Uptown in Orbit
More than two years after creating a space for artists to commune and create during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, internationally lauded pianist and composer Emmet Cohen releases new music inspired by connections he and his trio helped foster in the midst of devastating isolation. Following his critically acclaimed 2021 Mack Avenue Records debut Future Stride, Uptown in Orbit celebrates sacred connections and an evolution of sound among Cohen and his trio mates, bassist-composer Russell Hall and drummer-producer Kyle Poole. Recorded at Sear Sound in midtown, the album equally serves as a vessel for new energy from trumpeter Sean Jones and saxophonist Patrick Bartley.
“This period gave me time and space to explore collaborations with such a broad range of musical artists,” says the 2019 American Pianists Association Cole Porter Fellowship award winner. “Through that experience, I learned a lot about myself and, through the trio, discovered how moments become special, which musicians help us evolve our concept and what the deeper purpose of our message can achieve.”
The trio members lived, worked and played together for many years, and often look to outside forces to help evolve their sound. “There are certain textural and compositional things that can happen with a quintet,” says Cohen, who similarly featured trumpet player Marquis Hill and saxophonist Melissa Aldana on Future Stride. “These musicians can pull new ideas out of the piano trio context, and there was just magic with Sean and Patrick.” The two artists hadn’t played together before the record date, but the spark was instant. “Patrick and Sean both have a holistic approach and knowledge of the lexicon, from stride and early sounds to the modern expressions our peers are experimenting with. That’s inspiring for us, and it’s exactly what we set out to explore on this record. We can all go in any direction, and it leaves so much room for collective creation.”
Cohen and his trio live and play by a truth they hold to be self-evident: “All music is modern. If you play it in the moment, it can be considered modern.” Uptown in Orbit addresses this philosophy through repertoire as well as production. The record opens on Willie “The Lion” Smith’s “Finger Buster,” traditionally a solo piece which Cohen acknowledges as a rite of passage for pianists. The selection, whose composer he considers a relentless individualist, features Cohen’s lyrical precision around a folkloric stride vocabulary, as well as Poole’s contemporary production aesthetic. “Kyle’s an incredible drummer, but he’s also a unique, compelling producer. We wanted to feature both sides of his artistry.” Poole lends his engineering skills to the title track reprise, as well as Cedar Walton’s “Mosaic,” the latter spotlighting what listeners have come to revere as his at once fiery and sensitive solo improvising.
“My Love Will Come Again” reveals the quiet beauty of Cohen’s ballad writing. A deeply personal gesture, the music intensifies and ebbs as the artists express a complexity of emotion and unfolding lyricism. One of several pieces that engage Poole’s dynamic brushwork, Cohen’s “Spillin’ the Tea” affirms how Cohen’s compositional style for his trio has evolved, and creates discourse around a range of texture, syncopation and displacement.
Cohen’s profound connection to — and reverence for — melody and phrasing glints across Neil Hefti’s “Li’l Darlin’.” The tempo itself serves as an extended moment for Hall, whose foundational warmth and signature pocket create a kind of momentum at once grounded and suspended. The bassist’s composition “The Loneliest” reflects the expanse of his artistry. Written for Thelonious Monk, the music celebrates the legend as a persistent inspiration for the entire trio. “Russell’s an amazing composer, someone who’s very humble and deferential,” says Cohen, who added the selection’s haunting introduction.
In 2014, Cohen recorded his original piece “Distant Hallow” alongside collaborator and mentor Brian Lynch for their co-led recording Questioned Answer. Revisiting the music nearly a decade later would emerge as a welcome flashpoint for the pianist-composer. “Having recorded for about 10 years now, I thought it might be cool to rerecord something that I’d done in the past and breathe some new life into it,” he says. “That kind of artistic exercise helps you make peace with who you are, who you were and your journey. Rerecording these tunes can show how your expression has refined, your collective sound. And it shows how embracing change is part of life.” Jones and Bartley stretch out in concert with one another, leading, responding and letting the music dictate the moment.
Penultimate piece “Venus de Milo,” as well as album closer Duke Ellington’s “Braggin’ in Brass,” present another hallmark of the trio’s expression: orchestrating large ensemble compositions for trio context. Composed and arranged for nonet by Gerry Mulligan for Birth of the Cool, the former also pays homage to one of Cohen’s contemporary inspirations, Bill Charlap, who arranged “Godchild” and “Rocker” for his own trio. “It’s a nod to what he’s done,” says Cohen, “offering our take on piano trio versions of Birth of the Cool repertoire.”
For Cohen, the album title track contains multitudes. Inside his Edgecombe Avenue apartment, the Miami/Jersey native often reflects on the significance of his Harlem neighborhood and the music that resonates across the block when he and his fellow artists come together to play. The composition presents a forward energy of bonded expressions, spotlighting each artist’s individual yet like-hearted sounds. “Living here on Edgecombe,” says Cohen, “where Duke lived and where so many of our heroes gathered to make music together, it’s really brought me closer to that ancestral connection. And of course, we’re honoring Duke’s recording Blues in Orbit. Putting the music and the musicians in orbit has been a great gift. This record aims to document a moment of that entire experience.”
Emmet Cohen · Uptown in OrbitMack Avenue Records · Release Date: October 28, 2022