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The Place To Be

After clubs and concert halls shut down in March of 2020, the enterprising and exuberant pianist Emmet Cohen invited the cameras and microphones into his Harlem apartment for weekly Monday night jam sessions that brought—and still bring—together ever-shifting constellations of youthful friends of his generation and respected eminences.  These “Live from Emmet’s Place” confabs streamed to a locked-down world, Cohen and his cohort serving up soul food for a virtual audience starved for such necessary nourishment.

This past Monday’s two-hour show, the 88th installment of the series, offered tribute to the legendary bebop pianist Barry Harris, who died in December, a week shy of his 92nd birthday. The evening was a vibrant affirmation of a long and rich musical life, and proof that the values embodied in jazz endure across generations through hard work, respect for tradition and—as Cohen often put it—love.

The indefatigable and insouciant Cohen has been busy these past two years. In 2019 he won the American Pianists Association’s Cole Porter Fellowship, which brought with it a $50,000 prize as well as a recording contract with Mack Avenue Records. The first fruits of that relationship appeared in January of 2021 in the midst of the pandemic. His album Future Stride is a ceaselessly astonishing display of an encompassing jazz pianism. The CD’s cover pictures him in a spacious modern studio seated at a white piano, the same color as the one Cole Porter composed at. The image forecasts the music within: vintage touches mix with a contempo-cool that doesn’t feel the need to resist the allures of occasional almost campy fun.

The title of the disc agrees. Stride is a style that emerged a century ago. Cohen has it stroll, sometimes sprint, into the future.

In stride, the left hand jumps back and forth across the keyboard, providing both bass line and, in a different register, chordal accompaniment. The fingers are often stretched wide to fill out the sonorities before either sliding or leaping to their next position, often at terminal velocity. Against this continuously demanding feat of five-digit calibration, the right hand adds vaulting filigree. It’s as if the pianist has at least three hands. The style marks a transformation of the technically demanding and highly expressive innovations of nineteenth-century European virtuosos such as Chopin, adapted by the fin-de-siècle ragtime masters in this country, then updated with the energy and drive of modern American life.

Future Stride bolts from the gate with “Symphonic Raps,” a tune culled from a Louis Armstrong recording from the 1920s. Cohen roars out of that roaring decade with clumps of notes and galloping figures, uncontainable good humor curvetting up and down the keys.  The second track—the rather picturesquely, if generically titled “Reflections at Dusk”—wormholes to the other end of the twentieth century, or perhaps into the twenty-first, with an atmospheric ballad of smokey hue.

Later on, the title track toggles between different time zones. The beat jolts ahead then back from one bar to the next as if two different tracks had been spliced together. This isn’t a post-production mishap or manipulation. The mash-up has been concocted on the spot by Cohen’s multi-processing head and hands. After these unsettling oscillations, Cohen and his trio (Kyle Poole on drums, Russell Hall on bass) relax into a gentle, forgiving swing that brings the preceding rhythmic games into coy relief.  The blues  are allotted ample space for their pleasures to be enjoyed. But to close “Future Stride,” Cohen pilots us back through the temporal turbulence of the tune’s opening.

Future Stride tells us that music history is a buffet to be enjoyed in any and all combinations. Styles are often kept separate when put on the plate, but once the musicians tuck in, the juices begin to run together. Unlikely combinations of flavor emerge, unexpected mixings of spices and ingredients keep the palate on its toes. Certain musico-culinary collisions might occasionally make the nose wrinkle and cause a touch of indigestion from the heaping portions of self-conscious brilliance. But you keep going back for more because it’s all so damn tasty and fortifying.

And so it is at Emmet’s place with its ethos of free-wheeling gamesmanship and the uninhibited sampling of the jazz menu. Even in the late days of the pandemic one can only describe the delight in music made and heard as infectious.

