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Watch the five finalists of the 2023 American Pianists Awards, in concert at Yamaha Studio NYC

2023 American Pianists Awards Finalists
The 2023 American Pianists Awards finalists: Isaiah Thompson, Thomas Linger, Caelan Cardello, Esteban Castro and Paul Cornish.

The Cole Porter Fellowship, presented by the American Pianists Association every four years, is one of the most prestigious and consequential honors available to an emerging jazz pianist. The next winner will come from among the five extraordinary finalists — Caelan Cardello, Esteban Castro, Paul Cornish, Thomas Linger and Isaiah Thompson — who recently joined us for a performance and conversation at Yamaha Studio NYC.

I was honored to host the evening, not only as an admirer of these gifted young pianists but also as a longtime observer of the American Pianists Awards. Just over a decade ago, I served on the jury that awarded the Cole Porter Fellowship to Aaron Diehl. In subsequent editions, the honor went to Sullivan Fortner and Emmet Cohen. That's the imposing level of artistry we're talking about, and this current crop did not disappoint.

We're proud to share this video of the concert, which begins with welcoming remarks by John Newcott, Director of Individual Giving at WBGO; yours truly, WBGO's Director of Editorial Content; Bonnie Barrett, Director of Yamaha Artist Services, Inc.; and Peter Mraz, President and CEO of the APA. Then we're off to the races with the finalists, each of whom joins me for a brief conversation before performing a selection of his choice on a new-model Yamaha CFX that, at Barrett explains, is hot off the assembly line.

First up is Caelan Cardello — fresh off his 22nd birthday and his graduation from the jazz program at William Paterson, where he studied with the late Harold Mabern, among others. He chose to perform a classic Billy Strayhorn ballad, "Star-Crossed Lovers."

Paul Cornish, next up, hails from Houston, TX, where he attended the same high school program that produced pianists Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, Helen Sung and James Francies. He now lives in Los Angeles, where he attended the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz Performance. He chose to play Geri Allen's "Unconditional Love."

I welcomed Esteban Castro by noting that he's no stranger to competition — having won the Montreux Jazz Piano Solo Competition at 13, and the Jacksonville Jazz Piano Competition the following year. Now at Juilliard, Castro exudes a philosophical calm as a competitor. He shared his version of Cole Porter's "You're the Top."

Thomas Linger hails from Waynesville, NC, where (as he readily admits) there isn't anything resembling a jazz scene. But he had a great experience at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and has been making his name on the scene in New York. Alone among the finalists, Linger played an original composition, "Crystal Cave."

Our final pianist on the program is Isaiah J. Thompson, who may be familiar to the WBGO audience; he performed in our studio back in 2017, when he was still at Juilliard. (Before that, he took part in both Jazz House Kids and NJPAC's Jazz For Teens.) Thompson shared his version of "Hob Nob With Brother Bob," by Buddy Montgomery.

I hope you enjoy this program as much as I did — keeping in mind that it's not just the first-prize winner who we'll be hearing more from in the near future. That said, the American Pianists Competition finals will be held next April in Indianapolis, IN. We'll be sure to keep you posted in the months to come.

Videography: Rob Davidson. Audio engineer: Aaron Ross.

Additional thanks to Peter Mraz and Joel Harrison at the APA, Bonnie Barrett from Yamaha, and John Newcott from WBGO.