CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Before & After: Emmet Cohen

The buoyant pianist gives Jon Batiste, Shirley Scott, and others a listen in his first B&A session

Emmet Cohen
Emmet Cohen relaxes with a beverage and some tunes at NYU. (photo: Ashley Kahn)

Jazz is always busy writing its own history, sharing stories that lead to other stories. Take the documentary Keep on Keepin’ On, in which trumpeter Clark Terry—facing health challenges in his old age, yet unbowed in spirit—inspires young pianist Justin Kauflin. As their story deepens and unfolds, Kauflin is invited to enter the 2011 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. He does not win despite Terry’s advice and lucky socks, but there’s a brief scene when we meet the three finalists—Kris Bowers, Josh White, and Emmet Cohen—and with that, the realization dawns that the true message of the film is as much about celebrating an undying continuum as it is about two individuals.

I mention this cinematic moment because Emmet Cohen is one pianist who is acutely conscious of this lesson, and whose jovial spirit—the guy’s blessed with a perennial smile—is fueled by that self-awareness. Get him started and he speaks proudly of being part of a “particular generation in my scene—in my larger circle of pianists and musicians with the common thread between us that we’re all interested in studying the deep history of the music.”

The Monk competition was but one of many Cohen triumphs—most recently, he was awarded the American Pianists Association’s Cole Porter Fellowship. His trio performances and his self-released recordings, including collaborations with jazz legends such ads Albert “Tootie” Heath, Jimmy Cobb, and Ron Carter (he calls them the “Masters Legacy Series”), reflect his dedication to not only the musical tradition but the musicians as well. He’s prolific too; 2019 saw the release of his sixth album, the live Dirty in Detroit with his trio (full disclosure: this writer was asked to pen the liner essay, and did). By the time of this publication, there’ll be two more volumes in the Masters series, with saxophonists Benny Golson and George Coleman, respectively.

On piano, Cohen is noted for the warmth, clarity, and precision in his playing. His penchant for stride, swing, and pre-bop piano vocabulary is a characteristic he shares with others of his generation like Jon Batiste and Sullivan Fortner. This was his first Before & After, conducted at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music in Brooklyn.

Listen below to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the songs in this Before & After session.

1. Mary Lou Williams
“The Man I Love” (Live at the Cookery, Chiaroscuro). Williams, piano; Brian Torff, bass. Recorded in 1976.

BEFORE: [Listens to entire eight-minute track in silence] I wanted to speak and let you know what I heard but it was so engaging. It’s Gershwin right off the bat—“The Man I Love,” and I love jazz that’s live. I feel like that’s where the music really belongs—in a live setting. All the great masters are so good in the studio and whenever I record in the studio, I never understand how they could come up with such magic without the presence of an audience.

The ambience in the room sounded like one of those live Ahmad Jamal records, but I knew immediately it wasn’t Ahmad because the playing isn’t as smooth and fluid. The left hand sounds fairly influenced by Ahmad. I never had a chance to go to Bradley’s, but this is what I would imagine the sound was like—a duo gig like this, where people are focused and listening and it’s intense. It’s real jazz playing. It reminds me a bit of Tommy Flanagan or someone else from Detroit that has a mastery and control over the sound that can come out of an overplayed piano. But I’m not sure.

AFTER: Mary Lou, wow. The left hand and the ideas are so strong, and her ability to lead a bass player and take that Gershwin template and really bring out the beauty in the song. It is crazy to hear her influence on all of the great pianists that came after her. Her playing sounded so modern. She’s a bridge between the old style and stride playing, and the beboppers. This was not quite either territory. Yeah, Mary Lou. I enjoyed it. 

You know it’s a great pianist who’s able to take a piano like that one and play it like it’s in tune. There are techniques for that. I think Tatum used to sit down at the piano and run a chromatic scale from the bottom of the keyboard to the top, and he would register in his mind which of the notes were funky and which were not working, and he would pick keys to play in to work around those notes the whole gig. This sounds like Mary Lou had a similar approach to avoid the funky notes, or used the soft pedal to lessen the out-of-tuneness of the piano.

2. Harold Mabern and Geoff Keezer
“Jeannine” (For Phineas, Sackville). Mabern, Keezer, pianos. Recorded in 1995.

BEFORE: It sounds like the pianist has four hands [winks]. That sounds like Harold Mabern playing second. I got a chance to see him many times and he was a mentor of mine. I went to take a lesson with him when I was 20 and met him at the [American Federation of Musicians] Union [building on 48th Street]. He was trying to get everyone to join but my generation has nothing to do with that—you just play a gig and then go home. So we met but the piano room was taken so he said, “We don’t need it, we’ll go sit and talk.” So we went to McDonald’s and he got himself a senior-citizen coffee and a sandwich and he talked to me about jazz for three hours. It was one of the best lessons I ever had. From then on, he was so nice and so kind.

