Emmet Cohen, now 22, was turned on to jazz while studying classical piano at the Manhattan School of Music. He started there in middle school, after his family moved to Montclair from Miami.
“I was surrounded at school by jazz the whole time,” he told NJJN, “and people in town played jazz, and people I met at school in jazz band played gigs on the side at parties and stuff.
“I thought it would be good to know how to do it.”
So he enrolled in the Litchfield Jazz Camp, affiliated with the Litchfield Jazz Festival.
“I fell in love,” he said. “It was the element of improvisation and the freedom it allows you to express yourself, however you are feeling at the time. Unlike classical music, a piece can be completely fresh every time.”
On Thursday, July 26, the recent graduate of the University of Miami Frost School of Music will give a concert at his hometown synagogue, Temple Ner Tamid, at 7:30 p.m.
His family joined Ner Tamid, in Bloomfield, when they first arrived in New Jersey. “It was a great way to get involved with our new community. Now, Temple Ner Tamid always feels like home, no matter how long I’ve been away,” he said a few days before the concert.
Cohen released his debut CD, In the Element, in 2011. He is recording another on Aug. 1 with trumpet player Brian Lynch.
Cohen, who has played piano since the age of three, has played with such jazz greats as Christian McBride, Joshua Redman, Patti Austin, Maceo Parker, Carmen Bradford, and Billy Hart. He has won numerous awards and competitions, including first place in the Kathleen T. and Philip B. Phillip’s Piano Competition at the University of West Florida, Downbeat Magazine’s student music awards for best jazz soloist and best jazz combo (with the Emmet Cohen Trio), and third place in the 2011 Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition.
Cohen regularly plays at jazz clubs and festivals — he will be at Smoke Jazz Club in New York City on July 25 — but he jumped at the opportunity to give a concert at Ner Tamid. “It’s a chance to reach an audience I can’t reach in clubs in New York City, especially when I’m playing after midnight.
“And not everyone gets to perform in their own church or wherever they worship.”
He said his first name often leads to conversations with Israeli musicians, who wonder if he knows that it means “truth” in Hebrew. (Of course he does, he said.) While he isn’t sure his Jewish identity is foremost in his mind while he is composing or playing — “I try to connect as a human to other humans,” he said — he did say he “grew up listening to music at services in synagogue, and I think that definitely had an effect on the way I hear and write music.”