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Overdue Ovation: Todd Cochran Returns to Jazz and Acoustic Piano

A wandering soul comes back to the genre for the first time in decades with new album

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Todd Cochran (Photo: Erik Topolski)
Todd Cochran (Photo: Erik Topolski)

Like his deliciously complicated mix of classical influences, free-jazz innovation, progressive fusion complexity, angular art rock, quiet-storming R&B, and Black consciousness, the zigs and zags in acoustic/electronic pianist/keyboardist/composer Todd Cochran’s life and work are no easy task to describe, let alone discuss with the enigmatic man himself. 

Whether (too rarely) acting as leader—as he’s now doing again for the first time in decades with the release of the new Then and Again, Here and Now—or working beside a wide range of musical collaborators,  Cochran has been through so many diverse strands of art and thought, multicultural and multiracial, that it’s all become one amorphous, seamless genre, governed only by the Cochran Doctrine.

“That’s an absolutely perfect way of looking at it,” Cochran says with a hearty laugh from his longtime base in the Bay Area. “No matter what I play or who with, I’ve been deeply committed. I was into it. In fact, I call the entire journey ‘The Odyssey and the Oddity.’”

Cochran believes that every part of this journey found him, but it’s worth noting that, growing up in 1950s San Francisco, he was a highly trained child prodigy. Add in artistic parents and a childhood filled with debilitating allergies, and a portrait of isolation and innovation emerges. “Isolation awakened my imaginative mind … I was moving in and out of differing orientations to experience; you really have to be called into that, and those experiences are not always comfortable,” he says. 

Eventually a character emerged, “Bayeté,” a name that the pianist adopted on projects of the ’70s and ’80s. Incorporating the ancient Egyptian word ba (soul), the name represented, in Cochran’s mind, a way to distinguish himself as part of “the flow of enculturation and societal change and empowerment … I was an accidental activist. A race man, yes; the human race. I was open to all that because art was integral to my upbringing, as my life in San Francisco dovetailed with the civil-rights era, the fight for free speech, the counterculture, the Black Arts Movement, the American Conservatory Theatre, and I am a product of those radical traditions … There’s a ring around the world, and music affects that ring.”

Cochran’s “language of gestures” and “focused intentionality” were first heard by a wider audience when he joined saxophonist John Handy’s post-Mingus group in 1968 at age 17; three years later, he became a part of vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson’s quartet. “Playing free music with gifted musicians,” he says, “expanded my growth and thinking about simultaneous webs of music and idea, brought me more and more into the present and allowed me into the concept of time, of being of the moment.”

“Moving to acoustic music and jazz and all that means is, in the most cosmic sense of the word, about consciousness.” 

For Hutcherson’s 1971 album Head On, Cochran not only played piano but also composed and arranged. “Bobby opened the door, and his gift was pretty much beyond something that could be commodified,” he recalls. “The textures, the colors, the deep gravitas, and the emotional range of which he was capable—that four-mallet technique he developed—all reflected his complexity, humor, warmth, and sincerity. Bobby recognized me and my curiosities. I would go to his house with manuscript paper and sharpened pencils three times a day, whether we were rehearsing or not.”

Post-Head On, with Hutcherson now in his band, Cochran recorded his sinewy leader debut, 1972’s Worlds Around the Sun, reissued in 2014 by the Omnivore label. Its creator says it developed out of a “lab situation …. Bobby was my mentor/adviser, but he was also a collaborator to this collective place. Worlds Around the Sun was just a natural outgrowth of all that. That contact for me meant shared emotions and concerns for a healthy human condition. First it’s the ‘Love Train,’ then it’s ‘A Love Supreme.’”

By 1974, Cochran had expanded his keyboard arsenal to include Fender Rhodes, Clavinet, and Moog, used perhaps most tenderly on trombonist Julian Priester’s Love, Love album. From there he moved on to Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta’s first Go project in 1975 with Santana drummer Michael Shrieve and Steve Winwood; two prog-psychedelic albums with Shrieve as Automatic Man in 1976 and 1978; and Peter Gabriel’s second—and most sinister—eponymous solo album in 1978. He also began a long and fruitful relationship with bassist Stanley Clarke that yielded its first recorded results on 1979’s I Wanna Play for You and lasted through the early 2000s.

“I just have the development gene in me,” he says. “I had to move into these other areas and figure out how to do it. I became obsessive about art presented in this way. It’s like an empty chair; how do you develop to the point where you can sit in that chair, authentically? One of the main answers to that was me moving into electronic keyboards and synthesis. I could utilize what I had learned from the orchestral and classical traditions with new textures and colors.”

That same postmodern experience pushed Cochran into the glossy R&B of the 1980s, producing and playing for Aretha Franklin and DeBarge. “This was my version of approaching American roots music,” he says of the period. “Going from Pinetop Perkins to Jelly Roll Morton to Wynton Kelly—that is where I went. It was understanding the juju, the bottle tree, things that were almost ritualistic; the universality of music from people who were enslaved, and out of that comes this continually evolving expression.”

All this time Cochran kept his piano playing in “a safe place,” and after years of electronically oriented session work, he returned to the acoustic piano on 1991’s underrated Todd. While that album was a conscious pivot from his ’80s work, his newest is something else again. Appearing after decades of employment on soundtracks—including TV’s Melrose Place and the Return to Castle Wolfenstein video game—Then and Again, Here and Now is Cochran’s first all-covers collection, starring compositions from Gershwin (“A Foggy Day in London Town”) and Legrand (“You Must Believe in Spring”) to Monk (“Bemsha Swing”). It’s blunt and spacious, and it extends the piano’s musings with as much imagination.  

“Moving to acoustic music and jazz and all that means is, in the most cosmic sense of the word, about consciousness,” Cochran says quietly. “I knew I had always been at my most deeply expressive at the piano. The core of that is language. And the language I feel the most affinity to is that of the endless and wonderful jazz expression.” 

Recommended Listening

Bobby Hutcherson: “At the Source: Eucalyptus” (Head On; Blue Note, 1971)

Bayeté Todd Cochran: “It Ain’t” (Worlds Around the Sun; Prestige, 1972)

Julian Priester/Pepo Mtoto: “Eternal Worlds”(Love, Love; ECM, 1974) 

Automatic Man: “I.T.D. (Interstellar Tracking Devices)” (Automatic Man; Island, 1976)

Juan Martín: “Through the Moving Window” (Through the Moving Window; Novus, 1988)

Bob Watt: “Missing Miles” (I Play French Horn; MSR, 2018)