It was surprising that he passed away last month [September 2019], and whenever [a jazz legend passes], I’ll add a tune of theirs into my trio book. So on the last couple tours we’ve been playing one of Mabes’ tunes—“Edward Lee,” which he wrote for Lee Morgan—and taking the time to say his name and thank him for his contributions.

I could always tell when it’s Mabes. He’s one of the most identifiable pianists: just the time feel and the way he gets around the harmony. He had such big hands and he used them in a very specific way. He had—I don’t want to use past tense—he has such great rhythmic ideas and it’s interesting to hear both of these pianists’ time-feel work together.

It’s cool to hear them both play walking bass too. When you hear Chick or Herbie or Brad play duo piano, they’ll almost never go into walking bass. They like to leave the space open. To pursue intensity with two pianos can take a lot of forms, and walking bass lines can often be overbearing in that setting. But these players are so rhythmically strong that it feels easy. Maybe James Williams is the other pianist? 

AFTER: It was in my mind that it might have been Keezer. His left hand is one of the best in the business, like he has two right hands. I knew it was someone that had that kind of control when you go into double octaves like that. Mabes has some other techniques like taking an interval and bringing it really fast down the keyboard—that’s a signature Mabes thing. But Keezer has the cleanest double octaves that you could possibly have, in the style of Phineas Newborn.

In fact, the album is a tribute to Phineas. 

I did not know that. That makes sense, and Mabern always talked about Phineas and his spirit, his ability to play anything. Talk about someone with two right hands, that’s a big similarity between Keezer and Phineas. 

I took one lesson with Keezer when I was in college. He came to visit the University of Miami and played for the whole jazz department. He played “Alone Together” with the school rhythm section and it was just so swinging. There were so many ideas he weaved between his two hands—that really opened my eyes to some new possibilities on how to approach a song. I also remember he played “Cherokee” as a ballad, and then when I took my lesson he hipped me to what became one of my favorite records of all time: Tiptoe Tapdance, Hank Jones, solo piano. He said he transcribed every note on that, and also all the backgrounds from all the Frank Sinatra recordings. Keezer is just a master. I think it’s a really interesting match between [him and] Harold—or Professor Mabes, as I would always call him—and the kind of passing of the torch, the young and the new, and you can hear that on the recording too.

3. Carmen McRae and George Shearing
“Gentleman Friend” (Two for the Road, Concord). Shearing, piano; McRae, vocals. Recorded in 1980.

BEFORE: Is it Walter Davis? Carmen is immediately identifiable, of course. One of the most unique and soulful and masterful voices ever to sing a song. I love the accompaniment. It comes from a boogie-woogie style, something you don’t hear so often. It has the boogie-woogie subdivision without being overtly “I’m playing a boogie-woogie” style. It reminded me of the propulsion of a Meade Lux Lewis or Jimmy Yancey but within a more modern time, and also with postbop influence. That’s why I guessed Walter Davis.

The interaction in this piece is less what you would consider call-and-response or direct interaction, which is what you might learn going to jazz school. This is more the way two people fit together, almost like a puzzle—they’re listening to each other but they don’t have to respond and acknowledge every little thing that happens. They’re going on their own individual melodic journey simultaneously, and then when their waves cross it creates this amazing tension and hookup and rub. That’s where the maturity of a performance like this comes through. The drive of the piano is unrelenting in a way that Carmen was able to sit on top of it and be free with the time. A lot of times, if the singer is worried about the time of the piano, then it will lock the vocalist into a box.

AFTER: That makes a lot of sense. Shearing is one of the most versatile jazz pianists. He could play stride, boogie-woogie, he could fit into a band, he could adapt to any situation very authentically and very originally. When I think of him, it’s him pioneering a certain sound with the postmodern jazz quartet with vibes—everything is very tight and very intentional and the arrangements are exquisite. It’s really nice to hear him play solo piano in this setting.

You’re opening tonight at Birdland with Veronica Swift. How do you approach supporting vocalists?

I’ve had a chance to play with a pretty wide variety of singers. I toured with Kurt Elling for a year, and had the chance to play briefly with Dianne Reeves and Dee Dee Bridgewater. I’ve been playing recently with Mary Stallings, who teaches me what it may have been like to play with Carmen or Sarah or Billie. I’ve also played with some young singers like Veronica, who’s extremely commanding and comes from a totally different style—more Anita O’Day and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.

