'I was choking back tears': Jazz pianist Emmet Cohen wins 2019 American Pianists Awards
Domenica Bongiovanni, Indianapolis Star
Emmet Cohen is a jazz finalist for the American Pianists Awards. He performed at Eskanazi Hospital on Feb. 21, 2019. American Pianists Awards, Indianapolis Star
Emmet Cohen has won the 2019 American Pianists Awards, one of the world's major jazz piano competitions. And that means a serious, up-and-coming musician who has already seen success is about to have his career move up a level internationally.
The winner was announced after the five finalists performed Saturday at Hilbert Circle Theatre in a concert emceed by Dee Dee Bridgewater. The Indianapolis-based competition, run by the American Pianists Association, is known for its massive prize. It includes $50,000 in cash, two years of career management, a recording contract with esteemed label Mack Avenue Records and the title of artist-in-residence at the University of Indianapolis for two years.
On Saturday night, Cohen delivered deeply soulful renditions of "I Keep Goin' Back to Joe's" (Marvin Fisher and Jack Segal) with singer Kurt Elling and a Fats Waller Medley with the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra. Cohen expertly locked into Elling's scat singing and the orchestra's rhythm section, and he pulled an uncommon depth and sensitivity from the piano's middle range during his solos.
"I've been really trying to connect with my breath, really just trying to be as natural and as flowing as possible," Cohen told IndyStar after he was announced as the winner Saturday.
"I think a way to connect with the other musicians around you, which is what the ultimate goal of jazz is, one of the ways to do that is to invite everyone into what it is you're playing, really listen to what they're doing and to try to fit in with it."
The pianist had previously been a finalist in Indianapolis in 2011 and 2015. Cohen said he considered not coming back for a third time but friends and family encouraged him to give it one more shot.
"I've been in that situation back there when they name the winner and the build-up and the wait, and it's one of the most nerve-wracking things, one of the things that will keep you up at night. It's one of the things that I was thinking about when I wasn't able to sleep last night," he said.
"When they called my name, I was choking back tears."
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Cohen, 28, has already performed with many of the jazz musicians who have fashioned the genre as we know it. He created his "Masters Legacy Series" recordings through such collaborations. The series pairs young jazz musicians with greats, including Jimmy Cobb, the drummer on Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue," and Ron Carter, who holds the Guinness World Record as the "most recorded jazz bassist in history."
"It was like, 'OK, that's how he hears music. That's how he shapes the music. This is how his swing feel pulsates within the room," Cohen told IndyStar in February about working with Cobb.
Cohen — who grew up in Miami and Montclair, New Jersey, and now lives in Harlem — earned a master's degree from the Manhattan School of Music. He has played at the Newport and Monterey jazz festivals, met President Barack Obama in the White House and plays the Hammond B-3 organ in New York's Smoke Jazz & Supper Club whenever he's at home.
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Who are the other finalists?
Kenny Banks Jr.
Banks, 30, came to the American Pianists Awards with star credits and a stint performing with the Theo Croker Quintet in China. In 2018, Banks released his album "My Sentiments." He has played with Dionne Farris, India Arie and Jennifer Holliday, who is known for her performance as Effie "Melody" White in "Dreamgirls" in 1981.
"It took my playing level to the next level because she doesn’t play around," Banks told IndyStar in October. "I mean, she’s very specific about what she wants, very direct about how she’s going to get it.”
The pianist, who studied with his father and played with the respected Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra, said he doesn't peg his style but focuses on ideas like heart and soul. The son of a church organist and jazz pianist, Banks grew up in Columbus, Ohio, with gospel music, choral music and the blues. He later moved to Atlanta to continue pursuing his jazz piano career.
Test, 30, has been living in Germany after he was invited to perform with the WDR Big Band, the Grammy-winning ensemble that belongs to the radio station in Cologne, Germany.
Previously, the pianist flew out to play events with Jaimoe, the founding drummer for the Allman Brothers Band. Other performances have included trumpeter Joe Magnarelli and the New York-based Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.
