Estar Cohen Raises Her Voice at Newport

By Etan Rosenbloom, Director & Deputy Editor, Marketing & Communications  •  August 1, 2018

estar-cohen-newport
Estar Cohen

For the past three years, The ASCAP Foundation has partnered with the Newport Jazz Festival to give an exceptional Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award recipient a chance to shine live at the venerable Festival. This year, the Herb Alpert judges chose ASCAP composer and vocalist Estar Cohen to bring her dynamic ensemble to the Storyville Stage for a set of open-minded original music. She joins another stellar lineup of ASCAP jazz talent, including Gregory Porter, Jon Batiste, Ambrose Akinmusire, Living Colour, Matthew Shipp, Anat Cohen, Tony Allen, Zakir Hussain and Roxy Coss (who came to Newport in 2016 as part of the ASCAP Foundation/Newport partnership). We caught up with Estar Cohen a week before her Newport debut.

The Newport Jazz Festival has such a long, renowned history. What does it mean to you to be playing at Newport this year?

I feel honored to bring my music to the Newport Jazz Festival. I am living in a moment that is both validating and motivating. To be honest, the invitation came as a surprise along with The ASCAP Foundation Award. My philosophy in regards to applying for competitions, grants, etc. has simply become “do it.” Put the work in and let go from there. Never feel entitled to a certain response or recognition. So when I learned that my piece, “Endings,” was chosen for the award and that I was asked to perform at the festival, I was both shocked and elated. I still am elated. It feels particularly affirming because “Endings” is a composition that is very personal to me. It was one of the first pieces I’d written that I felt was a true extension of who I am and who I want to be as a composer. To be recognized for my original music and have the opportunity to share it at such a prestigious festival is humbling. Notably, I’ll be sharing the stage with bandmates that have supported me every step of the way throughout the years. That feels truly special.

You're debuting a new collaboration with pianist Fabian Almazan at Newport. What's special about this particular combo? Are you trying out new things you haven't done with your other ensembles?

What I love about this ensemble is that it is open for collaboration. I’ve experienced some of my most profound musical moments that way. In fact, Patrick Booth (tenor sax) joined the band by first sitting in with us on a gig in Northern Michigan. He pushed the music into new spaces by contributing his sound and energy. I’m excited about bringing Fabian into the mix because his music has been inspirational for me as a composer and vocalist.

Patrick, Ben Rolston (bass), Dan Palmer (guitar) and Travis Aukerman (drums) are core members of this project. The band formed six years ago around a shared passion for creative music. I think the reason it continues to grow and develop is a result of our chemistry and support for one another, both on and off the stage. Actually, Travis and I began writing and playing improvised music together back in high school and have continued to this day. Musical relationships like these are rare, and I believe it translates to the music in a way the listener can really tune into.

Your main "axe" is your voice. How does being a vocalist impact the music you write - and would you say that composing has impacted the way you sing?

Composition has absolutely impacted the way that I sing. When I use my voice, I try to see myself within an arrangement; What is my role? How am I contributing to the overall feel? Where do I need to exist in a landscape to reflect the broader picture? My need to push myself as a composer in turn pushes me as a vocalist. It has me looking for ways to stretch the limitations of my voice and use it in varying contexts.

Being a vocalist is part of who I am as a writer. From an early age, I was drawn to voice because I loved lyrics and storytelling. That played a huge role in how I first began to write songs. And though I don’t always include voice or lyrics in a piece, I believe my connection to singing has helped me to “hear” and “feel” music internally as I compose.

As an experienced teacher, what are some of the most effective ways you've found to help your students develop their own unique creative voices?

Something that I’ve been exploring recently is the idea that striving to be yourself is more important than striving to be unique. If you learn to listen to yourself while continuing to push yourself - expand yourself - chances are you will discover what is unique about you. As a teacher, I feel that it’s my responsibility to create an environment in which a student feels that they can take risks, improvise, and accept that failure is a part of growth. I also find ways for all of my students to use their voice in some way, whether they are studying piano, composition, theory or singing. I think there’s something to accepting your own natural voice that can help someone open up to the act of being vulnerable and taking chances.

What's one important lesson you've learned about the business of being a jazz musician that you wish you knew earlier?

The voice is a powerful instrument that can be taken seriously.

When I first started writing songs in grade school, I was influenced by my older siblings, Ben and Sarah, who were both singer-songwriters and artists like Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, Emily Haines, Joni Mitchell, etc. To me, the voice was this beautiful vehicle for lyrics and emotion. I felt great singing because it was a way to express myself directly while I was making songs up at the piano. It completed the songwriting process for me at that age.

In high school, I began to take a huge interest in jazz. I heard artists like The Bad Plus, Brad Mehldau and Ben Monder, and it really opened up my world of music and creating. It made so much sense for me to begin studying vocal Jazz.

As I began taking voice lessons, learning standards, and playing “jazz” gigs, I started to hear all of the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding vocalists. I was made to feel that vocalists were not serious musicians, and in general, couldn’t be. I was treated as an “exception” to the rule. This didn’t necessarily change my path to compose and improvise because I felt an innate need to do that. However, it made me feel less open and even embarrassed at times to be studying voice.

Fortunately, I met Tad Weed, the jazz piano professor at the University of Toledo, and began to study with him in college. He was the first mentor I had in the jazz realm that pushed voice as a serious instrument. We listened to vocal records in his office and worked to expand my singing through harmony and improvisation. Tad reinforced what I already felt - that the voice is a deep, versatile and powerful instrument - and I am truly grateful for that.

You were handpicked to play Newport by The ASCAP Foundation. How would you say ASCAP and the Foundation have impacted your career so far?

First, in a very personal sense, the ASCAP Foundation has given me recognition for who I am in my music and writing. That is incredibly motivating. They have been nothing but supportive and helpful as I continue to develop the business end of my career and prepare for the Newport festival. I am also thankful to have received a monetary grant as part of the award that I plan to use to record my next album, making it more feasible to utilize a larger ensemble and take a new step in my growth as a composer and performer.

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Catch Estar Cohen live at the Newport Jazz Festival’s Storyville Stage on Saturday, August 4 at 12:30. Visit NewportJazz.org for the full lineup.

Visit Estar Cohen online at estarcohenmusic.com.