Emmet Cohen 2019 9 144 5x7

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).

APA FInals 2019 9 86 5x7

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. 

Kurt Emmet Dee Dee 2019 9 26

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)

Don Was 4 web optimised 1000 CREDIT Gabi Porter

Don Was, the President of the iconic Blue Note Records, has been announced as the recipient of the PPL Lifetime Achievement Award at this year's Jazz FM Awards. Set to take place on 30 April at Shoreditch Town Hall, the ceremony will honour a wide range of artists from the UK and US jazz scenes. Was, besides being a renowned record producer, has been credited with reviving Blue Note since being appointed its CEO in 2012, with successful signings including Gregory Porter, GoGo Penguin and Trombone Shorty. He's also overseeing the label's 80th anniversary this year, with celebrations including an extensive vinyl release programme and Swiss film-maker Sophie Huber's cinematic tribute to the label's legacy, with her film Beyond the Notes getting a cinematic release.

Commenting on the Lifetime Acievement Award, Don Was said: “I’m incredibly grateful to Jazz FM for recognizing me and Blue Note Records with its Lifetime Achievement Award. Jazz is what inspired me to become a musician many years ago, and it is incredibly rewarding and humbling to serve as the caretaker for this historic and hugely important label. It’s a responsibility I welcome and one that I take very seriously. This honour is especially meaningful coming from Jazz FM, who not only keeps the jazz legacy alive but carries the torch forward by recognizing and supporting the great jazz that is being created today .”

The award's organisers have also confirmed that acclaimed British singer Beverley Knight will perform a tribute to iconic soul vocalist Aretha Franklin, who died in 2018. The awards will be hosted by Jazz FM presenters Chris Philips and Jez Nelson with the recipients of the PRS for Music Gold Award and Impact Award to be announced ahead of the ceremony.  

Nominees include jazz giants Wayne Shorter, Charles Lloyd and the late great John Coltrane (for his posthumously released best-selling Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album) alongside many names from the resurgent British jazz scene, including Sons of Kemet, Nubya GarciaEmma Jean-Thackray, Camilla George, Joe Armon-JonesMoses Boyd and Sarah Tandy, while live events such as Jazz Re:fest (Brighton edition) and The Cookers at Church of Sound, are also recognised.

For more details visit www.jazzfmawards.com 

The full list of nominees is as follows:

Breakthrough Act
 
Cassie Kinoshi
Emma-Jean Thackary
Sarah Tandy
 
The Digital Award with Oanda
 
Blue Lab Beats
Louis Cole
Moses Boyd – 1Xtra Residency
 
The Innovation Award with Mishcon de Reya
 
Orphy Robinson – Freedom Sessions at Vortex
Steam Down
Tomorrow’s Warriors
 
Instrumentalist of the Year
 
Camilla George
Jean Toussaint
Rob Luft
 
International Jazz Act of the Year with Lateralize
 
Jamie Branch
Makaya McCraven
Wayne Shorter
 
Soul Act of the Year
 
José James
Leon Bridges
Poppy Ajudha
 
Blues Act of the Year
 
Eric Bibb
Errol Linton
Roosevelt Collier
 
Vocalist of the Year
 
Cherise Adams-Burnett
Ian Shaw
Judi Jackson
 
UK Jazz Act of the Year (Public Vote) with Cambridge Audio
 
Jason Yarde
Joe Armon-Jones
Nubya Garcia
    
Album of the Year (Public Vote) with Arqiva
  
Charles Lloyd & The Marvels and Lucinda Williams – Vanished Gardens
Jean Toussaint Allstar 6Tet – Brother Raymond
John Coltrane – Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album
Sons of Kemet – Your Queen Is A Reptile
Various Artists – We Out Here
Wayne Shorter – Emanon
 
Live Experience of the Year (Public Vote)
 
Jason Moran: The Harlem Hellfighters – Tour
Jazz Re:Fest 2018: Brighton Edition
Makaya McCraven and Nubya Garcia – EFG London Jazz Festival
Orphy Robinson presents Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks – Tour
Steam Down featuring Kamasi Washington
The Cookers – Church of Sound

 – Mike Flynn

Photo by Gabi Porter

Revered US pianist Brad Mehldau is set to release his new album, Finding Gabriel, on 17 May via the Nonesuch imprint. Following in quick succession from his two 2018 releases, Seymour Reads the Constitution! and After Bach, the pianist throws something of a conceptual curve-ball with this new nine-song suite inspired by his in-depth reading of The Bible.

Featuring Mehldau on piano, synthesizers, percussion, Fender Rhodes and vocals, the experimental mix of acoustic piano, synths, choral sections and free-flowing contemporary jazz and electronica is reminiscent of his 2014 Mehliana album, Taming The Dragon, with drummer Mark Guiliana (who also appears here), but stretches the stylistic palette far wider. This is also thanks to the numerous high-calibre guest musicians appearing on the record, including Ambrose Akinmusire, Sara Caswell, Kurt Elling, Joel Frahm, Chris Cheek and Becca Stevens, among others, on what is the pianist’s most wide-ranging collaboration to date.

