REVIEW: ‘Future Stride’ – Emmet Cohen

IF A ROYAL JAZZ VARIETY SHOW were to exist, it’s conceivable that American pianist Emmet Cohen and colleagues could take the stage for the first number and still be wowing the audience – clapping, or rattling their jewellery, as John Lennon put it – at the final curtain! Such is the diversity and entertainment to be found in Future Stride.

Already the recipient of numerous awards, including winner at the 2019 American Pianists Awards, Cohen began his journey at the tender age of three with the Suzuki method of instruction, and has become a pretty neat exponent of stride piano. But venture further than the evocative post-ragtime verve of this collection’s opening, century-old Symphonic Raps (which showcases those leaping left-hand skills) and you’ll find the first of many gear changes into lush contemporary or whimsical chamber jazz. Hence the album title’s implication of connection and continuity, reinforcing his commitment to ‘the intergenerational transfer of the knowledge, history and traditions of jazz’.

The pianist’s trio with double bassist Russell Hall and drummer Kyle Poole is joined on a clutch of numbers by tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana and trumpeter Marquis Hill. Together, they produce a fabulously rich sound across a blend of Cohen’s own compositions and those of past masters, including Rodgers & Hart, Duke Ellington and Van Heusen/Cahn.

Reflections at Dusk introduces the full quintet with a lush, melodious weave of muted trumpet and sax, underpinned by Cohen’s considered ornamentation. The blithe swing of Toast to Lo glides to the horns’ smooth, individual and combined improvisations, honouring the life of drummer Lawrence “Lo” Leathers (a big influence on this album’s players) through Kyle Poole’s glinting rhythms; and the eventual snap into double time is sublime. Full of audacious metrical switches and playful conversations, title trio track Future Stride flaps and fizzes, while breathlessly-swinging You Already Know suggests the mid-Sixties ‘cool’ of Johnny Dankworth – a foot-tapping joy-bringer that tumbles with solo after solo.

Cohen’s arrangements for his trio are just as inviting, Second Time Around sustaining its timeless beauty through cascading piano lines and group empathy, while My Heart Stood Still skips brightly. Now over a hundred years old, jaunty piano piece Dardanella is bathed in new light as Hall and Poole provide the intensifying, showtime impetus; and Ellington’s Pitter Panther Patter becomes a jolly, bass-slapping duo with piano. Finally, for Cohen’s Little Angel, Marquis Hill’s mellow trumpet overlays intervals and responsive phrases in this gorgeous ballad.

If that all smacks of a potpourri of disconnected ideas, the total experience is far from it. Instead, these performances are slick, engaging, and certainly not just about the piano. Emmet Cohen’s aptitude for sequencing and contrasting keeps it bubbling, prompting the desire to catch this album’s many delights over and over again. Encore, please!

Released on 29 January 2021, Future Stride is available from Mack Avenue and Proper Music.

 

Emmet Cohen piano
Russell Hall acoustic bass
Kyle Poole drums
with special guests
Melissa Aldana tenor saxophone
Marquis Hill trumpet

emmetcohen.com

Mack Avenue – MAC1181 (2021)

REVIEW: ‘While Looking Up’ – Jimmy Greene

LOVE at first ‘sound’. All it took was the brightly flowing and eddying preview track, April 4th. But that touch of ‘American cool’, with glinting soprano sax, flute and vibraphone, is just one facet of saxophonist and woodwind player Jimmy Greene’s latest release, While Looking Up.

Greene is clearly a man whose faith guides him through the best and certainly the very worst of times (the latter, specifically, an unimaginable family tragedy in 2012). And amidst the turbulence of our world, his pastor‘s words provided inspiration for the title: “If I’m not able to find strength or peace by looking inward, or if I’m not able to do it by looking outward to my immediate surroundings, I have to look upward”.

From a back catalogue including Grammy-nominated Beautiful Life, 2009’s Mission Statement marked a specific musical turning point for Greene and more recently reminded him of those musicians he hadn’t recorded with for some time. So as well as a core trio with bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Kendrick Scott, the majority of these ten tracks are also greatly illuminated by Aaron Goldberg (piano, Fender Rhodes) and Lage Lund (guitar), with piquant contributions from Stefon Harris (marimba, vibes). All are established bandleaders in their own right, which explains how assuredly their personal expressions meld in an album of exquisite beauty and positivity.

Arranging Cole Porter’s So In Love, Greene’s soprano displays the kind of playful agility associated with Wayne Shorter, chromatically darting above the joyful sway of its bossa rhythms. But his own compositions can hit a pressing complexity – for example, the smouldering, bluesy Fender Rhodes groove of No Words with discordant guitar and husky tenor and the fever-pitch morse-code pulsations of Always There, accentuated by Harris’s marimba – an outstanding sextet collaboration. In Good Morning Heartache (remember – Billie Holliday), Greene’s deliciously fluid tenor almost sings those ‘might as well get used to you hanging around’ lyrics, though it’s also tinged with a father’s grief; and it’s Goldberg’s piano riff again, on Overreaction, which sparks the breathless Weather Report/Moutin Reunion Quartet-style fervour. The title track, too, shares something of that feel, with lustrous guitar.    

In addition to charming April 4th (a poignant anniversary for Greene), there are other pure, airy moments of reflection such as optimistic Steadfast and the leisurely gospel-soul of Simple Prayer. But perhaps most unlikely is a luscious, balladic reworking of the Whitney Houston hit I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me), full of serene nostalgia and emotion; and, as ever, the gorgeous tenor technique is supported by the spacial sensitivity of this band.

Throughout While Looking Up, Jimmy Greene unequivocally confirms his absolute truth, recognised by empathetic musicians and listeners alike: “At its best, music transforms us and transports us to another place. We lose ourselves in it”. Amen to that.

Released on 3 April 2020 and available from Proper Music, Mack Avenue and Apple Music.

 

Jimmy Greene soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet
Reuben Rogers bass
Kendrick Scott drums
Aaron Goldberg piano, Fender Rhodes
Lage Lund guitar
Stefon Harris marimba, vibraphone

jimmygreene.com

Mack Avenue – MAC1154 (2020)