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Tom Cohen - Diggin' In, Digging Out


Chris Potter - Tenor/Soprano Sax
Peter Madsen - Piano

Peter Herbert - Bass

Tom Cohen - Drums

1. Solar
2. Softly As In A Morning Sunrise
3. Anthropology
4. Chagall
5. The Cat
6. Desert Flower
7. Well You Needn’t
8. Not Even A Hat
9. Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction
Total Time 66:19

Listen to CD Tracks

Though largely unheralded, Tom Cohen has been a reliably swinging, rhythmically inventive drummer on the Philly jazz scene for quite a while now. On his debut for Double Time Records, he joins with two equally gifted but underappreciated players from New York, bassist Peter Herbert and pianist Peter Madsen. Add one ringer to the mix — acclaimed saxophonist-composer Chris Potter  — and the results are scintillating. Their playing together on Diggin' In, Digging Out is highly interactive and full of that sound of surprise that is at the heart of good jazz.

 Hooking up with the two Peters was a stroke of serendipity that paid off for the Philly-based drummer. As he explains, "I'd known Peter Madsen for a while but we hardly worked together. We maybe did two gigs together over the past seven years or so. But I happened to catch him after a gig late one night at a local club in Philly and was completely delighted by his playing. I managed to book a gig a month later and invited both Peter Madsen and Peter Herbert to come out from New York for it. Peter Herbert I had known from playing with him at (now defunct) Visiones in New York and we worked together occasionally over the years. That first gig together in Philly went so well that I decided I had to document our chemistry together as a trio."

 After booking a date at The Studio in New York City, he invited saxophonist Chris Potter to play on four tunes. "Chris is always fully entertaining," says Cohen. "He's one of the only players who, from passage to passage or from phrase to phrase, never seems to repeat himself. He's just always full of delight and surprise. I think he's one of the best tenor players under the age of 40 out there right now."

 The entire session — all nine tunes — went down nice and smoothly in just four and a half hours. Cohen had taken this same kind of intuitive approach in the studio on his first release as a leader, a 1997 trio date with pianist Ron Thompson and bassist Mike Richmond for Cadence Records. But he takes it up a notch with his adventurous crew on Diggin' In, Digging Out.

 The album opens on a conversational note with Cohen and Chris Potter exchanging and intertwining phrases on a freewheeling intro that gradually settles into Miles Davis' "Solar," though the quartet merely alludes to the changes at first, eventually working its way into that familiar melody. Pianist Peter Madsen, a standout talent well deserving of wider recognition, picks up on the daring nature of the opening Cohen-Potter duologue by vaguely shading the tune while feeding the band subversive chord voicings to further tweak the proceedings. Madsen continues in that adventurous spirit on a frantically swinging trio rendition of "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise." A player of great rhythmic ingenuity with fervently percussive tendencies at the keyboard, Madsen's harmonic choices here are, once again, provocative, to say the least. His presence on this session, or on any bandstand for that matter, invariably takes the music through some intriguing twists and turns.

 "Peter Madsen is just so much fun to play with," says Cohen of the pianist. "He's kind of mischievous, just always stirring it up. He doesn't let things get too complacent, he gets things happening. Guys like him and Chris Potter always make it easy for a drummer, if the drummer has ears. Because they're just feeding you stuff to bounce off of. I think of them as instigators that way. And those are the kind of people I'm attracted to, playingwise. I've done gigs with people where it's more straight down the middle, just swinging and feeling good. And that's cool. But it's always more personally satisfying for me to get with those people that are just extra provocative or even borderline controversial in the way that they hear and play. And Peter is definitely like that. There's something that he has that goes beyond your traditional straight ahead players."

 Madsen's mischievous quality that Cohen referred to comes across on his own composition, "The Cat." Again, the pianist's left hand forcefully sculpts out the changes while his right hand flows freely and assuredly through all the nooks and crannies of the keyboard. Potter adapts a mercurial attitude on this Monkish number while Cohen comments on the proceedings with some wry statements himself from behind the kit before breaking loose for a melodic solo against Madsen's son-like ostinato.

