Photo credit: Francesco Prandoni
Philadelphia-born pianist MARC COPLAND will be making a rare visit to London for the UK launch of a new solo piano album Nightfall, playing on the club’s new Steinway. Copland, who has worked closely with musicians such as John Abercrombie, Ralph Towner and Gary Peacock – musicians whose compositions are featured on the album – gave more of the background and looks forward to the launch in this email interview with Sebastian:
LondonJazz News: What was your own journey into music?
Marc Copland: The first time I remember hearing jazz was on the television at home. It was a Voice of America broadcast of Count Basie’s band, and they were playing Swingin’ Shepherd Blues. I loved it, but I didn’t know why. There I was, five years old and dancing around the room, and the melody, which was played by two flutes—maybe Frank Wess and/or Frank Foster—just killed me. I got to work with both of them much later, which was kind of nice.
LJN: You are originally from Philadelphia, and Mike Brecker was your close contemporary. Was he a close friend?
MC: Mike and I went to the same high school and sat next to each other in the high school jazz band, the normal 18-piece variety, and we were hanging out all the time. Before I’d met Mike, I had spent a year being a big Desmond/Brubeck fan—especially Desmond. It was thru Mike (and Mike’s saxophone teacher) that I became aware of Miles Davis and Cannonball, and started playing with some local musicians who were very good. The two of us remained close through our adult lives. We taught each other a lot, and even though are personal aesthetics were quite different, we really saw eye to eye and most musical issues, and confided in each other over the years. I always knew I’d get honest and good advice or opinions from him, and vice-versa.
LJN: And other Philadelphia music connections?
I also have ties with Mike’s brother Randy, Eric Gravatt, and Drew Gress. Drew was too young for me to know him in Philly—I met him later in Washington DC during my time there, and he’s been a mainstay of my bands for years. Eric and I became quite close in our late teens. We were in a band together with Mike and/or Randy, depending on who was around. I was very impressed by the strength of Eric’s character. Randy’s recorded and played in two or three of my bands, and remains kind of like an extended family member.
There’s another Philly link that saxophonists, and Philly classical music nerds, will appreciate. My Dad had a friend in Philly who ran a music school for disadvantaged kids, named Sol Schoenbach, who was for years principal bassoonist with the Philadelphia orchestra. Sol gave us a couple of referrals which were very helpful. One was to study compostion and harmony with Romeo Cascarino, a Philly composer. Romeo was my first real harmony and composition teacher, and was able to help unlock some of the mysteries of voice leading. The other referral was to Ray Hyman, who was a retiree who made the saxophone strap that was all the rage for twenty years—players still ask me if it’s possible to find them. Ray gave me one lesson, and then sent me up to see Joe Allard in NYC, who was the ultimate “chops doctor” for reed instruments. I went to him in early June with almost no sound, and by the end of the summer I could get any sound out of the horn I wanted. It was really life changing. I told Mike about him, and pretty soon everybody was seeing him. Of course I left that all behind when I switched to piano, but some of Joe’s basic tenets—relaxation, keeping things loose to enable the fullest tone production—do translate to playing piano.
LJN: You will have a London launch for the solo piano album Nightfall. There is a concept behind this album?
MC: For me, concept albums often feel artificial. I definitely feel a unifying kind of theme to many, if not most, of my albums, but it’s like my “arrangements” of standards—they’re not premeditated, the concept grows organically,sometimes on the spur of the moment, through the act of creating the music. Part of the concept of Nightfall is in the tunes. The composers– Abercrombie, La Faro, Peacock, and Towner—all have a certain something that really pulls me in. I also there is a strong sense of reflection on this recording—as in “thinking about something deeply.”
LJN: Some of your solo work seems to strongly recall Maurice Ravel…
MC: Any music that uses harmony and texture to expand the coloristic possibilities of the music to better express feeling is of interest to me, and of course Ravel fits right in.
LJN: You recorded in the South of France / how were the sessions?
MC: La Buissonne is a great studio that I know well from my recordings there in the early 2000’s. I wanted to bring Philippe Ghielmetti on board to produce—he had recorded my first solo album, Poetic Motion, there in 2002 for his Sketch label. These were the right place and the right guy for this project.
LJN: The opening track recalls Bill Evans – he’s inescapable, right?
