Thrice is the charm for APA Cole Porter Fellowship winner Emmet Cohen

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Say what you like about America (and I frequently do), she sure knows how to breed phenomenal jazz musicians. The Indianapolis based American Pianists Association furthermore have proven adept, since 1992 (when the jazz prize first alternated with the classical equivalent) at cherry picking the best of the best. It’s odious in the subjective world of the arts to posit such terminal superlatives, indeed APA Artistic Director/CEO Joel Harrison insists the five who make their cut for the APA are referred to as “finalists,” there are no “losers” or “runners up.” But with a $50,000 first prize (twice the cash purse of the 2018 Monk Competition, which is an international event) and $50K’s worth of artist support in the form of a label contract/promotion with Mack Avenue, the APA Awards are hotly contested. For one entrant (nominated finalists are selected by a “blindfolded” panel 13 months prior and subsequently perform and teach in the Indy community), this edition of the Awards was especially nail-biting. Harlem based, Miami born Emmet Cohen (above) had been in the finals on two previous occasions in 2011 and 2015 and, now aged 29, this was his last shot at the title. Though undoubtedly a brilliant young musician, would Cohen’s apparent insouciance be deemed less serious than the relatively sober Dave Meder (who recently released what is already one of my CDs of the year, Passage); the even-keeled, though also dashing Keelan Dimick; the fiery and passionate Billy Test or the disarmingly sincere and amusing Kenny Banks Jr? 

“After having gone through the competition a few times, I’ve learned that you ultimately can’t control what others think of you,” Cohen commented to Jazzwise. “I had a great teacher, Shelly Berg, who would always say ’Don’t try, just be. If you try you can fail, but you can’t fail at being.’ That was my mentality for this journey – I was going to be unabashedly myself.” Having witnessed Cohen in action at the 2015 event, it might be true to say however, that now at instances, he reined in his protean chops. One such moment might have been during the penultimate night of Discovery Week during which each contender performed solo and with trio at the Jazz Kitchen. After rousing renditions of ‘Our Delight’ and Ellington’s ‘Black and Tan Fantasy’ with swaggering stride, two fisted skills to the fore, the debonair Cohen surprised with a distilled take on Cahn and Van Heusen’s “The Second Time Around” (even though this was in fact his third time).

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Cohen’s fellow finalists didn’t spare the horses over the course of two exhaustive sets and had their own strategies for getting over. Banks set the tone, tongue in cheek, when he acknowledged “It’s that kinda night, ain’t it?” before digging into an episodic, latin tinged arrangement of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’. The feisty Test embarked on Miles Davis’ ‘Nardis’ with a vengeance, approaching sheets of sound in eights exchanges with drummer Kenny Phelps, elasticating the bridge and zithering an outro, his technique and emotional commitment dazzling. The ever alert Phelps deployed his goat toenail shaker for afro-cuban color during Dimick’s take on Dizzy’s ‘Con Alma’ which the 28-year-old Floridian piano prodigy followed with ‘My Shining Hour’ replete with stride passages at both ends of the dynamic range and a surprising modal ending. 

When intensity soared, encouraging jazz grunts came from Kurt Elling, seated with Dee Dee Bridgewater in the capacity club, whilst judges Stanley Cowell, Chris Mees, Helen Sung, Will Wakefield and Renee Rosnes poised ears at a table in the back of the room. Rosnes later commented “I was delighted to hear all the magnificent talent… and honoured to be part of the judging panel for the second time. It feels good to know that the future of the music is assured. Although there is only one winner, I look forward to following each pianist’s musical journey.” During a brunch get together with journalists and judges at the glorious Japanese styled-home of benefactor Peggy Watanabe the morning after the Jazz Kitchen showdown, Rosnes and Cowell each jammed with Sung on a beautiful Steinway. Steinway & Sons CEO and onetime concert pianist Ron Losby was also in attendance and Marvin Blickenstaff played rhapsodic Schumann and Schubert for an insider audience, including Bridgewater. The latter, who served as MC for the finals, topped her ongoing fashion show with an iridescent outfit at the Gala on Saturday evening at the Hilbert Circle Theatre. “Joel Harrison told me to wear something ‘sparkly’ so this disco ball is what I came up with” joked Bridgewater, who went on to exchange quips with Elling who riposted “I came dressed as a middle age white male.” Elling performed five masterful duos with each pianist, giving each a magic moment. With Banks he sang “Georgia on My Mind” for the first time, countering Banks’ ingenious bridge with a bluesy falsetto. 

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The second half of the program featured commissioned Brent Wallarab arrangements of Monk’s ‘Work’, with the orchestra backing Meder; a playful ‘Get Happy’ with Banks; an over-length ‘Little Niles’ that showcased Dimick’s inventiveness and Billy Test investing Bob Dorough’s 'Devil May Care' with limpid hues. Cohen’s Fats Waller medley included perfectly articulated glissandi among other joys. He exuded supreme confidence as usual but when it was announced he had at last triumphed he seemed fazed and limply held his engraved glass bowl that serves as APA trophy. Having followed Cohen’s exploits back in 2015, he saw me from the stage and said under his breath, implausibly, “I’m a faker.” Word was he was fighting back tears. This was touching and underscored what the APA inspires and engenders. Joel Harrison is committed to furthering the careers of these artists, (incidentally, finalists received $20K consolation prizes – four times the figure from 2011 when Cohen first participated), but the unavoidably competitive nature of proceedings really sharpens their skills, wits and also professional respect for each other.

In later questioning Cohen if he’d had to overcome any nerves, he talked of his experiences playing with such elders as Ron Carter, Benny Golson, George Coleman and at the Village Vanguard with Christian McBride and how he’d dealt with high pressure situations. “I think everything connects back to the breath – singing, talking, any kind of natural, human phrasing are all powerful models for how jazz musicians improvise.” For the last year or so, Cohen has used yoga as a tool, “it’s helped me become more in tune with my breath, even when the heart is racing. As corny as it sounds, smiling helps (nerves) go away too. I shot a smile at those musicians in the big band and remembered that for me, music is fun. All-in-all I was nervous but able to naturally mask it.” So self-confidence is hard won too, it doesn’t come with DNA. “I put all the love and respect I have for jazz into every note and feel lucky, humbled and grateful to have come out with the prize.”

Michael Jackson (story and photos)