The main thing I’ve learned from playing with all of them is that accompanying is about making people feel comfortable. All the musicians know this. “Comping” is the word for playing behind a singer or a soloist. It comes from the word accompanying, and what is accompanying? It’s holding someone’s hand. How do you accompany the person you love, how do you accompany your best friend? I bring that mindset to the piano when I play with any musician, but especially a singer because it’s such a sensitive thing.

I’ve been touring extensively with Veronica, so now I can take an approach to make her feel as comfortable as possible but at the same time make her sing something she’s never sung before—throw her something weird. The closer you are to someone, the more you play night after night, the more risks are taken, and through those risks and the mistakes that happen you find different sounds that become part of your vocabulary. Veronica has so much trust in me and I have so much trust in her that it allows for us to take the music to a new level every single night, and keep each other inspired.

4. Jon Batiste
“Creative” (Anatomy of Angels: Live at the Village Vanguard, Verve). Batiste, piano; Phil Kuehn, bass; Joe Saylor, drums. Recorded in 2018.

BEFORE: I’m embarrassed, I should know these. It sounds Monk-influenced to me. Wait, this is Batiste. It’s Phil Kuehn, Joe Saylor. I was at this gig, actually. This is “Creative.” I really like this tune—it strikes me in an emotional way. I don’t think it has the strongest melody to latch onto, but I don’t think it matters. It’s a study in groove and time and feel and the way a piano trio can play together in the futuristic setting, which I’m very interested in.

J-Bat has had a big influence on the jazz scene, especially on his generation, which is my generation. I absolutely love him and have gotten a chance to spend some time around him and see how he’s able to control a room with his music and his personality. I love the concept of this music—how the musicians play together, and how it comes from Marcus Roberts, his concept of groove and time, which became Wynton’s concept, and which has protruded into almost every corner of postmodern straight-ahead playing. And I love it because it’s an extension also of Miles Davis’ second quintet.

I played with Saylor for five years every week at Smoke, and Phil joined my trio sometimes too. Joe is a master—one of the most recent innovators of jazz drums, in my opinion. He’s got everyone that’s come before. He’s perfectly comfortable playing with Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, and he also internalized Jeff “Tain” Watts’ concept, and Ali Jackson and Herlin Riley, and he uses all that seamlessly in any musical setting he’s in, even on the Colbert show. Joe is one of my best friends, and it’s nice to hear him at the Vanguard really playing jazz.

5. Monty Alexander
“Where Is Love” (Here Comes the Sun, MPS Records). Alexander, piano; Eugene Wright, bass; Duffy Jackson, drums. Recorded in 1971.

BEFORE: I hear a little of everything in there. A little bit of Oscar Peterson, a little bit of Ahmad, a big classical influence, a complete mastery of the instrument. There are certain people—when they sit at the piano you can hear them trying to express their ideas. And then there are certain people that have this command. Their ideas come out so clearly and in so many ornamented ways that it almost sounds too easy for them. Like Tatum, like Oscar Peterson. There’s even humor in this; while he was playing all this lusciousness, he held down a chord and just plucked the strings inside the piano with the other hand. I love that.

His name is on the tip of my tongue. I play this song—I can’t remember the name. It’s from Oliver!—“Where Is Love.”

AFTER: Monty was one of the first people my father took me to see at the Jazz Standard when I was 11 or 12. I got a chance to meet him and he signed a little postcard for me and I had it in my room all of my childhood. When your heroes become your friends and know your name, your career goes to a whole other level. I kept hearing Oscar Peterson, but Monty has so much more than just that, he’s so clear and emotional. What’s the name of the record?

6. Shirley Scott
“You Do Something to Me” (Like Cozy, Moodsville). Scott, piano; George Duvivier, bass; Arthur Edgehill, drums. Recorded in 1960.

BEFORE: Cole Porter, “You Do Something to Me.” Tamir Hendelman taught me this on a jazz cruise at 4 a.m. a few years ago. This is Shirley Scott.

What made you guess her?

It’s just so in the pocket in a special way, and it must be George Duvivier on bass, who she always plays with. I hesitate to guess because I prefer not being wrong in front of millions of readers, but I’m convinced it’s him. On all my favorite records of Shirley playing organ, he’s playing bass and they have a certain way of locking up—George plays in the center of the beat and Shirley’s a little behind. Also, Shirley’s rhythmic approach is very unique, especially when she goes into the block chords and starts playing two-handedly. There are parts in this where she’s comping specific rhythms that are influenced by the Basie band, and it sounds like a whole big band playing.