MC: An important thing about Bill and about Herbie is the expansion of the possibilities of voice leading, which is so important that it’s part of the meaning behind the name of my label. Jade Visions is about more than Bill, however. It’s a very heavy tune. Scott LaFaro had written it not long before the Vanguard date, and on that famous Sunday they recorded two or three versions. Two weeks later, this incredible bassist and composer was dead, killed in a tragic wintertime car accident. The tune, and these famous trio versions of it, became the epitaph not just of the composer, but of the bassist, and of this particular trio—all of which were very special. I believe it was the last tune this trio played together.
It was Ghielmetti’s suggestion to record it, and it felt more than a little daunting. It’s always the same with Philippe, he suggests that I interpret a tune that’s very heavy, and so well known that to attempt another version of it feels like defiling a church—and I’m immediately gripped by fear and anxiety, wondering how I’ll pull it off. It was like when he suggested “Spartacus” at the Poetic Motion session in 2002, and it was like that again when he suggest Jade Visions at the Nightfall session in 2016. There was no time to prepare. In the case of Jade Visions it was even worse, I didn’t even remember the tune, had never really worked with it— but I figured it out that night in my sleep. The only way to proceed the next day was to reach back and connect to the vibe of the music—that’s what I usually do with anything, but here it became even more imperative. The remarkable thing is that I had no idea that John Abercrombie would be gone about a year later—yet some of what I feel about John seems to be in this track as well.
LJN: Two of the tunes on Nightfall are by John Abercrombie? His departure is so reecent…And the death of John Taylor is also still sinking in….?
MC: You’re talking about two ECM icons, of course. John Abercrombie was my very close friend and collaborator for some 47 years. It’s hard to express what a loss like that entails, I am barely beginning to process it. Two of John’s tunes are on the new solo album. John got to hear it about a month before he became ill, during our successful—and last—tour together, in duo. I’m glad I was able to share it with him, but of course I had no idea he wouldn’t be here for the release.
LJN: You also have three of your own compositions on Nightfall. What were the inspirations for those?
MC: Nightfall is a new tune that kind of composed itself—I just sat back and watched it come into being. Many of the phrases in the form are kind of open, so that the length of particular progressions is not fixed. I had to find a different way to play in order for it to make sense.
String Thing is an off-the-cuff improvisation, coming after a discussion with engineer Gerard de Haro about some folk guitar styles. LST was a staple of the Abercrombie band for a few years. It was nice to use the solo format to delve deeper into the tune’s harmonies.
LJN: Inner Voice is your own label – presumably the name of the label is no accident…?
There’s another meaning to the label name besides the musical one. It’s important for an artist to listen to and respect his or her inner voice. A lot of this has to do with heart. We spoke of Bill Evans–Bill played with a really big heart.
LJN: There is another – quartet – album coming out concurrently of your own compositions – in the first and last tracks I definitely feel the shadow of Kenny Wheeler…What are your London connections / memories / favourite London musical compadres / London habits in and outside music?
MC: This answer could go on days. I first got to know London in my early twenties. I was here three times in fourteen months, working each time for two or three weeks—as staff musician with the Joffrey Ballet and with Chico Hamilton’s band. On my days off I’d go around looking for jam sessions, and met Stan Sulzmann, who took me under his wing and introduced me to Kenny, John T, and all the other players. Stan and I remain close—he’s such a terrific musician — we’ve recorded a few times together, and hope to do so again. I didn’t know JT as well, but I loved his playing. And Kenny was an obvious choice for John and me when we wanted to try expanding our duo to a trio; we ended up recording twice as a unit and toured several times.
It’s interesting that you allude to Kenny in speaking about the quartet album Better By Far, in which the trumpet chair is held down by Ralph Alessi. Ralph is a terrific player who can do a lot of things, but I think he’s got a very different direction from Kenny. I asked him to be in my band on John Abercrombie’s recommendation, and also after hearing his Baida album, which felt like music making at a very high level. His musicianship, his ears, and the attitude he brings to the music—very selfless, just like Drew and Joey—are all just what I was looking for. But I was unconsciously kind of hearing another Kenny. It took me a minute to shift gears and feel how to play with Ralph—but he’s so darn good, of course it worked. The heads of some of my slower tunes from this album probably reflect the influence on me of Kenny’s sound….we did work together with Abercrombie quite a bit.
Marc Copland Solo at Pizza Express Dean Street -on 29 October – BOOKINGS