For celebrated Harlem-based pianist and composer Emmet Cohen, jazz and his passion for the music to which he’s devoted his life is all about connections.
The award-winning musician spoke of an experience in Italy playing “All The Things You Are” with musicians who otherwise didn’t speak the same language. Jerome Kern composed the now-classic standard in the 1930s for the musical “Very Warm for May.”
May.” “People can’t say one word to each other, but for some reason everyone knows the notes and the chords and the harmony and the structure that Jerome Kern wrote on that song,” he said. “It’s really remarkable that everywhere in the world you go, someone’s trying to play jazz. You’re able to play songs like that with them, and connect on that level. It really speaks to the cliche that it’s a universal language, but it can really help to bring the world together.”
Jazz itself “is such social music, and it’s meant to bring people together,” Cohen added.
Bringing people together through jazz is what Cohen does. Inspired by many of the great jazz trios, including those of Cedar Walton and Thelonious Monk, he started the Emmet Cohen Trio more than a decade ago.
“I really fell in love with that sound and tried to imitate, emulate and create new avenues for that instrumentation using slang and improvisation and blues and folk music and all different types of orchestration,” Cohen said.
The group began when he was in high school in New Jersey with drummer Evan Sherman. Cohen connected with bassist Russell Hall — who’s also featured on the “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” — while in college in Miami. Now based in New York, the three of them have been a band for six years.
“One of the things that we try to do is integrate the different styles of jazz and take as many influences as possible and melt them into this melting pot of what’s possible in the piano trio setting,” he said. “We really try to push the boundaries of the music history, and try to actually move the music forward by using our influences.”
Cohen’s commitment to connecting the present to the past comes from his discontent with the segregation among the different styles of jazz — as well as between older and younger generations of musicians — that he witnessed while starting out in New York.
“It’s part of our mission, and part of my playing and teaching mission, to integrate those styles and all of the great masters and musicians in history that have brought us to where we are today,” he said.
That’s why he produced and played on a set of recordings and interviews honoring living jazz masters. The “Masters Legacy Series” is meant to “bridge the generation gap a bit and connect a whole bunch of musicians in their 20s and 30s to the living jazz masters who are carrying the torch and want to pass it forward, but may not necessarily know in which direction to pass it,” he said.
The project has given Cohen an opportunity to get to know such greats as Jimmy Cobb, Ron Carter, George Coleman, Benny Golson, Tootie Heath, Barry Harris and Harold Mabern, among others.
Harold Mabern, among others. “It’s been an amazing experience to understand their stories and their struggles, what they went through, and what they gave up to play this music,” he said. “It’s really powerful and can give it a whole other meaning, one that many people who fall in love with jazz don’t get firsthand.”
That deeper meaning emerges from what Cohen sees as the inherent connection between musician and music in jazz.
“I think that music and humanity and life are all tied together,” he said. “Jazz is one of the closest art forms that would mirror your life. All the things that make you who you are make you the jazz musician you are. Everything you’ve read, everywhere you’ve traveled, everyone you’ve met, every time you’ve been in love, every time you’ve had a heart break, every experience you’ve had with an older mentor, every experience you’ve had mentoring someone younger than you — it’s a melting pot of experiences that make you a musician.
“I think those are the things — the human elements — that really actually feed your music, and the depth of the palate of a jazz musician’s soul. It’s a deep thing.”
Emmet Cohen Trio
329 S. Park St., Kalamazoo
May 7, 12 p.m., $15
W.K. Kellogg Foundation
1 Michigan Ave., Battle Creek
May 8, 12 p.m., $15