Feature Photo Credit Tsuneo Koga



Interview by Alma Reyes



Photo Credit Gabriela Gabrielaa


The curious encounter started off in an unusual way, bumping into each other on the street outside Blue Note Tokyo on the day of the interview. Immediately, the rapport was casual, amicable, spontaneous, and even dabbed by a couple of laughs—reflective of the artist’s spiritful approach to music and life.

Emmet Cohen is a multi-awarded musician, having won the 2019 American Pianists Awards, Cole Porter Fellow of the American Pianists Association, and Artist-in-Residence at the University of
Indianapolis. He also garnered first place at the 2014 American Jazz Pianists Competition, and 2011 Phillips Piano Competition at the University of West Florida, and was a finalist at the 2011 Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition, among other recognitions. Above all, he is admirably credited for his valuable projects in bridging together jazz masters of the older generation, such as Ron Carter, Benny Golson, Jimmy Cobb, George Coleman, Jimmy Heath, Tootie Heath, Houston Person, and many more, with the music circle of his era. At 33 years old and with only about ten years of continued success in his field at present, Emmet has already played with a heap of the cream of the crop in jazz history, perhaps, more than any musician of his generation.

At the Blue Note Tokyo last November 27 to 29, Emmet Cohen and his trio —bassist Philip Norris who has played with Joshua Redman and David Sanborn , and drummer Kyle Poole , who has jammed with Jon Batiste and Wynton Marsalis, glittered the hall with both smooth and upbeat tunes of classics, such as “It’s All Right with Me” by Cole Porter, “That Old Feeling” by Sammy Fain, and “Like Someone In Love” by Jimmy Van Heusen. The first set opened with Emmet’s own “Spillin’ the Tea.”

Special guest Grammy-nominated saxophonist Patrick Bartley joined the stage, adding heightened powerful sounds and upstanding soulfulness to the fantastic night. The Japan concert was part of the trio’s Asian tour, in addition to India and Singapore. Emmet himself has been delighting the Japanese audience since 2015, with Christian McBride and Mark Whitfield; in 2017 with Ali Jackson and Yasushi Nakamura; and in 2019, again with Christian McBride and Dan Wilson, all at the Cotton Club Tokyo. This year’s Blue Note Tokyo show, therefore, marked his first performance, and certainly not the last, at the prestigious club.


Photo Credit Tsuneo Koga


Emmet shares bits from his past towards his initial step into the jazz world: “I first learned piano at three years old, basically classical pieces. I grew up around music and at 14 to 15 in high school, I joined a jazz ensemble, and that started jazz for me. I listened to the sounds of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and other masters, and I had always felt that I wanted to create my own improvisation. I would play at clubs and had opportunities to jam with the big stars. At that time, I already thought about what it would be like to work with them. So, I studied individual musicians, learned their songs and repertoires, and joined jazz sessions with friends.”

Native of Miami, Florida, Emmet moved to New York to become a serious musician. He attended the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami in 2012 and Manhattan School of Music in 2014. “I had always wanted to live in New York, and be a musician. I went to high school in New Jersey, and being so close to New York City, I had early exposure to the music scene. I formed my first trio in college, then shifted to another trio and so on…it was clear that music had become my main form of expression.”

The Masters Legacy Series can be considered Emmet’s most significant endeavor, so far. The ongoing project highlights a series of albums (presently the fifth), live interviews, and performances with the great masters in jazz. Emmet believes these exhilarating experiences have been the purest core of his personal growth in music, and commitment to the transfer of knowledge and history from the old to the young. 

“At a young age, I was blessed with opportunities to play with the jazz masters, way before I began this project. Jimmy Heath was one of the first musicians I had a chance to go on the road with. I was around 22-23 years old. I got a gig with Dizzy Gillespie in 2013 to play at the Kennedy Center. Jimmy was in his band. We were on the bus, and he was talking for hours, about how he grew up in Philadelphia, became friends with John Coltrane, Benny Golson, Charlie Parker, Philly Joe Jones…I sat there, absorbing it all, and it just made music much more real for me. I thought then, I wanted to be around all these jazz masters, and decided to create a project that would bring my generation with their generation. It became a great way for me and other musicians around me to learn directly from them. So, I produced my first album in this series in 2017 with Jimmy Cobb, then in 2018 with Ron Carter, in 2019 with Benny Golson and Tootie Heath, and Volume 4 in 2019 with George Coleman. This year, 2023, I just released Volume 5 with Houston Person, which is all about brotherhood and mentorship. We play tunes that make people dance, feel good, and are closer to the sound of blues.”


Photo Credit Tsuneo Koga


The unique experience of meeting and playing with the music world’s greatest is undoubtedly unimaginable, and Emmet has certainly been ingesting the wisdom and philosophies of the masters. Surprisingly, he also selects the artists randomly. “Basically, I choose the masters I’ve had relationships with in my career. George Coleman, for example, knew me and realized we were serious about the project, then we became friends after that and played together a lot. I’ll be playing along with him for five nights this Christmas in New York. Houston Person and I have been good friends. I have also thought about teaming up with some women masters, like Sheila Jordan and Mary Stallings. I don’t look at a particular instrument, whether sax or bass…but it’s more of the sounds that we can create. Each musician instills his own distinct philosophy and direction. Ron Carter is one of the most serious and focused musicians I have ever met. I never felt anything like that playing with him. At the same time, he has his corky and funny side, too. Benny Golson is a master in classic composition and renders unique tunes and sounds. The Heath Brothers have their particular sound as well. Jimmy Cobb is straightforward and strong, and so is George Coleman. But, George has his bee-bop tunes, harmony, and changes keys and tempo. The main key is the Sound. You can always tell if it’s them. It’s very personal, attuned to their personalities. The whole thing is just an amazing way for me to grow.”

Another huge project Emmet embarked on was his Live from Emmet’s Place online streaming show that he indulged in during the pandemic. “I first started this streaming around March 2020, simply on the iPhone and on Facebook Live. It felt like people really needed it and appreciated it. We instantly hit 40,000 viewers. That made me realize the true power of the Internet. Living in Harlem has its advantages because it’s the place where all the rules are meant to be bent (laughs). Despite restrictions at that time, people were out on the streets. So, I could call musicians to come over to my place and jam live. It was like the prohibition phenomenon a hundred years ago when people couldn’t drink alcohol, but there were house parties where musicians would gather and play all night. Cops would be there, doctors, lawyers, janitors, all classes of people, and would be drinking, too. Obeying rules was not the first thing in people’s minds, and so it was during the pandemic. They are more concerned about paying rent, eating food…it’s just a different world.”

For Emmet, the journey seems to be just taking its primary course. As a young artist, he is also open to experimentation and fuses styles from the 1920s, 40s, and 60s. He learned clarinet and saxophone himself in his youth and also plays the organ, which attests to his true versatility. In some countries, the jazz market may be slow or constant, but Emmet believes regardless of the
music genre, there will always be a channel for people to connect through music.

“Artists may be playing for different reasons—from intellect, their mind or heart—but people will always look for that person they want to listen to. The range of purpose can be so outspread, but
that’s what also makes music so beautiful.” See upcoming shows at Blue Note Tokyo.



Photo Credit Tsuneo Koga



1. Spillin’ the Tea
2. It’s All Right with Me
3. Like Someone In Love
4. That Old Feeling
5. I Can’t Get Started
6. The Second Time Around
7. Cedar’s Blues






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