More Than Just the Notes

Jon Regen reports on the inspiration and perspiration from the 2011 Jazz Fellowship Awards of the American Pianists Association, April 14 16, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana.Most aspiring pianists spend a majority of their time in virtual "instrument lockdown," assembling the

Jon Regen reports on the inspiration and perspiration from the 2011 Cole Porter Jazz Fellowship Awards of the American Pianists Association, April 14-16, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana.Scroll to the bottom for performance videos by the contestants, including winner Aaron Diehl.

Most aspiring pianists spend a majority of their time in "instrument lockdown," assembling the musical techniques and trickery that will hopefully propel them into the big time. If practice does indeed purport to make an artist perfect, it’s no wonder why so many young keyboard contenders devote themselves almost entirely to the pursuit of dizzying dexterity, often times at the expense of living balanced lives as human beings. But the American Pianists Association (APA) in Indianapolis, Indiana is doing its best to shake up the keyboard establishment, instilling in its participants a potent perspective that marries musical excellence to community outreach. Add to that a $100,000 prize package of cash, recording and performing opportunities, and career assistance, and you have the makings of an unforgettable musical extravaganza.

Formed in 1979, the APA assists young American pianists with their artistic and career-oriented endeavors. Under the leadership of President/CEO and Artistic Director Joel M. Harrison, the APA stewards competition finalists in both its classical and jazz competitions by immersing them in a wide range of musical and social situations -- from multi-tiered performances in competition-like settings to residencies with student musicians in high schools and outreach concerts in community and retirement centers. Finalists are taught by example that art is elevated by community interaction -- not distracted by it. It’s a theme rarely heard in the often-cutthroat world of piano competitions, that success is more than just the notes an artist plays.

As the APA alternates its competitions between jazz and classical every two years, 2011 would fall on the jazzier side of things. Five finalists were selected in the Spring of 2010, with each one spending a weeklong Jazz Premiere Series’ residency in Indianapolis for concerts and community outreach. Later, the five finalists would return for more rehearsals, performances, and community activities during Jazz Discovery Week. Ultimately, each finalist performed in solo and trio settings in the semifinals at Indianapolis’ famed Jazz Kitchen, and in duo and big-band settings at the finals at the Athenaeum Theater. The winner would be named the 2011 Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz of the American Pianists Association and take home a prize package worth more than $100,000.


The APA semifinals converged on an SRO crowd at the storied Jazz Kitchen on Friday, April 15th, with each finalist backed for their trio selections by the sympathetic rhythm section of Frank Smith on bass and Kenny Phelps on drums.

From left to right: Emmet Cohen, Zach Lapidus, Jeremy Siskind, Glenn Zaleski, and Aaron Diehl waiting to receive their gifts from Tiffany & Co. Photo by John Behringer.

First up was Brooklyn, New York resident and New York University Masters candidate Glenn Zaleski, who quickly demonstrated his penchant for impressionist piano harmonies with an unaccompanied intro on the original tune “Resort & Spa” (named ironically for his miniscule New York City apartment). Zaleski continued to impress throughout his set, evincing a deft technique with frequent nods to seminal jazz pianist Brad Mehldau.

Second to perform was Portland, Oregon native Zach Lapidus, who opened with the Benny Golson jazz standard “Stablemates,” which showcased playful, left-hand ostinatos reminiscent of the French pianist Martial Solal. Lapidus continued to demonstrate a deft harmonic command throughout his semifinal sets, with nods to early 1960s Herbie Hancock on a swinging rendition of David Berkman’s tune “Fairytale.”

At just 20 years old, Miami native Emmet Cohen proved he was far from a rookie with a third position set that dazzled in both verve and variety. Cohen tore through a two-fisted polytonal romp on George Gershwin’s venerable standard “I Got Rhythm,” which proved to be the most thoughtfully arranged tune of the evening, complete with an ebullient shout chorus and bluesy, Gene Harris-inspired ending. Cohen also wowed the crowd with a fearless, solo rendition of the late pianist Kenny Kirkland tune “Chance.”

Fourth up was Columbus, Ohio native Aaron Diehl, who has already performed around the globe with artists like Wynton Marsalis and Benny Golson. Diehl’s retro approach paid homage to both stride piano pioneers and the space-centric sound of Ahmad Jamal on his fugue-imbued version of George Shearing’s “Conception.”

Last to perform at the semifinals was California native Jeremy Siskind, who impressed with a set that celebrated pianistic contrast. Siskind boldly re-imagined Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top” as a piano/drum duet, highlighting the outer reaches of the piano’s range. Siskind shined even brighter on the solo piece “Little Love Song,” which recalled Bill Evans’ playful “Children’s Play Song.”

On Saturday April 16th, the five finalists reconvened for the APA Jazz Fellowship Awards Finals at the Athenaeum Theater in downtown Indianapolis, where each finalist would perform in both a duo setting (alongside legendary jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater) and as a guest artist alongside the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra. Showcasing the finalists in these completely new sonic surroundings would prove to be fascinating.

First to perform alongside Bridgewater was Emmet Cohen, who injected Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” with blustering bass ostinatos and bluesy, sustained right-hand chords. Later in his big-band appearance, Cohen impressed with nimble, block-chorded and "locked hands" solos on a medley of songs by composer Johnny Mandel.

Zach Lapidus joined Bridgewater for a startlingly reharmonized take on George Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” which featured cascading, classically tinged piano sonorities. Later, alongside the big band, Lapidus again channeled the playfulness and bar-blurring phrasing of French pianist Martial Solal on the classic tune “Stella by Starlight.”

Glenn Zaleskie returned to his fondness for impressionistic piano sonorities alongside Bridgewater on Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love.” Zaleskie lightened things up during his performance with the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra, offering-up a riff-centered romp through Thelonius Monk’s “Evidence.”

Aaron Diehl boldly accompanied Bridgewater on Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things,” "trading fours" with the esteemed vocalist for an interlude of improvised interplay. Later, on his big-band reading of Miles Davis’ “Nardis,” Diehl’s self-assured sense of time and rhythmic propulsion proved enormously effective.

Finally, Jeremy Siskind joined Bridegwater on a conversational reading of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” which at times recalled the rock-steady, pocketed swing of paternal pianist Kenny Barron. Siskind later offered up a playful rendition of the Monk classic “Played Twice” alongside the big band.


Following the introduction of the Jazz Jury (which included storied jazz pianists Danilo Perez, Geri Allen, and John Taylor, as well as New York Times Jazz Critic Nate Chinen and Mack Avenue EVP of A&R Al Pryor) and a performance by 2007 Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz Dan Tepfer, the 2011 American Pianists Association Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz was announced as Aaron Diehl. And while there would be only one confirmed winner, surely all the finalists, listeners, and participants in these APA events came away with the prize of having been a part of a truly remarkable event. I’m looking forward to the next jazz awards in 2015!

From left to right: Aaron Diehl, Joel Harrison, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Mayor Greg Ballard. Photo by Mark Sheldon.

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