. This will make us closer. It goes beyond the competition into camaraderie. We’re all there for each other. This is more a collective.” DB

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