His composition "Empty Spaces" particularly affected the jury for the American Pianists Awards. The piece, which he said he wrote in 30 minutes, is dedicated to his father, who died unexpectedly when Test was 15 years old.
The pianist, who grew up in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania, earned his master's degree from the Manhattan School of Music.
Meder, 28, has already won an ASCAP Young Jazz Composer Award and put together a piano-trio album called "Passage." His composition prowess and penchant for combining several music styles helped him to a position as an assistant professor of jazz piano at the University of North Texas.
The pianist, who's from Tampa, Florida, is also influenced by his upbringing in a Baptist church and often incorporates hymns into his sets, along with what he's gleaned from Thelonious Monk, John Adams and Philip Glass. Meder earned his master's degree at New York University and an Artist Diploma at The Juilliard School.
Meder's time as music director at Fordham Lutheran Church molded the way he performs now.
"The congregation was primarily African-American, and I had never, up to that point, been in a congregation like that. So the music was radically different ... and really forced me to get into a different mode of thinking musically," Meder told IndyStar in January.
"Oftentimes musicians, especially the ones who go to school, get hung up on all the abstract concepts. But in church, it's a whole different thing. So it forced me to balance those two sides of my musical identity."
Dimick, 27, has toured the U.S. and overseas, performing with drummer Kobie Watkins, saxophonist David Liebman and trumpeter Randy Brecker, who has played on the albums of James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen, Parliament/Funkadelic, Frank Sinatra and Frank Zappa.
Brecker especially had an impact on Dimick.
"He gave me some really great advice career-wise, and we just hit it off really well," Dimick told IndyStar in November.
"I think that more important than the music that happens just in that one performance, it's the connection that you make because that's what … is going to matter for the rest of your life. The music will just come from that connection."
Dimick also has taught at the Fresco Arts Academy in Eagle, Idaho, and as a teacher’s assistant at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami.
The pianist, who grew up in Fairfield, Iowa, and Boise, Idaho, now lives in Miami. He completed his master's degree at the Frost School.
Who decided the winner?
The American Pianists Awards alternates every two years between jazz and classical finalists. Drew Peterson won the classical iteration in 2017. Sullivan Fortner won the 2015 jazz competition.
Saturday's concert, where each finalist played with Elling and the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra, was only part of the months-long competition. From September through February, the pianists visited Indianapolis to perform and participate in community outreach at high schools.
During those visits, the finalists' sets at The Jazz Kitchen counted toward their overall score. Additional concerts at The Jazz Kitchen and Hilbert Circle Theatre on Friday and Saturday formed the rest of the scores.
Here are the jurors involved in the 2019 competition:
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- Adam Birnbaum: Winner of the 2004 American Pianists Awards,
- Stanley Cowell: Professor Emeritus of Jazz Piano at Rutgers University,
- Phil DeGreg: Professor of jazz studies at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music,
- Matthew Fries: Great American Jazz Piano Competition winner and professor of jazz piano at Western Michigan University,
- Jeff Hellmer: Professor of jazz studies at the University of Texas at Austin,
- Tamir Hendelman: Award-winning touring pianist,
- Chris Mees: President of B Natural, Inc. booking and management agency,
- Renee Rosnes: Jazz pianist, composer and music director for ARTEMIS, an ensemble with all-star talent,
- Scott Routenberg: Award-winning composer, arranger, pianist and assistant professor of music performance at Ball State University,
- John Salmon: Winner of the 1983 American Pianists Awards and professor of piano at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro,
- Helen Sung: Award-winning pianist and composer,
- Will Wakefield: Executive at Mack Avenue Records, and
- Brent Wallarab: Co-founder and conductor of the Buselli Wallarab Jazz Orchestra and associate professor of jazz studies at Indiana University.
Contact IndyStar reporter Domenica Bongiovanni at 317-444-7339 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter: @domenicareports.
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