April 12, 2021. Trigger warning: If having too much fun listening to music tends to send you spiraling out of control, take caution with Emmet Cohen’s Future Stride. With his natural feel and an ability to draw from a massive store of repertoire, it’s easy to see—and hear—why Cohen’s been a fast-rising star for a while now.
The pandemic has only accelerated his ascent; his weekly YouTube series, “Live from Emmet’s Place,” has become a COVID-era livestream sensation, a godsend in a time without live music. From his New York City apartment, “Emmet’s Place” has featured a multigenerational, cross-section of the jazz world’s best, from venerable instrumentalists like Houston Person and Jerry Weldon to this generation’s divas of vocal jazz, Veronica Swift, Jazzmeia Horn, and Cyrille Aimée.
Amidst an ever-rotating cast of guest superstars, the constants have been Cohen’s apartment, his grand piano, and his longtime trio-mates, bassist Russell Hall and drummer Kyle Poole. That trio constitutes a core group here that’s rounded out by trumpeter Marquis Hill and saxophonist Melissa Aldana; their powers combine to focus the stride piano sounds of jazz’s early days through a thoroughly modern lens.
“I find that all great art can be considered modern,” Cohen says in Future Stride’s press release. “Whenever you listen to Stravinsky or watch Stanley Kubrick, when you read Shakespeare or look at Picasso, it remains the most modern, genius art that you can find…. For me, stride piano belongs in that category; the music of Art Tatum and Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith has implications that can affect people today in a very deep manner.”
Cohen brings those words to life right from Future Stride’s get-go with his take on “Symphonic Raps,” a piece Louis Armstrong recorded with the Carroll Dickerson Orchestra in the 1920s. This is how you establish an energetic baseline for an album. With its spiraling, hip-hop flavored prologue that gives way to an Art Tatum-style rag, it begs for the trigger warning I led with. Parental advisory: this is too much fun.
Hill and Aldana enter the fold on the next one, “Reflections at Dusk,” a hauntingly noirish original from Cohen that conjures visions of a lonely man, deep in thought, walking the steamy streets of old Hollywood, lost in thought after a recent midnight rain.
Hill’s trumpet pierces the fortifications we erect against vulnerability and Aldana finds a side entrance to the listener’s soul, adding depth and harmonic shading to Hill’s lines. Then, Cohen, within a maximally lyrical stretch, quotes the theme from Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” ever so fleetingly, in a totally non-native context, and it’s miraculous, a glimpse into the corridors of Cohen’s vast musical mind.
The quintet soon steps back into daylight, with “Toast to Lo,” a tightly orchestrated celebration of the late drummer and friend to the band, Lawrence “Lo” Leathers. Aldana dazzles out front with equal parts technique and emotion, and Poole mesmerizes in a stirring final tribute to a fellow drummer, as the band kicks things into overdrive over the tune’s final third.
On the title track, co-written by Cohen and Poole, it’s back to the album’s bread and butter, with a variation on stride themes punctuated by shades of Brubeck melded with sly nods to an Elton John-sounding brand of countrified Americana. A call and response bit between Hall and Cohen transitions the tune from the prairie to a contemporary jazz club and back again in a manner that’s Whitmanian in scope and motive.
It’s tempting to dismiss Cohen’s take on Cahn and Van Heusen’s “Second Time Around” as a space-filler here, but it serves the role of underscoring one of Cohen’s great attributes, his classic feel for theatrical ballads. Like Veronica Swift, whose new album Cohen plays on brilliantly, his sheen glows new but his soul is old.
The next one, “Dardanella,” a time-worn standard of stride piano repertoire, begins like a march through the Italian countryside being led by Roberto Benigni, alternating with sections of breezy, waltzy, balletic storytelling. What comes through most, song after song, is the joy these musicians take in playing together; as the tempo escalates to a hip-shaking rhumba, Cohen, at the climax of an improvisational run dashes off a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it seven-note “Everyone Loves a Slinky” riff. You don’t get that sort of highbrow/lowbrow playfulness from musicians who don’t luxuriate in performance.
While Cohen’s frenetically paced “You Already Know,” his anthem to the go-go-go of New York City, spotlights Poole trading explosive eights with Hill and Aldana, Cohen’s take on Duke Ellington’s “Pitter Panther Patter” allows Hall to bask in some shine on a bass/piano duo where leader and anchor conclude Jacksons-style by quoting “Oh How Happy” in a manner endearingly campy.
A Rodgers and Hart tune, “My Heart Stood Still” is second to last, and Cohen’s treatment of it reminds me of how the late Chick Corea treated similar, arguably innocuous standards with such understated warmth and intimacy on his solo album, Expressions. It’s not quite an apples-to-apples comparison, since Hall and Poole join Cohen here and lend the standard a three-dimensionality.
But the point is that sometimes it’s not about adding to the canon so much as it’s about loving tunes, treating them with gratitude, and playing what’s in your heart and head, which, for Cohen here, includes another playful, improvised quotation, this time of Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring.” Call me hokey, but I love when he does that!
The full quintet closes out the session with “Little Angel,” a Cohen original painted with colors from the R&B palette; it’s an arm-in-arm, swaying-back-and-forth kind of closer and the record’s way of memorializing the time we’ve spent together here. With Hill playing the lead line on trumpet, it brings to mind the very best of some of Terence Blanchard’s film anthems.
It’s not quite the terminus the rest of the album leads you to expect, but maybe after a long year of being unable to wrap friends in a warm embrace, it’s the one Cohen expected we most needed. I’m cool with that.