It was interesting to hear her on piano. Nice light touch. It reminds me of the way Ahmad would orchestrate. Ahmad really is the father of the piano trio. I heard him two months ago at SFJAZZ playing with his trio plus percussion. The way he’s evolved is so far advanced from anything else that’s going on in the jazz idiom, and the New Orleans influence is always palpable. Everyone goes after his touch and his control of the rhythm section—myself included. 

7. “Don Shirley Trio” (Kris Bowers)
“Lullaby of Birdland” (Green Book [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack], Milan). Bowers, piano; Kevin Axt, bass; Artyom Manukyan, cello. Recorded in 2018.

BEFORE: I love the through-composed arrangement. That’s one thing that keeps the music interesting and had my attention the whole time. I love short musical statements that go to a few different places and then leave you—like a nice little dessert or a sweet little snack. It’s sweet and salty and it takes you to a couple of places in your own experience and then leads you right back where you started. Very contrapuntal, Bach-esque. I also love the other textures, the bass and the guitar—is that a guitar in there?

I’m going to give you a hint. It’s someone consciously playing like another piano player, performing for a film. 

Very scenic music. It’s funny that you mentioned movies because it’s often the way I’ll talk to students who are in a box about jazz being exclusively melody followed by solos, followed by the melody again. That being said, it’s such a short track with little improvisation, it’s hard to tell who it is.

AFTER: Oh, okay. I did see the movie and I thought Kris did a great job with the soundtrack. It’s funny—I recognized his hands in the movie because we spent a lot of time hanging out at the piano in past years, in different competitions. I could tell the way his fingers move and because he has very elegant motions at the keyboard. I haven’t seen him in many years, though I’m an admirer from afar. The last time we were together was at the American Pianists Association [competition] five years ago or something like that. He was pretty heavy into film scoring then, working on stuff on the plane, in the airport and in the cab, and I’m still trying to figure out how to play the acoustic piano. I asked him, “How did you learn all that stuff?”

Can you see yourself doing that—making music for film or TV?

I’ve been asked to do some scoring but it never struck a chord with me. You only have so much time in a day and a week and a month, and I haven’t particularly dedicated myself to figuring out how to sync up music to movies or how to create emotion on screen, even though I enjoy watching films and film music.

I love bringing the music to the people. I live for the live communication, for playing, for the adrenaline that comes with sharing the bandstand with great musicians who inspire you every night and who can elevate a room and affect people, take them out of their daily lives for a whole hour or even five minutes. You can make someone cry and think about someone that they once loved, or you can make them laugh harder than they laughed that whole day just because of the certain thing that happens on stage. That for me is where I really feel that I need to be. I love people, I’m an extrovert, I love inspiring people, I love sharing the music and my love for the music with people, and part of my mission is to really make people love jazz. 

8. Joe Morello
“Secret Love” (Going Places, Digital Music Products). Ralph Lalama, tenor saxophone; Greg Kogan, piano; Gary Mazzaroppi, bass; Morello, drums. Recorded in 1993.

BEFORE: “My Secret Love.” I know—it’s Kogan. It’s so funny you played me this recording. I’ve heard this before but the tenor player is … Ralph Lalama? There are very few recordings of Greg and he passed away just last month. Did you know we’re related? Kogan, Cohen—Ellis Island. It was Koganovitch in Russia. He is my dad’s first cousin and I hadn’t met him until I was about 17. I don’t know how that happened, just family dynamics and all that. His father was a great saxophone player named Maurice Kogan who transitioned from jazz to Broadway theater music, and played a thousand shows. They called him Hawk because he sounded like Coleman Hawkins; his wife called him Hawky. Greg was a big player on the scene in the ’70s—with Buddy Rich, Joe Morello. Everyone has great memories. I’ve talked to Randy Brecker about him, and all the guys that played in the Lionel Hampton orchestra.

Greg resurfaced in my family’s life when I was in high school in Montclair, New Jersey and he would play at Trumpets with Joe Morello, and let me sit in. So I got a chance to hear Greg play, and there were times where he would come over the house and I would ask him to play this song for me and that song for me. He had this ability to do these crazy runs that were so fast and so clean, slightly Tatum-esque but so unique too. He was also a big Cedar [Walton] fan and he’d show me all the little inner voicing possibilities—I would be like, “Stop, what’s that?” He had these stock things he would do on different tunes that I’ve never heard from any other pianists.

We joke in my family that this makes a good case for genetics. He continues to inspire me. After he passed away I went through and listened to a lot of the stuff that he recorded. It’s a pretty close bloodline, so it’s always a pleasure to be reminded of him. Thank you for that.

