Concert Review: Emmet Cohen Trio @ A Place for Jazz, 10/20/2023
Emmet Cohen drew the season’s biggest A Place for Jazz crowd Friday, likely swelled by word-of-mouth raves for his June bust-out at Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival.
He and his trio deserved it, delivering a dazzler deluxe, a two-set exploration—exposition, explosion—of piano trio styles.
For all his ferocious, fiery speed, Cohen’s most astounding musical muscle is his mind, since he can play anything he can imagine.
His unaccompanied intro to “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face” camouflaged the familiar melody until drummer Joe Farnsworth and bassist Philip Norris joined the fray at high altitude and intensity to match. Farnsworth played softly, swiftly with brushes to start and finish, switched to sticks in between, while Norris, only 26 years old, stayed level with the sheer careening force of it all.
Encouraged by plentiful audience gasps, though they didn’t really seem to need any encouragement, they syncopated “Time After Time” in a big way, swinging it hard, percussively, playfully swapping riffs. Farnsworth’s snare pursued Cohen’s piano, then caught it, grinning across the finish line.
Cedar Walton’s “Mosaic” also hit and hit hard, but also funny, like a chase scene in a 30s slapstick film. Unlike those black-and-white classics, this just burned with color. They paused, pumped it up again, repeated bits of melody in emphatic variations.
In such modernist fare, Cohen played more fiery and direct than, say, Brad Mehldau. But he changed up his rhythmic and harmonic attacks often. McCoy Tyner left-hand punch here, sweet Teddy Wilson reverie there, zippy Oscar Peterson arpeggios flowing fast through the next tune, antique Harlem stride for a few bars, then a bebop turnaround.
Then, after those three fireworks displays, “People” (yeah, the Barbra Streisand ballad) cruised on pure romantic melody until Cohen injected droll swing nuggets into Norris’s terrific solo, then echoed those bass licks as if in apology. Like grafting a fruit tree, Cohen eased together any part of a melody with any other, and it always made sense.
“Take the A Train” left the station as a clattery bossa, Farnsworth’s hi-hat doing the railroad zip as Cohen eased to a stop with sparse chords orbiting the melody—at once a very fast but richly Latin mutation of this Ellington classic.
Like Miles used to do, they used “The Theme” as their break song, all sassy spirit, and zippy rhythm changes until Cohen took it out, back to the head, after swapping licks with Farnsworth’s drums.
After the break, a relaxed “Young and Foolish” cruised easy until stop-and-go riffing and cycling arpeggios built momentum, then released it. Farnsworth added a fun final touch, uncannily playing the melody on one stick with the other.
After this cozy amble, Cohen focused the trio’s full spiritual force at the emotional peak of the whole show. He invoked a Hebrew prayer he’s known since high school, playing it Friday as a hymn to brotherhood. It evoked peace even through the tumult of cascading volleys of McCoy Tyner-like left-hand thunder and just-as-aggressive right-hand melodic movement. He set us up for this surge of emotion with an almost cartoony dream intro, then afterward explained—unnecessarily, we all got it – how the intent of his music is peaceful.
His piano was at its sweetest and most romantic to start “My Old Flame,” then this nostalgic portrait of a love affair turned tempestuous in bold, bluesy bursts.
Even more intense was their closer, “Cherokee.” A flashy full-band foray at first, Farnsworth soon took it over. Just as Cohen plays the whole piano, from low notes to high, in every shape of riff and run, Farnsworth hit every part of his kit, including stands. He tickled the bottom of his snare with his fingers in sizzling rolls, wove zephyrs of airy sound on his cymbals, made amazing noises.
Cohen’s original “Spillin’ the Tea” was their departure-less encore, a rambunctious explosion ala Fats Waller.
For telepathic tightness, terrific tune choices, imagination, and sheer skill, this one will be tough to top.
Unnecessary Sartorial Notes: Drummer Joe Farnsworth never unbuttoned his blue suit jacket, loosened the tie over his white shirt, or blotted his brow with his pocket square. He and bassist Philip Norris—gray plaid suit, white shirt, no tie—looked recently barbered and wore shiny black shoes. Cohen’s ankle boots were unzipped; his skinny plaid pants didn’t match anything in sight; not his white-piped short-sleeved dark jacket, not his black T, looped with beads; his curls tugged back from his face in a band. In other words, Farnsworth and Norris dressed like 1950s Birdland bards, while Cohen spanned time and styles.
A Place for Jazz wraps its 2023 season on Friday, Nov. 3, with clarinetist Ken Peploswski’s Swing All-Stars at 7:30 p.m. in the Carl B. Taylor Auditorium of SUNY Schenectady County Community College. $20. www.aplaceforjazz.org