Feature/Interview

Debut album from septet Ensemble C, led by pianist Claire Cope

London-based pianist/composer Claire Cope can’t wait for travelling to be restored as an everyday option, especially for touring musicians. As the name of her septet’s debut album, Small World, might imply, in normal circumstances Claire is an inveterate traveller. She spoke to Rob Adams about the album.

The album’s title track celebrates the irony that the world has so many very different cultures that share essentially the same goals and Claire’s own travels, including several trips to Kenya, as well as those of others, including eighth century Chinese poet Du Fu, inform her compositions.

“I was also inspired by the power of human connection and our common hopes,” says London-based Claire, who studied piano at the Royal Northern College of Music. “But I wanted to focus on strong melodies, too, especially melodies shared by a voice and horns, and to work with some of my favourite musicians.”

Claire’s previous recording experience under her own name was an EP, entitled Lines, that she released with her trio on the Manchester-based Efpi label in 2011. That same year, as well as leading her trio at Manchester and London jazz festivals and the BBC Proms, she won the John Ireland prize and the Principal’s Prize for Improvisation at RNCM. She was also playing regularly with the RNCM Big Band by then and so was already beginning to think about composing for the larger instrumentation of the septet with which she recorded Small World.

Claire Cope (centre) with Ensemble C bandmates, L-R: Brigitte Beraha, Jack Davies, Rob Cope, Jon Ormston, Ed Babar and Tom Varrall. Photo Credit: Jake Walker

“I had the sound of the band in my head for quite a long time beforehand,” she says. “I knew the instruments I wanted to write for but when I moved from Manchester to London it took a while to settle into the scene down here and to reach the stage where I felt confident enough to lead a bigger band. My husband, Rob, who plays sax in the band, and I talked a lot about the idea of the septet. We agreed that it was important to find the right people, and we were able to do that. Some of the band I’d worked with before, others I hadn’t, but the blend felt right as soon as we started working together.”

Joining Rob Cope in the front line are trumpeter Jack Davies, an experienced big band leader and talented composer, and singer Brigitte Beraha, whose way of improvising, especially in the group Babelfish, has made a big impression on Claire.

“A lot of music coloured my thinking – Mike Walker’s Madhouse and the Whole Thing There album, John Escreet’s recent work, Iain Ballamy’s All Men Amen and pianists such as Zoe Rahman – but one of the things I was most interested in exploring was how Brigitte’s voice and the two horns could operate as a kind of mini ensemble within the ensemble,” says Claire. “I also wanted to explore the textural variety and versatility a septet offers.”

Just as the instrumentation of the overall septet offers versatility, so, too, does the rhythm section. Guitarist Tom Varrall’s work ranges from Jamie Cullum’s band to his own free improvising group and Jon Ormston, on drums, and Ed Babar, who doubles on bass guitar and double bass, bring experience across a range of musical styles.

Claire’s own playing has been influenced by pianists she met as a student, including the late John Taylor, Gwilym Simcock and Nikki Iles, and her composing experience includes writing the original piano score for husband Rob’s 2019 film about jazz trumpeter Richard Turner, Richard Turner – A Life in Music.

“I learned a lot from that and I’ve found real inspiration immersing myself in all of the new music coming from the London jazz scene,” she says. “Laura Jurd, Elliot Galvin and Snowpoet have been particularly inspiring. Ultimately though, it’s your own voice that you want to present as a composer.”

Ensemble C Small World cover image

On Small World Claire channels experiences including the warmth of spirit she found in the people living in struggle and hardship in the slums of Kibera in Nairobi. Sea of Tranquility came directly from watching and listening to Damien Chazelle’s biopic of Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, First Man, with Justin Hurwitz’s soundscape emphasising the vastness of unexplored space. And Travelling Again is a setting of Chinese poet Du Fu’s image of a weary traveller finding joy in the beauty of his surroundings.

“I’m really excited to be releasing the album,” she says. “I know we’re living through strange times but the overall mood of Small World is one of optimism and the sense that we should live in the moment and make the most of all of life’s opportunities. I hope it’s not too long before we’re, as Du Fu’s poem says, travelling again and can take this music out to audiences around the country.”

LINK: Preview and purchase the album

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