American Pianists Award Winner Emmet Cohen makes his debut for Mack Avenue Records, with some tunes, involving the stride piano music from a century ago. Yet, as the title Future Stride indicates, the music doesn’t necessarily sound throw-back or dated. It was the vitality of the great stride pianists that later evolved into the music of Thelonious Monk and to some extent, the great bebop pianists such as Bud Powell. Cohen enlists his longtime rhythm partners, bassist Russell Hall and drummer Kyle Poole, along with two of modern jazz’s most progressive voices, trumpeter Marquis Hill and saxophonist Melissa Aldana. The tunes graced by the latter two evoke completely different moods than the trio rendered stride tunes.
“I find that all great art can be considered modern,” Cohen explains. “Whenever you listen to Stravinsky or watch Stanley Kubrick, when you read Shakespeare or look at Picasso, it remains the most modern, genius art that you can find. It allows people in every time period to feel and experience the same emotions relevant to the period that they live in. For me, stride piano belongs in that category; the music of Art Tatum and Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith has implications that can affect people today in a very deep manner.”
The album begins at breakneck tempo with “Symphonic Raps” an obscure, rarely covered tune played by Louis Armstrong with the Carroll Dickerson Orchestra in the late 1920s. Cohen likens the tune to a hip-hop groove, a way for the trio to get loose. We then are quickly transported to an entirely different contemplative piece, “Reflections at Dusk.” It’s an original inspired by several personal changes that took hold prior to the onset of the pandemic, with the melody lines carried beautifully by Hill and Aldana. The horns remain for the tribute to beloved drummer Lo Leathers, one who touched the lives of all five players, in “Toast to Lo.” Leathers passed in June 2019.
Stride returns on the title track as Cohen plays short sequences designed for interaction with his trio mates. He then moves away again from the stride grove with the tender trio -rendered classic Sammy Cahn/Jimmy Van Heusen ballad “Second Time Around.” While the stride-oriented tunes depict Cohen’s facility to play percussively at rapid tempos, this one accentuates his deft, sensitive touch revealing the wide breadth of his artistry. “Dardanella,” a public domain tune dated 1919, is a rite of passage for stride pianists; with an extensive legacy of pianists having put their own twist on it. Cohen foregoes the usual solo approach with the trio all contributing animated statements. The quintet returns for Cohen’s “You Already Know,” a piece he wrote when first moving to NYC and intended to reflect the city’s hectic pace.
Cohen turns to another major influence with Duke Ellington’s “Pitter Panther Patter” originally written as a showcase for his Orchestra’s mighty bassist, Jimmy Blanton, and Cohen uses it to shine the light on Russell Hall. The Rodgers and Hart standard “My Heart Stood Still” was a last-minute call as the session neared its end, allowing the trio to show off its breezy but scintillating chemistry. The album ends with another Cohen original, the only quartet piece,” Little Angel,” a tale of heartbreak brilliantly illustrated by Hill’s gorgeous, hushed melodicism.
Ah, about that award which not only is prestigious but quite lucrative. Winning the American Pianist Award in 2019 netted Cohen a cash prize of $100,000, two years of career advancement, and a contract with Mack Avenue Records. It’s the most coveted prize for American jazz pianists and has Cohen joining past winners including Sullivan Fortner, Aaron Diehl, Dan Tepfer, Aaron Parks, and Adam Birnbaum, among others. Cohen’s boundless talent is clearly on display here as he draws from tradition to create his own future path.