A Jazz Piano Showdown On JazzSet

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57 min 59 sec
 
Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard presents Aaron Diehl with the 2011 Cole Porter Fellowship. i i

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard presents Aaron Diehl with the 2011 Cole Porter Fellowship. Mark Sheldon/American Pianists Association hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Sheldon/American Pianists Association
Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard presents Aaron Diehl with the 2011 Cole Porter Fellowship.

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard presents Aaron Diehl with the 2011 Cole Porter Fellowship.

Mark Sheldon/American Pianists Association

Set List

Emmet Cohen, "Love for Sale"

Zach Lapidus, "Embraceable You"

Glenn Zaleski, "What Is This Thing Called Love"

Aaron Diehl, "Just One of Those Things"

Jeremy Siskind, "Night and Day"

Aaron Diehl and the Buselli Wallarab Jazz Orchestra, "Nardis (excerpt)" (Davis, arr. Wallarab)

All performances feature Dee Dee Bridgewater on vocals except "Nardis."

Every four years, as the culmination of an 18-month search, the American Pianists Association names a new Cole Porter Fellow. The cash and career support awarded to the winner is substantial — approximately $100,000 in value. There is no second or third prize. The stakes are high, and the process is careful.

First, the APA solicits entries. A professional jury selects five to compete. Each contestant visits Indianapolis for a week, in residence at a high school and performing in community settings, retirement homes and Indy's long-running, music-friendly, highly recommended Jazz Kitchen. Eventually, on an April weekend with early flowers sweetening the city, it was time to wrap this baby up, and JazzSet was there.

The judges opened 36 hours of competition with a public session in which the five young competitors faced the judges. Nate Chinen from The New York Times spoke first, asserting that now is a fertile time for improvising musicians: There's a fluency in the jazz vocabulary, ears and minds are wide open, and the music belongs to but is not constrained by a tradition.

Judge Al Pryor from Mack Avenue Records (the label produces the winner's next album) cited the ties between classical music and jazz. Geri Allen advanced Thelonious Monk's belief, as reported by biographer Robin D.G. Kelley, that the piano player is the one who leads the charge. Danilo Perez offered that Monk and John Coltrane were prophets, that "people gave their lives for this," and hoped that the finalists would balance ego with commitment. And John Taylor, the pianist and judge from England, encouraged the finalists to help each other.

The first night, all five performed at The Jazz Kitchen, leading a trio with Frank Smith on bass and Kenny Phelps on drums. These local guys are good. You can click on this page and hear highlights thanks to WFYI, broadcasting live that night. The pianists radiated concentration, yet were each other's greatest cheering section.

The finalists for the 2011 Cole Porter Fellowship. L-R: Zach Lapidus, Glenn Zaleski, Jeremy Siskind, Emmet Cohen, Aaron Diehl. i i

The finalists for the 2011 Cole Porter Fellowship. L-R: Zach Lapidus, Glenn Zaleski, Jeremy Siskind, Emmet Cohen, Aaron Diehl. Mark Sheldon/American Pianists Association hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Sheldon/American Pianists Association
The finalists for the 2011 Cole Porter Fellowship. L-R: Zach Lapidus, Glenn Zaleski, Jeremy Siskind, Emmet Cohen, Aaron Diehl.

The finalists for the 2011 Cole Porter Fellowship. L-R: Zach Lapidus, Glenn Zaleski, Jeremy Siskind, Emmet Cohen, Aaron Diehl.

Mark Sheldon/American Pianists Association

The next afternoon at The Athenaeum Theatre, one after another, each pianist rehearsed a Cole Porter song (and one by Gershwin) with vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater. The concert performance that night lies at the heart of this installment of JazzSet.

Bridgewater does not coast. She gave equally to each finalist: Emmet Cohen from New Jersey and the University of Miami; Zach Lapidus from Portland, Ore., and Indianapolis; Glenn Zaleski from Worcester, Mass., and New York City; Aaron Diehl from Columbus, Ohio, and New York; and Jeremy Siskind from Irvine, Calif., and New York.

Winner Aaron Diehl is a graduate of The Juilliard School of Music. He is the pianist at St. Joseph of the Holy Family Church in Harlem, and performs in various venues at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Diehl prepared with a vengeance; his friends say he practiced for a year for this moment. He is eloquent accepting the Cole Porter Fellowship; you must listen. Diehl's new album from Mack Avenue is on the way. Congratulations to Diehl and everyone in every capacity who makes this such a good story.

Credits

Athenaeum recording by Andrew Ayers and Kalalau Cantrell of Ball State University; Jazz Kitchen recording by Cedric Freeman of WFYI, celebrating 40 years in Indianapolis. Surround Sound mix by Duke Markos. Thanks to Joel Harrison, artistic director of the APA.

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