Emmet Cohen: a jazz lifer

New York-based pianist readies his first in-person performance since the pandemic

JAZZ PIANO GREAT Emmet Cohen is among a new generation of musicians in the genre, and he’s certainly taking it by storm. That’s not to say he hasn’t acknowledged the greats before him, though. In fact, he’s done a series of albums that feature legendary jazz musicians in collaboration with him, bridging the gap between the keepers of this sacred musical language.

It seems to be a full circle for Cohen, who has literally been playing piano since he can remember.

“I started at 3 years old, playing Suzuki method, classical piano,” he tells Connect ahead of his Savannah Jazz Festival performance on Sat., Sep. 26. “I found jazz along the way, and fell in love with the sound and feeling of swing as well as the improvisatory aspect. I realized it’s something that really spoke to me, and I did a lot of discovering along the way.”

That discovery led Cohen into a career, which he cultivated after years of study and devotion to the music. He went from doing weekly jam sessions at a club near his house in West Orange, New Jersey, to playing around Miami while studying at the University of Miami with the great Shelly Berg. From there, his career took off in a big way and he begun touring around the world—playing to audiences all over the States, in Israel, in Italy, in Japan, and countless other cities.

Jazz being a language in itself, he found audiences all over the globe that understood what he was doing, and just as music alone can do, it bridged any cultural barriers in a major way.

“Traveling is about discovering the different cultures of the world, and going to them without expectations. I think that’s what jazz has taught me,” he says. “There are different customs and ways of living. When you go to Japan, the audiences receive the music very differently than if you go to Italy, for example. And Italy receives music very differently from, say, Detroit. And these are three of my favorite places to play.”

Those experiences, he says, has unavoidably informed not just his growth as a player but also the compositional aspect of his music.

“We’re all a product of our experiences, and one of the biggest things that being a professional musician has allowed me to do has been to expand my horizons,” he says.

Cohen has recorded a number of albums, some with greats like George Coleman, Ron Carter, Benny Golson and Tootie Heath through his Masters Legacy Series releases. He’s also done solo albums and an album with his trio. The writing process for all of his projects vary immensely, given the fluid nature of jazz and the spirit that it involves.

“Jazz is like any other language. There’s a million dialects, there are inside jokes, mannerisms that mean certain things, and there are things that mean one thing in one part of the world and another in a different part. There’s really no way to quantify that sort of thing, but I can say that your language develops as you learn more, grow, and discover who it is you are,” he says.

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