Fittingly, Monday evening began with a Barry Harris tune, Ascension, the Cohen trio swinging relentlessly and the pianist cleaving to the bop lexicon, though with flashier exhibitions than would have offered by tune’s deceased author. Cohen flourished sharp octaves, block chords, and double-time eruptions above the buoyant groove.

The night’s first visitor, who’d been listening intently from the sofa behind the drum set, was Ruben Fox from South London. He’d been in fine form at Emmet’s Place back in January.  His few spoken words came with an Estuary English accent, but his saxophone had the diction and timing on the far backside of the beat of Dexter Gordon, a towering tenor saxophonist who often enlisted Harris’s genius.  For its first number, Monday’s quartet slid into Harris’s “Off Monk,” the capacious swing punctuated by the Spherical angularity that was a hallmark of the tune’s dedicatee

Next to join the ensemble was the pianist/singer Johnny O’Neal, who, like Harris, hails from Detroit and was transplanted from the Motor City to the Big Apple. It’s the third time that O’Neal has visited the Cohen salon of swing, and the plenary session began with a selection from the Great American Songbook, “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue” by Harold Arlen, jauntily sung and then scatted to by O’Neal backed by the quartet.

There is twinkle in O’Neal’s eyes, voice, and fingers.

Sometime after that effervescent interpretation of a classic, Cohen requested a number that, though unannounced as such, was for mature audiences only. In “I’m Your Mailman” the entrendre is not just double, but also potentially big trouble (4:20 in the YouTube video). It’s lewder than anything that Prince ever dreamt up and that got Tipper Gore’s knickers in a twist:

I am happy, I am gay,
I come each and every day,
I’m, your, mailman.
I knock your knockers, I ring your bell,
Don’t you think that I am swell,
I’m, your, mailman.
I can come, in any kind of weather.
Don’t you know my bag is made of leather.
(O’Neal sang “bar” not “bag.”)
Bang your knockers, ring your bell
Gee, I bet you think I’m swell
I’m your mailman
I don’t need no keys for locks
I’ll just slip it in your box
I’m your mailman
When I’m walking down the road,
Gee, I love to drop a load,
I’m, your, mailman.

The lesson of this Monday evening romp was that if you’re going to sing blue lyrics do them—in contrast to the profession of the tune’s opening line—straight: no guffawing, winking or nudge-nudging. Still, one noticed the above-mentioned twinkling and the occasional un-suppressible smile or, near the end of the route, a barely escaped half-laugh.

After O’Neal’s vocalise solo, Fox delivered a deft and elegant message that ended with sensuous growls. After Cohen took his boisterous postal choruses he made way at the piano for O’Neal, an alumnus of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. That credential alone establishes his hard bop bona fides in eternity. These were verified yet again at Emmet’s place on Monday.  O’Neal carved out crisp Harris-esque lines, interleaving them with chordal shouts. Cohen then joined his senior colleague on the bench for a raucous duet that traded fours and diverse stylistic allusions, the pair crossing arms with each other and generally having a blast.

A later up-tempo blues was a lewder still, and there were plenty more ballads, blues and swing over the ensuing hour and some.

It takes money to put these events on, and Venmo tips could be deposited in the digital jar. I thought that a nod to drink sponsor Bimble and Cohen’s hoisting of a bottle of the stuff might elicit a neo-bop original, Bimble be Nimble—an homage to Charlie Parker’s Scrapple from the Apple.

All the musicians offered anecdotes about the evening’s honoree, the most expansive and touching told by O’Neal about his arrival in New York City and welcome by Harris and Thelonius Monk. But the most enduring and memorable stories came in the music. The casual, but heartfelt liturgy of remembrance culminated at evening’s with Harris’s “Nascimento,” the band singing the chorale as they played.

As for the unabashed hymning of eros by a gaggle of guys:  if music be the food of love, play on! “Live from Emmet’s Place” should come with a warning:  Beware! you might have enormous fun, old-fashioned yet new-fangled.

(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com.)

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