Review: Emmet Cohen at Jazz Alley


Not long before the start of pianist Emmet Cohen’s two-night Seattle stopover, Jazz Alley sent out an email explaining that the performance would be pushed back by up to an hour. “Thunderstorms on the East Coast have delayed Emmet Cohen’s flight.”

Doing the math, this meant that Cohen must have been texting from the air (a supposition later confirmed by venue staff). Fresh off five straight nights in New York – three at Smoke & Jazz on the Upper West Side, one in Saratoga Springs, the last at Dizzy’s Club in the Lincoln Center, Cohen and his trio hadn’t built in a travel cushion en route to the Pacific Northwest.

To me, this signaled not poor planning but an astonishing work ethic, validated within moments of the delayed downbeat. “The flight was supposed to leave at 7:40 AM,” Cohen explained upon taking the stage. “We left at 6 PM. In other words, we had a fantastic day.”

Cohen, 33, is making waves these days as a busybody among musical busybodies. Whether operating as a bandleader, as part of his Master’s Legacy Series – recording alongside legends like Jimmy Cobb and Ron Carter – or as a sideman for Veronica Swift and Herlin Riley, the New Jersey native continues to scale all manner of jazz ladders, taking third place in DownBeat’s most recent Pianist Poll (behind Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau, not bad company).

This momentum had a frustrated Cohen pining for action during the early days of Covid-19. Quarantining with his trio in a Harlem apartment, he streamed weekly YouTube sessions under the name Live from Emmet’s Place, welcoming guest singers via webcast and eventually in person. From its humble beginnings, the streaming series went on to accumulate millions of views and abundant accolades of its own.

“I never thought I’d be a YouTuber,” Cohen said at Jazz Alley, crediting drummer Kyle Poole for his crackshot sound engineering during lockdown.

Emmet’s Place bassist Russell Hall has since been replaced by the inimitable Philip Norris. Fresh off the overdue plane, the Cohen/Norris/Poole trio warmed things up with a Burt Bacharach ballad before taking the plunge with “Inception,” the title track from McCoy Tyner’s 1962 debut album.

These tunes set the stage for a breakneck interplay of jazz styles, from post-bop to blues – including a neat quote of Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround” – to ragtime, the lattermost given a modern-day facelift in the form of “Spillin’ the Tea,” a Cohen original from 2022’s Uptown in Orbit.

The adaptable outfit then roared through “If This Isn’t Love” from Finian’s Rainbow before cooling things down with Ahmad Jamal’s “Poinciana.” Cohen gave deserved props to Jamal, who passed away this April, noting that he’s typically overlooked in comparison to household names like Bill Evans and Chick Corea.

Cohen, overlooked no longer, began playing piano at three years old and has seemingly integrated all of these players into his style. This trio impressed not only for his consummate touch on the ivory but for his rhythmic interchange with drummer Kyle Poole. These two have been playing music together for a decade, which showed on some masterfully syncopated bridge sections. Having said that, it was bassist Philip Norris who ultimately stole the show on Tuesday night.

In a gracious stage introduction, Cohen explained that Norris was in Seattle a few months ago playing with David Sanborn. He’s also handled low-end duties for Wynton Marsalis and Joshua Redman. “So he’s become quite wealthy,” joked Cohen, “…in jazz experience.” I don’t know much about the state of contemporary touring paychecks, but I can attest to Norris blowing the hinges off a couple solos down on Sixth Avenue last week, particularly during the aforementioned “Inception.” If Cohen can hold onto him, this group will be a must-watch for the foreseeable future.

Eric Olson
Eric Olson
Eric Olson is a Seattle-based novelist and essayist living in the Central District. He works as an environmental engineer, managing polluted sites west of the Cascades, and also plays guitar in local outfit Caveman Ego. You can learn more about him and his work at


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