The end of February always warms the hearts of Louisville-area jazz fans, because of the annual University of Louisville Jazz Fest. For decades, top artists including Dave Brubeck, Michael Brecker and others have performed. This year, Professor Jerry Tolson leads UofL’s Student Ensemble II on Thursday. Friday features baritone saxophonist Denis DiBlasio. On Saturday, drummer Carl Allen brings a hot band, including Freddie Hendrix (trumpet) and Eric Reed (piano), spotlighting the music of Elvin Jones and Art Blakey. On Sunday, Guggenheim Fellow Ryan Cohan performs, who was introduced to many Louisvillians by the Jazz Factory.
DiBlasio came through the ranks from the Maynard Ferguson Big Band. Professor Mike Tracy, Director of Jazz Studies, says “[he] is a longtime friend and performed years ago with our band for the Big Rock Jazz Fest. He is a great educator and wonderful performer, and will be in residence working closely with our students.” Carl Allen worked with greats Sonny Stitt, James Moody and Freddie Hubbard. Of Allen, Tracy says “I have been trying to connect for a number of years and it finally worked out. I liked the idea of the tribute and everything finally fell into place. He is also bringing an outstanding band with him.”
Chicago pianist/composer Ryan Cohan is Visiting Jazz Artist this semester at UofL, splitting time between home and Louisville, and is excited about performing here again: “We always had an amazing time when we came to the Jazz Factory. We built an audience there, and people really loved the music. It was always special for us. I always had a great feeling every time I came to Louisville. I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity to work at the university now.” He’s had one rehearsal with faculty members Chris Fitzgerald and Mike Hyman, and acknowledged how quickly they picked up on his compositions. They’ll be playing some Cohan originals, as well as a standard and some pieces by Tracy and Ansyn Banks.
Cohan says he enjoys the challenges inherent in working as both pianist and composer, which require different approaches. “Sometimes they come in bursts,” he says. “If I have a series of demanding gigs coming up, I have to focus on playing the piano. Sometimes it’s tricky to keep up with writing and arranging, too. Often, it’s focusing on one or the other, and hoping you can slide on some of the deadlines. For me, its always been a balancing act. I find it to be very different flows, one that happens when you’re playing and performing and improvising. It happens in real time — there’s a natural flow with the spontaneity and improvising and trusting that the notes will be in your hand. There’s a different flow that happens when you’re composing, that doesn’t happen in real time. You have to work at something for a while, staying on something, whatever you’re composing. There’s a flow, but not in real time, and composing requires blocks of time.”
Tracy adds, “Cohan has been working with our students for the semester and I always have loved his playing and compositions. So it was a natural fit to feature him on a concert. Add our student groups and it should be a wonderful four days of jazz.”