Emmet Cohen celebrates jazz master Benny Golson in Grand Rapids appearance

Jan 16, 2020

Pianist Emmet Cohen
Credit Emmet Cohen

WGVU: Emmet Cohen is one of the most exciting young pianists in jazz.  He's a multifaceted instrumentalist and composer and is in the vanguard of his generation's advancement of music. Cohen won the 2019 American Pianists Awards winner and was the recipient of the Cole Porter Fellowship in Jazz. A recognized prodigy, Cohen began the Suzuki method piano instruction at age 3 and his playing quickly became a mature melding of musicality, technique and concept.  He leads the Emma Cohen trio and is in constant demand as a sideman. In 2019 he was featured on over a half a dozen albums, including his own CD “Dirty in Detroit” which was recorded in 2018 at the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe in Grosse Pointe Michigan.  His most significant recordings so far are the Masters Legacy Series, albums in collaboration with some of the greatest living masters of jazz, including bassist Ron Carter, drummer Jimmy Cobb, and in the most recent additions tenor saxophone giants Benny Golson and George Coleman.

Cohen is bringing Benny Golson to Grand Rapids this Thursday for a performance at Saint Cecilia's Music Center at 7:30PM… here's Bremond’s Blues by the Emmet Cohen trio…

I spoke by phone with Emmet Conan first asked him about the significance of Benny golson in the history of jazz.

Cohen: He's one of the foremost innovators, post-Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, on the tenor saxophone…Benny Golson is one of the most consistent and long lasting jazz musicians of all time…I don't think many musicians make it into the 90's and are able to produce, tour and  travel at that rate… it's pretty amazing and I hang out with the legendary pianist named Johnny O'Neal, and he always says, you know, the best jazz musicians are always the most consistent jazz musicians…and Benny Golson has been so consistent for the past 70 years.

He comes from Philadelphia, he grew up playing with John Coltrane in their mother's house, they both had their alto saxophones trying to imitate Johnny Hodges.  And then from there he moved to New York and the became one of the premier voices of the tenor saxophone, in the style of Coleman Hawkins, I would say, but then innovated his own style and the last thing I should mention is that he is one of the great jazz composers In the history of the music and he has written more songs that have taken flight and been accepted by all the jazz musicians than possibly anyone else. He’s right up there with Cedar Walton and Horace Silver and some of the other great just composers of that era, of the post-bop era, and was part of a lot of bands, a lot of unique situations and I'm so fortunate that he wanted to record with me and  we just put out a record a couple of days ago, and that’s entitled The Masters Legacy Series Volume 3, with Tootie Heath and Benny Golson… and it's amazing because the two of them are from Philadelphia…so it was a reunion of sorts for them as well to come together and play and  Russell Hall, young bassistin New York City, we collaborate all the time…so to bring our collaboration with their collaboration was a really incredible moment in time, captured and preserved it forever.

WGVU: This is volume 3 of the Master’s Legacy Series tell us how the  series began.

Cohen: The series began…I guess I moved to New York…had some experiences in New York around the Jazz masters, there was one New Year's Eve, the last time with the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni Big Band and Jimmy Heath’s playing tenor saxophone and I got to listen to him tell stories all the way down the bus ride to D.at the Kennedy Center about Charlie Parker coming over to his parents house to dinner and hanging out with John Coltrane back in Philly and said, wow, this is more educational than most jazz classes at school or…

most books that I've read or anything like that, you really get the feeling when you talk to someone, and that’s what the music is all about, the human connection…connecting with him… connecting with people like Billy Hart, who I grew up down the street from,  he would have me come over and fix his computer for him and then we'd be you listening to Ahmad Jamal videos for hours, and he’d show all sorts of things, and what to listen for…and some of his experiences, and so I got that from a few angles UN and how important it was to be around the people who created this music or around people who were around the people who created the music. And being around people like Ron Carter, and Tootie Heath, and Buster Williams, and Houston Person and George Coleman…they each have their own story, they each have their own journey and to…take part in that journey and understand it, has really enriched the way I feel the music, think about the music, hear the music and present the music, and we’ll be presenting the music in Grand Rapids, the next week with Benny Golson.

WGVU: Well this last year was a great year for you in terms of, on the radio, we had a music… your own trio “Dirty in Detroit”, but you were also on Veronica Swift's album, “Perpetual Optimism” from Herlin Riley the Troy Roberts album “Days like These”… “A Love Lane Nocturne” all as a side-man and then you recorded obviously with Benny and Tootie, and also George Coleman… so talk about 2019.

Cohen: Wow, yes, 2019 was incredible… actually I recorded of some of those records with Benny Golson and Tootie Heath in 2017 and then finished it up in 2018. So you know that some of some of these things take longer than one year, to think through, and to record and edit them and to live and breathe with, so you know a lot of these things were a year in the making.  But all those other records I think I made in 2019 and it’s crazy for you to tell me that, because I obviously know all them, but you know when you when you're moving so fast they today, you forget all the recordings, and all the the time spent putting into people's music and…there were a lot of releases in 2019 and all different and all unique in their own in their own way and all requiring a different skill set… um, you know it's a very different approach I’ll take to accompanying Veronica Swift, one of the great singers of our time who I'm fortunate to get to play with a lot, and then you know turning around and trying to play organ with Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums and Troy Roberts on saxophone…I try to be in the moment as much as possible and serve that musical moment, play with the people I’m playing with and make everyone sound as best as possible. So that's  my approach to any recording session and then I take it another stepped to make it as personal as possible.

WGVU: I noticed that you also performed in New York in December with singer Mary Stallings, who had another significant release out last year that we played a lot here on the radio, how was that?

Cohen: Oh, Mary is the direct connection to me to Carmen McRae, but also she phrases like Billie Holiday and just has that connection to the to the to the Jazz diva of an era bygone. I don't know anyone else that’s doing it like she’s doing it, I've never played anyone that can authentically sing a ballad that slow and that's actually and that romantically… she is really one of a kind, I’ve become such a better musician from playing with her. And she's just brings so much joy… people really appreciate her and connect with her voice and her story.

WGVU: And my final question… you won the Cole Porter fellowship last year what was that experience like?

Cohen: Wow,  that was an incredible experience, you know with the competition… so competitions…sometimes in my mind, are contradictory to what music is supposed to be about.

But then what I think about…which is communion, and positivity…and it was mostly that stuff…but to play under pressure and know that people are judging you for your notes and your rhythms and you artistry, that can be a tough thing. So I'm quite experienced when it comes to competition, so for me I went into that, you know, just shoving all of that out of my mind and just going in there and playing being true to myself, playing with joy, connecting with the other musicians, the rhythm section, we accompanied Kurt Elling for part of the competition, and I just try to be in the in the musical moment I was in…and I was just fortunate enough to win the first prize…and it came with a lot of nice things, including a record deal with Mack Avenue…so I’ll be going into the studio later this month, and recording my debut record with Mack Avenue which will probably be seen in the world this fall.

So there’s no rest in terms of recording, but I'm very grateful to the American Pianist Association in Indianapolis for the gift of that a contract and for the competition and a huge respect to all the other musicians…for Billy Test, Keelan Dimick, Kenny Banks Jr. and David Meder, some of the most incredible pianists that all have their own unique and original concepts.

So you know, constantly growing, constantly learning and making sure I have time to absorb it and soak it in and reflect as well… that’s my resolution for 2020…to reflect.