Blindfold Test: Emmet Cohen


Emmet Cohen, right, with one of his heroes, Houston Person.

(Photo: Gabriela Gabrielaa)

Emmet Cohen’s first DownBeat Blindfold Test transpired on the only day in September that didn’t involve traveling or a gig for the 33-year-old pianist. Since the onset of the pandemic in spring 2020, Cohen — winner of the 2019 American Pianists Awards — has exponentially expanded his global footprint through 122 livestreamed episodes of Live From Emmet’s Place, his catchy music show on YouTube. Add to his resume two leader albums for Mack Avenue and five self-released Masters Legacy Series albums, most recently with Houston Person, and you’ll get a picture of this pianist’s boundless energy. Cohen took the test from the compact fifth-floor Harlem walkup where he tapes Emmet’s Place.

Micah Thomas

“Ugetsu” (Piano Solo, 345 Records, 2022) Thomas, piano; Cedar Walton, composer.

Five stars. Micah Thomas reimagining Cedar Walton’s “Fantasy In D” with style and flair, retaining the majesty of the original composition. In my generation, Sullivan Fortner was a game changer in dealing with jazz piano, especially solo piano. Micah came along after Sullivan, internalized his concept, has taken it one step further, and has his own thing, which future generations will have to go through to advance solo jazz piano. It’s taking all the styles, from stride to freer stuff, 20th century classical harmonies, strong rhythmic concepts. He’s able to orchestrate on the piano with a range of textures, especially in the left hand, where he plays cluster chords using all five notes. He can make music out of someone’s original composition that you just put in front of his face, and I’ve heard him totally hearken back to Tatum on an amazing version of “Don’t Blame Me.” He draws beauty from the instrument. 5 stars.

Taylor Eigsti

“Sparky” (Tree Falls, GSI, 2022) Eigsti, piano, keyboards, composer; Ben Wendel, saxophone; DJ Ginyard, electric bass; Eric Harland, drums; Charles Altura, guitar.

Modern classical music, maybe like Steve Reich, where the melodic piano line repeats and thematically develops ever so slightly to lead your ear on the cyclical but pleasing journey that develops into new sections without ever feeling the need to return to what you’ve heard before. Beautiful piano playing, amplified with creative post-production, effectively using sound effects and different ways of pulling emotion out of the textural and ambient sounds. Taylor Eigsti. I could tell when he started soloing intensely, really improvising. I’ve admired him since high school for his touch and command. 5 stars.

Eric Reed

“Infant Eyes” (Black, Brown And Blue, Smoke Sessions, 2023) Reed, piano; Luca Allemano, bass; Reggie Quinerly, drums; Wayne Shorter, composer.

“Infant Eyes.” Eric Reed. He’s one of the most versatile and accomplished pianists of his generation. Along with Herlin Riley, who I’ve played with a lot, he actually invented a comping style for the various soloists in Wynton Marsalis’s group in a myriad of styles, ranging from early jazz to more modern “burnout.” “Infant Eyes” has I think nine bars; musicians know it’s a hard song to solo over. I love that he simplified that complex Wayne Shorter tune essentially by creating a vamp on the end. It’s an original and effective idea. 5 stars.

Benny Green

“Rouge” (Solo, Sunnyside, 2023) Green, piano; Barry Harris, composer.

Initially, the orchestration had me thinking the pianist was Barry Harris, but when the improvisation began, I knew it was Benny Green by his unique time feel. Benny is one of my favorite pianists. He inspired me to want to swing when I heard him at a young age, and we later became friends. He always honors the bebop greats, having known them and absorbed everything he could. For the style, he’s one of the greatest ever. 5 stars.

DoMi & JD Beck

“Sniff” (Not Tight, Blue Note, 2022) DoMi, keyboard, composer; JD Beck, drums.

DoMi and JD Beck. Their rhythmic approach and the drum set sound are distinctive, very crisp and clear. It’s easy to dial into what they’re doing and flow with it. The music is complex, coming from the Herbie vein keyboard-wise. DoMi has complete mastery over the keyboard. It’s amazing how she can play bass and improvise like that at the same time. She’s always right in the pocket. I think they’re great for the music because they’re young and sexy and make people love jazz and improvisational music. They sell out large venues even with no vocals. 5 stars.

Mathis Picard

“The Space Between Breath” (The Space Between Breath, La Reserve, 2023) Picard, piano; Joshua Crumbly, bass; Jonathan Pinson, drums.

The piano player is totally grooving, with Robert Glasper and Herbie Hancock influences, using varied textures, eliciting sounds that are difficult to get. Very free and relaxed playing, with a wonderful touch. Beautiful electric bass playing and amazing drummer. Super tasteful. 5 stars. [afterwards] This fooled me, because I usually hear Mathis in a more straightahead context. Mathis is one of the few people of my generation who also loves stride piano — Willie “The Lion” Smith and Fats Waller stuff. He’s inspired me since he moved to New York.

Julius Rodriguez

“Elegy (For Cam)” (Let Sound Tell All, Verve, 2022) Rodriguez, piano; Philip Norris, bass; Brian Richburg Jr., drums; Hailey Knox, vocals.

Beautiful track, which I heard in two parts — an introduction that went into a church vamp, where I found myself tapping my foot. This person has a lot of control and mastery of the style, but the playing seems a bit reserved; the track is more about the composition and the flow and the dance than the improvisation. But a few hints in the left hand show that the pianist is very comfortable with church harmony and movement. I liked the production, the vocals in the ending, how it rolled it out slowly. 5 stars. [afterwards] Julius has a genius musical mind. DB

The “Blindfold Test” is a listening test that challenges the featured artist to discuss and identify the music and musicians who performed on selected recordings. The artist is then asked to rate each tune using a 5-star system. No information is given to the artist prior to the test.

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    Emmet Cohen, right, with one of his heroes, Houston Person.