9. Jason Moran
“Lulu’s Back in Town” (All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller, Blue Note). Moran, piano; Tarus Mateen, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums. Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: Jason Moran is the only person who would play “Lulu’s Back in Town” like this. Jason is one of the great thinkers—a true artist. The conceptual aspect of what he does is so strong and it transcends even his piano playing or the way he runs the band. I admire that to the max. To hear Fats Waller played with some of the original intention but with electric bass makes me smile. And he’s playing the changes Thelonious Monk created for his version of the song. Moran loves Monk over almost anybody, I think. But then the [Jaki] Bayard/Cecil Taylor/Moran sound really comes out on it. It’s a conceptual presentation—the song fades out somewhere in the middle and it may vamp and go in many different directions. You get that from playing with musicians for a long time, and that’s the Bandwagon. He’s had his band together for probably more years than I’ve known what jazz is. 

When I think about Fats Waller I tend to want to capture Fats’ spirit. It’s very challenging to play the stride in a way that sounds authentic. I always try to incorporate Fats’ solo playing into a trio context or take it one step further: Willie “The Lion” Smith or James P. Johnson. Those are the big three, and also Tatum or Earl Hines or Jelly Roll Morton or any of the pianists I’ve connected with since moving to New York—to expand beyond the usual influences of Bill Evans, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, Oscar Peterson. It’s very unique to hear Fats’ influence and there are so many ways to do it. Jason has his own way of doing it—I love his mind and I love his band.

Jason comes from the first generation of hip-hop, and there’s definitely a looped feel embedded there at the start of “Lulu” and in other parts of the tune, like a hip-hop producer doing a cut-and-paste. Do you agree?

Can you play it again? Just the beginning. [Listens] A lot of hip-hop is a loop or a vamp and that’s, I think, the effect that the trio is going for, but it also honors the way that Monk plays it. If you listen to the way that Monk plays the song, he takes a lot of solo piano time up front, three or four choruses of some of the most individual stride playing, and this is Jason’s version. To me it’s less about him creating a cut-and-paste effect and more just the way his imagination imagines Monk.

But it makes sense—a combination of jazz and hip-hop coming through the music, especially Fats Waller-era music. Fats Waller was one of the pinnacles of the black aesthetic of his day, like Monk and Miles and Louis Armstrong and so many other creators of jazz were in their time, and the creators of hip-hop came out of the black aesthetic of the ‘80s and ‘90s. There is a direct parallel between the two worlds, and what that music did for people in its time. So, to hear the combination of two unique things like jazz and hip-hop is a very clear path to originality. The way [Robert] Glasper does is completely different from the way Jason does. I think Glasper is coming from more of a place where he’s ignoring all of the history and just looking at it musically, pulling it together and making music that belongs for people in this time period. Jason takes an approach that embraces history and infuses it in his art. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that’s part of the way I see it.

10. Bobby Timmons Trio
“Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” (The Bobby Timmons Trio in Person, Riverside). Timmons, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Albert Heath, drums. Recorded in 1961.

BEFORE: One of the biggest compliments I could give someone is that I know it’s him right off the bat. In one note I could tell you it’s Ron Carter—let’s call him Mr. Carter—the most recorded bassist of all time. There’s a logic about the directions of his lines, when it’s high, when it’s low. He is the most intense bass player, and there are different levels of the intensity too. He’s able to elevate the music so gradually you don’t know what’s happening. You play a few choruses with him and then all of a sudden it feels like the bandstand is going to lift off, then he’ll start digging in a little bit harder. Mr. Carter only gives it up to two or three bassists—like Percy Heath, Israel Crosby, and Jimmy Blanton. I love that. I decided a while ago I wanted to make playing with Ron Carter one of my missions as a jazz musician. 

This record is one of my—I hate the phrase “desert island disc”—but it is one of my bibles. Bobby Timmons with Mr. Carter and someone who’s become a grandfather figure to me, Mr. Albert Heath. Bobby Timmons and Tootie have these little punctuations that support the music perfectly. Timmons doesn’t even play for the first few minutes of this track. Tootie is on brushes the whole time, he doesn’t need sticks to go to that elevation. They play in a fashion that’s subtle but so powerful, and they leave much for the listener to imagine, especially in this performance. They’re not cramming in everything [they] know, it’s just so tasty. That’s one thing about Mr. Carter. His taste is immaculate.

Thanks for doing this, Emmet—how was this process for you?

Oh man, wonderful. I loved it. Listening to music is one of my favorite pastimes. I’ve spent many nights with my friends staying up all night and listening to music. Jazz is meant to be listened to with other people. Everyone hears it a different way, everyone notices something different. You learn a lot about a person by listening to music with them—you get to know a person a lot better.

Originally Published

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.