Harlem has always been one the cornerstones of jazz and popular American music. The traditions that began there in the 1920’s have remained and been amplified by young musicians like pianist Emmet Cohen.
Cohen is a commanding force on the scene, not only in NYC but also in all of our living rooms. When the pandemic lockdowns began in early 2020, Cohen started a livestream from his Harlem apartment that happened every Monday night with some of the most influential players in jazz, called “Live from Emmet’s Place”.
Fast forward to today and he’s just recorded his 100th episode along with a new album, his 2nd release on Mack Avenue Records, Uptown In Orbit.
I recently got to talk with Cohen about his achievements in between shows on his European tour, before he makes a 3 night stop at the Mondavi Center.
This Interview has been edited for clarity and length
On touring Europe
It’s been amazing. One of the great parts of it is that we’ve made so many connections online over the past couple of years through our livestream performance, over the internet, comments, instagram, and all that kind of stuff. To be able to come out here and play places for the first time since before the pandemic and connect with people who we feel like we know each other has been really special. That’s one of my main goals in the music, to bring people together. So to now be able to meet in person again, it’s really cool.
On the reception of his new album
I think it’s been received pretty well. I’m out here in Europe and selling ‘em out. We’re super excited to have this album out in the world as it’s a response to the last two and half years of music that we’ve been working on. The best way to describe it is that we live uptown in Harlem and we wanted to invite everyone into our orbit. There was a pandemic a hundred years ago in the roaring twenties where people had Harlem rent parties and they would get together during prohibition when you couldn't drink. This was our similar thing that we did one hundred years later in the roaring twenties again when all the restrictions were put in place. It’s been cool to really celebrate that and all those live performances with a studio record. We put Patrick Bartley and Sean Jones on the record and they were two of the biggest spirits, in my opinion, that contributed to the feeling of what Emmet’s Place was about. So, to put them together in the studio when they had never played together, it’s just this awesome meeting of many different parts of our lives.
On the evolution of his musical relationships
Man, it’s a big family of musicians and I think that was the first thing that we wanted to show on the livestream. Besides Russell Hall and Kyle Pool, there’s Bryan Carter and Joe Saylor. There’s Benny Benack III, Ruben Fox, Tivon Pennicott, Godwin Louis, Veronica Swift, and Samara Joy now. There’s so many others, but all of these musicians are people who share our vision for what this music can do for the world, how it can heal people, and how one note could alter the course of somebody’s life. It's really powerful. So, that’s what it’s really about, and the relationship is ever ongoing as we grow and we figure things out and we travel to new places and we keep inviting people into what we’re doing.
On the 100th episode of “Live from Emmet’s Place” corresponding with the new album release
It was crazy how those couple of things happened at once. We did this big show at The Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center as well, as part of their season. It was cool because all of those things happened at once and then we just, boom, went to Europe right afterwards. There’s a lot of exciting things happening and I can't believe we made it to 100. I remember the first couple of episodes we just had our iPhone balanced on some books and were just playing some tunes in the early days of the uncertainty. It’s really nice to be on the other side of most of that. We’ll keep it going once a month for now and just continue to build the archive a little bit, but it was a real snapshot of New York in that moment during covid and all the great musicians that lived there that were just around and willing to come over and jam. It was a very special time artistically.
On being in the “Roaring 20’s” once again
Well hopefully we’re thriving at it’s roaring, you know. I love the music of the past 100 hundred years, especially from the 20s. The people like Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, WIllie “Lion” Smith, Mary Lou Williams, Earl “Fatha” Hines, and so many others. They’re so important to the sound of America, to the sound of jazz, and for me to be able to celebrate them not by regurgitating what they did but to take their music and their style, take maybe their personalities or take the various things that influence me and tie them together in a new way.