Emmet Cohen: Uptown in Orbit review – phenomenal technique anchored in the past

(Mack Avenue)
The dazzling pianist and his fine band prove themselves masters of several styles on this album of classics and originals

The American pianist Emmet Cohen has been described as a pivotal figure in today’s jazz, referring perhaps to his delightful openness in matters of style. Take the first of these 11 tracks, entitled Finger Buster. It was composed and first performed by Willie “the Lion” Smith (1897-1973), one of the flamboyant school of Harlem stride pianists in the 1920s and 30s. We hear it first in the flat, gritty tones of an old gramophone record, until the sound suddenly switches to modern stereo perfection. I suspect that this is Cohen’s typically sidelong way of suggesting that jazz of any period becomes modern when you play it.

He certainly has phenomenal technique and a superb trio – completed by Russell Hall (bass) and Kyle Poole (drums) – able to do justice to any style. With unerring touch they visit pieces by Gerry Mulligan, Duke Ellington and others, minutely following the idiom of each while discreetly adding something of themselves. There are also originals by Cohen, my favourite being Spillin’ the Tea. It begins as a demure teatime serenade, becoming steadily livelier as the tea party gets out of hand and ending in satisfying chaos.

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