Close your eyes while listening to “Symphonic Raps,” the first song on Future Stride, and you may find yourself transported back to swinging 1920s Harlem nightclubs where stride piano players were all the rage and dusk-to-dawn jam sessions and cutting contests were commonplace. With his debut album on Mack Avenue, pianist Emmet Cohen pumps new life into the stride tradition popularized a century ago by the likes of Willie “The Lion” Smith, Fats Waller, and James P. Johnson.
Future Stride takes listeners on a nostalgic journey through stride’s heyday but also reports on the current state of jazz. Cohen is adept at a myriad of styles, yet what sets him apart from other musicians of his generation is his ability to seamlessly marry the vintage and the modern, and in so doing attract a diverse group of enthusiasts.
On the title track, for example, Cohen starts the number with rapid stride refrains while muscular bassist Russell Hall and drummer Kyle Poole provide slightly off-kilter rhythmic and harmonic touches that at times are unsettlingly brilliant. Other compositions, like “Pitter Panther Patter” and “Dardanella,” further demonstrate the trio’s mastery of both old and new. For added measure, Cohen features trumpeter Marquis Hill and saxophonist Melissa Aldana on “Reflections at Dusk” and “You Already Know.” Their soloing throughout is breathtaking.
Cohen’s fascination with jazz history is clear in his ongoing Masters Legacy Series, for which he’s collaborated with legends like Benny Golson, Ron Carter, and Albert “Tootie” Heath. This time around he’s taking center stage, allowing fans to see his elevation as an artist.