Emmet Cohen’s Living Room Jazz


“One of our main goals is to invite people into the music who may not have known they liked jazz,” says Cohen.

(Photo: GabrielA GabrielAa)

A pressing question is routinely faced by musicians deprived of live music outlets during COVID times: “What did you do during the pandemic?” For the virtuosic and engaging pianist Emmet Cohen, the answer involves unusual degrees of resourcefulness and productivity. Not long into the pandemic, a restless Cohen turned his Harlem apartment into the weekly livestreaming affair known as “Live from Emmet’s Place,” which became hugely popular. Guest musicians joined his trio with bassist Russell Hall and Kyle Poole,each week, building momentum and an audience. He garnered more than 5 million views for a session with vocalist Cyrille Aimée and magnetized a vast online audience, especially by jazz standards.

These days, Cohen is back out on the road, old-school touring style, and has a new album on Mack Avenue, aptly called Uptown In Orbit — both a sly reference to Duke Ellington’s Blues In Orbit and a play on Cohen taking his “uptown” Emmet’s Place concept on the road and into orbit.

The in-house project became a training ground for the new album. As he says, in creating and building the weekly series, “The moving parts were many, including learning/practicing music, reaching out to and confirming guests, improving sound/video quality each week, fundraising, creating promotional content — mailing list, social media, etc. This album represents a cathartic release of all of the listeners in our ‘orbit.’”

Born in Miami and raised in Montclair, New Jersey, Cohen studied both jazz and classical piano growing up and earned his master’s at the Manhattan School of Music. His easy mastery of the keyboard and sensitive interpretive powers have earned him a place in the crowded ranks of important young jazz pianists, performing with such artists as Christian McBride, Joe Lovano, Jimmy Cobb and Eddie Henderson.

Just within the past two years, his livestreaming adventure has expanded his reputation and ushered in listeners not necessarily attuned to jazz.

“One of our main goals is to invite people into the music who may not have known they liked jazz,” Cohen says. “We like to make it fun and accessible, but also finding ways to challenge the listener as well. We love to provide a link back to the American masters. After hearing our versions of these tunes, they may go spend more time with Duke Ellington, Cedar Walton or Miles Davis. They might be more inclined to check out other musicians in our community as well.

While Future Stride, his 2021 Mack Avenue debut, featured trumpeter Marquis Hill and saxophonist Melissa Aldana, the new album features a quintet including trumpeter Sean Jones and saxophonist Patrick Bartley. Cohen notes that “after a couple years of ‘Emmet’s Place’ recording sessions, I’ve learned to sit back and let the musicians do what they do, and that the result will always be surprising, in a natural and beautiful way.”

Cohen adds, “More than the instrumentation, I think it’s the musicians who inspire me. Patrick and Sean are artists who I feel like bring out the best in the trio in this moment, just like Melissa and Marquis were a couple of years prior.”

True to the pianist’s jazz history-spanning leanings, Uptown In Orbit is framed by early jazz workouts, opening with Jelly Roll Morton’s “Finger Buster” and closing with a piano trio arrangement of Ellington’s “Braggin’ In Brass.” Retrospective impulses come naturally to Cohen, who explains, “We play the music we love and connect with. Willie ‘the Lion’ Smith, James P. (Johnson), Mary Lou (Williams) and so many others inspire me pianistically, artistically, and also as entertainers.

“There’s also the mythological continuity surrounding our Harlem rent parties. We’ve entered the Roaring ’20s again, 100 years later, doing our version of these house concerts — in the same neighborhood. I live on Edgecombe Avenue in Harlem, and so did Duke Ellington — just a few blocks up.”

The new album’s setlist veers through the jazz canon with Cohen’s inventive touches in tow, including a playful, extra-behind-the-beat take on Neal Hefti’s “Li’l Darlin’” and Cedar Walton’s “Mosaic.” He addresses his delicate balance of reverence for tradition and a re-thinking instinct, noting that “a study of the history is very important to any art form, but an over-reverence can sometimes run the risk of inhibiting an artist’s ability to be present in the current environment.

“For me, I’ve enjoyed covering much of the history of the music in various formats, but there are also times where we play sets of entirely original music.”

At 32, Cohen admits, “I still feel like I’m at the very beginning of my journey. My main goal is still to connect, play with and learn from the jazz masters, but a new goal has emerged: to share the things I’ve learned with the younger generation.” His plans include intentions to “compose more, arrange for larger ensemble and connect with some musicians from different cultures.

“I’d also love to expand ‘Emmet’s Place’ to be an online jazz club with different bands playing every week, as well as a media outlet for musicians to write and talk about the music.” DB

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March 2023
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