Mehldau explains the roots of his religious inspirations in the album’s extensive press notes: “The Bible felt like a corollary and perhaps a guide to the present day – one long nightmare or a signpost leading to potential gnosis, depending on how you read it.”

Mike Flynn

– Photo by Michael Wilson

For more info visit www.bradmehldau.com

Watch the video for 'The Garden' here:

The world premiere of Norse Myths took place at Aberdeen Jazz Festival this week, and featured the colourful new offering from the project’s originator, Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith. From recent Marvel blockbuster films, to Neil Gaiman’s 2017 re-telling of Norse mythology, to the drama playing out as we speak by our present-day British gods, the theme feels topical.

Smith described choosing 12 beautiful Norwegian folk melodies, from an impressive 400 which he researched, as the basis for the four newly commissioned pieces which constitute Norse Myths.

Due to illness, Italian Paolo Vinaccia’s drumming role in the authoritative Arild Andersen Trio was taken by Frenchman, drummer and percussionist Patrice Heral. The latter’s playful vocalisations and Prevost-esque percussive style, synergised effectively with Andersen’s strikingly original and often minimalist bass. Meanwhile Smith’s versatile sax switched instantaneously from flamboyant roar to whisper.

The concert opened with US composer Geoffrey Keezer’s ‘Thor’, which, according to programme notes, is based upon three folk songs: a sad love story; a battle between Thor and a giant serpent; and a bar brawl. Opening atmospherically, an implacable wall of sound soon developed. Then, like a film soundtrack, a scurrying rhythm section prefaces beautiful harmonising from the orchestra’s pianist Pete Johnstone. Delightful duetting from Andersen and Heral heralded a fabulous final brawl involving Smith and the entire orchestra.

The second piece is American Bill Dobbin’s ‘Frigg’. This time the intriguing folk songs the piece is based upon, described a kidnapper troll, a fratricide and a tribal war. Initial lulling soon gave way to a gamut of emotions, from thrilling, rampaging full orchestra to stately, ruminative calm. Several orchestra members soloed, with drummer Alyn Cosker’s scorching contribution being especially notable.

Post interval is Norwegian Oyvind Braekke’s ‘Odin’, based upon songs concerning Valkyries, ghost armies and hunting. The familiar opening melody is that used by Edvard Greig in his piano version (Opus 17, No 5). Andersen and Heral segued from Latin American to fashionable modern rhythms, Andersen adding some lovely completing touches whence Smith recapitulated resoundingly. A brief apparent duel between Cosker and a cheek-popping Heral injected fun.

The final piece, ‘Loki’ by German Florian Ross, blended songs of a hero freeing a princess, a Christmas carol, and the story of a giant’s lovelorn distress. More gorgeous melodies from Johnstone’s piano, glorious duetting from Andersen and Heral and further Smith escalations, culminated in some of the hottest, loudest big band jazz sounds heard in this city this year.

– Fiona Mactaggart
– Photo by Derek Clark

David Sinclair, one of the most insightful and affectionately-regarded photographers to have chronicled jazz’s covertly vivid presence in Britain, died at his home in Melksham, Wiltshire, on 25 March, at the age of 84. For over a quarter of a century, David’s eloquent black-and-white images appeared in publications from The Guardian to Jazzwise, Jazz UK and France’s Jazz Hot (with which he had a particularly close relationship), and adorned the walls of such revered establishments as Ronnie Scott’s Club.

Friendships with jazz stars including Sonny Rollins, Abdullah Ibrahim, and Hugh Masekela, and an empathy with how musicians think, honed an alertness to jazz’s spontaneities that was all the more remarkable for its triumphs over disability – dating back to the childhood tuberculosis that later made a walking stick as essential a part of his kit as his camera bag. But if hampered mobility obliged David to take up a vantage point and savour the light from it rather than duck and dive, and his own stillness often seemed to establish a revealing relationship with the animation on stage.  

HUBBARD Freddie 6

David and his wife Kathy (who had bought him his first camera when he switched careers in his fifties) toured Britain photographing rural life in the 1980s, and she encouraged and assisted all his work as a jazz photographer from 1989 on, and was in turn tirelessly supported by him through debilitating chronic illness. But if you asked how things were going, David would issue a terse update and change the subject – to why newspapers were so tight with money, or why Heart of Midlothian (his team) or Tottenham Hotspur (mine) had to be serial underachievers. A devoted swing fan (he was listening to Artie Shaw in his last hours) David Sinclair nonetheless admired the creative spirit of the people who played all kinds of music – an accepting respect that fuelled his many special friendships with players. As Jazz Hot editor Yves Sportis wrote on the news of his death: ‘We deeply love David, whose personality is in the image of his art: finesse, sophistication, originality, loyalty, courage, generosity, humour’. 

John Fordham

– Photos courtesy of Malcolm Sinclair (David Sinclair, top, Freddie Hubbard, centre)

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