A swingin’ dialogue: two choruses of Emmet Cohen’s intro solo on Joe Lovano’s ‘Big Ben’ (State Of The Blues, #11)

Below is my transcription of the first two choruses from Emmet Cohen’s intro piano solo from the version of Joe Lovano’s tune ‘Big Ben’ played on Episode 56 of the YouTube series Live From Emmet’s Place.  Cohen’s solo follows a long tradition of piano solos that precede the opening melodic theme or ‘head’ in jazz recordings. Other great intro piano solos include Duke Ellington’s opening solos on the versions of Take The A Train and Perdido on Ellington Uptown, Count Basie’s opening solo on One O’Clock Jump, and Sir Roland Hanna’s piano solos with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra at the beginnings of Jones’ Second Race and Jerome Richardson’s Groove Merchant.  On a live version of Groove Merchant from 1968, Hanna turned his solo into a mini-history of jazz piano up to that point. 

Like Hanna, Emmet Cohen seems to have a limitless amount of jazz history at his fingertips.  A recent concert he played on the UVM Lane Series featured tunes by Jerome Kern (‘Nobody Else But Me’), Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith (‘Finger Buster’), Arlen and Harburg (‘Over The Rainbow’), Vincent Youmans (‘Tea for Two’), Horace Silver (‘The Back Beat’), Ray Noble (‘Cherokee’), an original rag from his latest album (‘Spillin’ The Tea’), and Wayne Shorter’s ‘Footprints’ (in honor of the master composer and saxophonist’s passing.)  The concert concluded with an encore of Ellington’s ‘Satin Doll’ which Cohen and his trio mates, Philip Norris on bass and Kyle Poole on drums, put through a mind-bending series of rhythmic transformations.  Although the tune list was weighted toward the earlier half of the twentieth century, Cohen’s playing showed a deep awareness of the vocabulary of pianists from the latter half of the century, including Bud Powell and McCoy Tyner. 

Cohen’s solo on Lovano’s B-flat blues ‘Big Ben’ is simply swingin’.  It has a masterful balance of motion and rest as well as a balance of rhythmically pushing forward and laying back.  Here’s my transcription of his first two choruses, starting from the pickup phrase at :16 in the video, followed by some analysis:

His first chorus (m. 3-14), like the first chorus of Wynton Kelly’s first solo on Pfrancing,  has three short, simple and cleanly articulated melodic phrases, each punctuated by chordal comping.  (Harry Woodward’s transcription of the Pfrancing solo can be seen in my post Leading With The Left.)  Cohen’s first phrase is a seven-note quote from Kaper, Juhrmann and Kahn’s ‘All God’s Children Got Rhythm’, in which the melodic rhythm of the phrase is shaped to match the deep swing pulse provided by Poole on drums and Russell Hall on bass.  Although Cohen’s reshaping of the rhythm is spontaneous, I would suggest that it is three alterations he makes to the more downbeat-oriented way the tune is often played, for instance in the wonderful version by Sonny Stitt with Bud Powell on piano, that that kicks off the solo with a swing feel well fitted to the groove of Lovano’s tune: the way he delays the start of the phrase to the third beat – immediately signaling relaxation – and lands the third and fifth notes of the quote on the ‘and’ of four.  Cohen’s second phrase is reminiscent of the 1940 hit ‘Playmate’, a tune quoted by Oscar Peterson in a live version of C Jam Blues that has become ubiquitous on YouTube, and of Ravel’s Bolero.  While these resonances may be unintentional, Cohen’s phrase, like the two melodies to which it bears a resemblance, conveys an unhurried vibe through its diatonic and easily singable nature; it also contrasts the ‘All God’s Children’ quote in being largely stepwise. Cohen concludes the first chorus with a two-handed comping phrase leading into the G7 chord, followed by a simple stepwise ascending line the main melody of which stays within the B flat major scale. 

Cohen’s second chorus moves toward longer melodic phrases.  It begins with a descending scalar figure that contrasts the ascent at the end of the first chorus.  This is followed by a five-note phrase that recalls Charlie Parker’s ‘Ko Ko’ solo, bookended by left hand chords.  Cohen concludes the second chorus with a phrase that ends in a quote from Horace Silver’s ‘Doodlin’, but impressively, the quote arises organically and spontaneously out of a phrase that begins with Cohen’s own deft use of bebop language to ‘make’ the G7 change.   For me, this recalls Silver’s own quote of Honeysuckle Rose on his Silver’s Serenade solo, discussed in my earlier post Conversation Pieces, Part Two.

I mention these quotes and resonances not to imply that quotation in improvised solos is an essential skill, but to note how, in a completely natural and unforced way, Cohen uses quotation as a tool to create a concise, spacious first chorus with a three-phrase approach, which is an essential skill for all jazz improvisers, and a second chorus that builds toward longer phrases, another important technique.  Cohen also models throughout these two choruses what George Colligan, in an article on Horace Silver’s piano solos, calls ‘hand-to-hand conversation’.  In Cohen’s solo, the dialogue occurs mostly through the right hand leaving room for the left hand to respond to its lines, or the left hand finding the room to respond; one passage in which the right hand responds to the left is at m. 19-20 (the ‘Koko’ quote).  This dialogic approach leads to some of the more concise and economical playing that I’ve heard by Cohen, who is known for thrilling virtuosity.  Cohen’s left hand comping is every bit as historically erudite as his right hand improvising: he intersperses a preponderance of three and four note rootless voicings with one five voice shell extension (at m. 10), a smattering of two-note guide tone voicings in the second chrous and a number of single note and octave ‘answers’. Other highlights of the rest of Cohen’s solo (which I encourage anyone to transcribe and send to me as an addition to this post) include a third chorus beginning with a phrase that has become known as ‘The Lick’ due to a series of YouTube videos documenting its use by various players and a sixth chorus where Cohen uses a variation on the ‘Bird Blues’ progression that bassist Hall follows without missing a beat.

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