Feature Interview

Emmet Cohen chats honouring the century-old tradition of jazz and bringing it into the present with Future Stride, his debut album under Mack Avenue Records

My brother and I ended off 2020 in his living room with a bottle of overpriced whisky (read: contraband under prohibitionist lockdown law) and a jazz concert we’d saved for this very occasion: Live from Emmet’s Place Vol. 37 — Jazzmeia Horn.

Led by multi award-winning American jazz pianist Emmet Cohen and his namesake ensemble, The Emmet Cohen Trio (featuring bassist Russell Hall and drummer Kyle Poole) and with special guest artist, Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist, Jazzmeia Horn, it was a phenomenal experience. 

Since the beginning of lockdown, Cohen has been hosting live stream concerts from his living room in Harlem, New York, every Monday night, featuring some of the most incredible musical talents on the NYC jazz scene — his contemporaries, his friends, his family — just like the private jazz house parties they used to throw on the sly, back in the 1920s. 

A cool century later, keeping the jazz tradition alive and as fresh as ever, and greeting me from the very living room I’d grown so familiar with over lockdown, Emmet Cohen smiles when I tell him not only about how I ended my 2020, but that he’s just helped me tick off my first New Year’s Resolution: to meet Emmet Cohen. “Thank you so much, that means a lot to me,” he responds, his off-camera persona exactly the same as during his live-streams. 

Cohen tells me about the good and bad of his lockdown, the time he’s had to reflect and think, and the questions he was able to ask himself: “What do I want from the world? What do I have to offer the world? What do I see for myself, you know? What do I see for others?”

And, having spent the last eight years on the Harlem music scene, he’s most grateful for his musical family. “That’s another thing that makes the music special, these people are family, Russell Hall and Kyle pool are my family, and we’re here together in this thing, and what do we know how to do? We play jazz, we play improvisational music, we play music from our heart to connect with people. Let’s offer some for the world.” 

Russell Hall, bassist (L), Emmet Cohen, pianist & composer (M), Kyle Poole, drummer (R)

He explains that “spiritual supply and demand” was the driving force behind starting Live From Emmet’s Place and laughs as he recalls filming the first episode on his iPhone over Wi-Fi, “It’s horrendous, but it’s the spirit of what it was, we put on some nice clothes, we got wine, and we talked to the people, and we were just being ourselves.” 

And it worked. It’s one of the most-watched live streams on the Internet. “[Now] we have a sound man, we have a video man, and then I’m there running the stream, bringing different people in to have a communion, you know, and kind of almost programme it like it’s a festival or a jazz club,” he says proudly and appreciatively. 

A recognized prodigy, Cohen has been playing piano since the age of three, learning the Suzuki method, which teaches learning by ear before putting the theory behind it, “something that really lends itself to jazz as an aural tradition,” he reasons. I wonder if there was a specific moment that he realised he had something special. “I think there’s a moment that you realise that adults are impressed, and that does something to you psychologically where you’re like, ‘Okay, I understand now, people like me for my playing’,” he explains. 

As a teenager, Cohen attended the Manhattan School of Music pre-college, where he studied classical piano through middle and high-school. But, growing up in New Jersey, his musical and cultural education extended much further than the classroom. “My father was always taking me to see all kinds of things, Broadway shows, classical music, Opera, and we lived right outside of New York City so there are a lot of opportunities to be immersed in the culture, so that was a beautiful foray into all different kinds of arts and culture and everything like that,” he elaborates of his influence by exposure and osmosis.

Cohen recalls attending a show by the great Jamaican jazz pianist, Monty Alexander. “I heard that sound, and I was like, ‘Damn, I like the way that feels,’” he explains, “I fell in love with the feeling, and I heard Charlie Parker and I heard John Coltrane and I liked that language and I tried to assimilate it into my own brain, tried to understand it, and then I fell in love with the sound of swing… and it took a very long time, years and years, before I got to a point where I would feel comfortable with the music.”

Cohen’s incredibly colourful musical life comes full circle on his latest album, Future Stride, his debut release under Mack Avenue Records. “We want to make their voices (Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie) heard in this time, through our lens, through our way, and not be afraid of what anyone thinks, either, you know, just do it, and try things, and mess up, and it’s okay, and it’s supposed to be beautiful in that way,” shares Cohen of the approach to the album. 

Featuring bassist Russell Hall, drummer Kyle Poole, trumpeter Marquis Hill and saxophonist Melissa Aldana, Emmet Cohen breathes fresh life into a beautiful century-old tradition, revisiting the earliest forms of jazz through a modern lens.

“Well you know Russell and Kyle bring that influence into it, bringing hip hop energy into a Louis Armstrong track (opener “Symphonic Raps”), and I see music and creative improvisation and stuff, it’s much like cooking. You know when you get into the kitchen, you’re not trying to invent new ingredients, humanity has been around long enough to be like, ‘these are the spices we got, this is the palette we got, you know you’re not gonna come up with something better than cayenne pepper,” he laughs, describing the process.

Emmet’s 10-track masterpiece is a curation of jazz classics and original compositions that have the foresight and creativity to express the future of jazz, all the while paying respect to those who created the music with an homage that screams, “Long live the Roaring ‘20s!”

Check out Live From Emmet’s Place Vol.42 for a special Future Stride album release party episode.