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Aaron Diehl has a way of backing into a piece. He begins freely, or so you think, then gradually sneaks in a progression or a rhythm, a rumble. The voice in your head tentatively sings a melody before you realize he's already suggesting it, and soon, he will satisfy your growing need to hear and even dance to it, at least in your imagination.
Last weekend in Indianapolis, Diehl beat out four other finalists for the 2011 Cole Porter Fellowship, awarded by the American Pianists Association.
Through two full sets on Friday at the Jazz Kitchen and a concert with Dee Dee Bridgewater and the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra at The Athenaeum on Saturday, the finalists (all age 25 and under) worked hard for the fellowship. It's worth $50,000 in cash, plus at least that much in career support.
Every contender emerged as an individual. Glenn Zaleski has a sound. I heard bells ring when he played — good-sized bells. His playing on Thelonious Monk's "Evidence," a new arrangement with the big band, was a favorite of mine. Harmonic touchstones are not Zach Lapidus' thing. His playing was faultless. I need to take piano lessons from him.
Emmet Cohen looked straight across the Jazz Kitchen stage at drummer Kenny Phelps from Indianapolis, smiled, made mischief and swung. Emmet's two original pieces — "Dark Passenger" and "Swarm" — won me over completely, with Frank Smith (also from Indy) kicking in on bass. Jeremy Siskind showed vulnerability with his "The Inevitable Letdown." Siskind reworked Michael Jackson's "Black or White" as an anthem that dissolved into an argument, came back together, broke up again: a dialectical presentation. One of the judges later said Jeremy "owned that song."
The finalists spent a year in contention. They know one another well. They're friends. However, that did not stop Diehl from besting his friends with his stride piano, his blues feel, his dynamic control, his impressive physical calmness. A friend of Diehl's told me he has been practicing "20 hours a day" for months and is also, by the way, a licensed airplane pilot.
The judges — pianists Geri Allen, Danilo Perez and John Taylor; critic Nate Chinen; and Al Pryor, Executive Vice President for A&R at Mack Avenue Records — did not decide by consensus or persuasion. The outcome is determined by their individual ratings. I find that interesting and different from panels I've been on.
In his acceptance speech, Diehl said, "I can't think of anything else greater than to be sharing this music with all of you." It's a cliché and bedrock. The American Pianists Association lines up host families, volunteer drivers, business, philanthropic and political support. The governor of Indiana came to the opening reception. The mayor of Indianapolis presented Diehl with the award.
On semi-finals night, the APA sold out the long-running Jazz Kitchen, where Danilo Perez is playing this Wednesday and Benny Golson is coming a week from Saturday. (Coincidentally, two finalists played Golson's music; Lapidus played "Stablemates" and Cohen played "Whisper Not.") The Athenaeum is a hundred-year-old, German-built theater with a beer garden; it too was packed. Hospitality and excitement flowed in the heartland, with high-stakes music from players whose careers lie ahead.
Audio recorded by Andrew Ayers and Kalalau Cantrell, courtesy of American Pianists Association. To watch video of the entire final round of competition and award presentation, visit the American Pianists Association Livestream channel.