 The pianist plays provocateur on a trio reading of  Thelonious Monk's "Well You Needn't." His approach on the freewheeling intro here may strike listeners as owing more to Cecil Taylor than Monk, and he carries that audacious spirit over into the piece itself. Nearly two minutes into a group improv, they reveal the point of reference as Madsen continues to take great liberties, both rhythmically and harmonically, with Monk's familiar and idiosyncratic theme. As the piece progresses, Cohen and Herbert respond in kind until it builds to a whirlwind peak of forward momentum and visceral intent.

 The quartet's handling of Bird's "Anthropology," featuring Potter on tenor, is perhaps the most conventional thing here, right down to the strict bebop protocol of exchanging hip eights near the tag. But even that fairly straightforward reading is not without its surprises.

 Madsen's darkly fragile ballad "Desert Flower" is an excellent showcase for Peter Herbert's extraordinary singing arco technique. Cohen underscores the gentle, ECM-ish vibe with sensitive, nearly subliminal brushwork and cymbal colors.

 The pianist's other tender offering, "Not Even A Hat," is a gorgeous old school, alluring jazz ballad with poignant changes and graceful accompaniment. Herbert, who nimbly shifts gears to double the melody when not playing the root, speaks low and eloquently on his solo here. "Peter, by virtue of his great time and that edge that he has in his playing, is a dream for any drummer," says Cohen.

 Cohen exudes a particularly forceful touch and an interactive quality on Madsen's harmonically involved, McCoy-ish composition "Chagall." With Potter blowing a blustery soprano and the pianist mapping out the myriad of changes, the drummer circumnavigates an implied beat by traversing the kit with melodic abandon. Shades of his hero and mentor Tony Williams. "Tony was one of the kings of interaction...maybe the greatest of all time," he says. "He had such big ears and was so immediate with his responses. In addition to being able to evolve his own kind of story as a tune unfolded, he was also interacting at the same time."

 Cohen sought Williams out for lessons in 1972 and actually ended up spending a significant amount of time with the great drummer. "I took half a dozen lessons with him," he recalls, "and he was very generous. He didn't just give me an hour and usher me out. We used to stay up there on the third floor at Frank Ippolito's Drum Shop in New York City in the heat of the summer for like two hours, just me asking questions and him explaining things. I was only 16 or 17 years old then, just a senior in high school. Tony was like a god to me at the time. But for whatever reason, he was generous with the information and was really nice to me."

 A native New Yorker who was raised in North Jersey, Cohen would go on to study philosophy at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. while simultaneously playing jazz in the Howard University big band. He left school in the mid '70s and made his way to Philadelphia, where he joined a fusion band led by saxophonist Odean Pope. He's been a player on the Philly jazz scene there ever since.

 Aside from the huge impact that Tony Williams made on him as an aspiring drummer, Cohen also cites Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette and especially Paul Motian as huge influences. "Those intimate records that Motian did with Bill Evans really set me up for wanting to be an interactive player and helped me with that whole idea of listening on that level," he notes. "But I also enjoy playing with a quintet. What's the difference? It still comes down to you interacting with a soloist."

  On Diggin' In, Digging Out, Cohen demonstrates big ears and keen instincts alongside his like-minded colleagues...instigators all. "I think if you put these same three musicians together and played the same tunes with a different drummer, it would have to be different, and radically different perhaps," he says. "I make no pretense to be making any groundbreaking statements but hopefully by virtue of the way I play, it allows music to flourish on a certain level, whether it's a standard or somebody's composition. I hope my own approach to the kit allows the players to be at their most open."

 They are wide open indeed on this adventurous outing.— Bill Milkowski

Bill Milkowski is a regular contributor to Jazz Times and Modern Drummer,  and is also the author of "Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries" (Billboard Books). 

 I would like to express my deepest thanks to: the prolific Peter Madsen for so generously contributing a few of his great tunes to this session, and of course, for his wickedly provocative playing; Chris Potter and Peter Herbert for their relentless imagination, intensity and great taste; Larry DiTomasso for his ever energizing enthusiasm and astute observations; Masuo and Takuhitsu for getting the sound so right, so "right away"; Mickey Roker for "Sweet Swingin" inspiration and wisdom filled encouragement; and especially to my wife, Jill, and new born son Jack who have made me - just by being with me - a better musician.
 Tom Cohen