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Marc Copland: And I Love Her

John Kelman By

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There was a time when Marc Copland was releasing multiple albums every year, sometimes as many as three or four, like in 2009, when the veteran pianist (who began his musical life as a saxophonist) released his second solo piano album, Alone (Pirouet); an intimate duo date with veteran bassist Gary Peacock, Insight (Sketch); and the final entry in Copland's New York Trio triptych of piano trio recordings, Night Whispers (Pirouet).

Times have changed, and while releases under Copland's name are fewer, he remains a busy pianist, not only as a leader but as a co-leader on albums like Sticks and Stones (Kwimu, 2017), an occasional collaboration with Canadian guitarist Roddy Ellias and double bassist Adrian Vedady. But it's his participation in two groups found on the influential Munich label, ECM Records (celebrating its Golden Anniversary this year), that have significantly bolstered his reputation and visibility in recent years.

The first, a trio led by longtime label stalwart Peacock, has released two albums to date, including the recent Tangents (2017). But it was John Abercrombie's final quartet, also responsible for two ECM albums including 2017's Up and Coming (released just seven months before the veteran ECM guitarist passed away in August 2017, age 72), that is most significant in the context of And I Love Her, a trio date that reunites Copland's fellow Abercrombie Quartet partners: double bassist Drew Gress; and Joey Baron, who also plays drums in Peacock's trio.

It's hard to believe that And I Love Her is Copland's first piano trio date as a leader since Some More Love Songs (Pirouet, 2012), the pianist's conceptual follow-up to Some Love Songs (Pirouet, 2005), both featuring longtime Copland collaborator Gress, and drummer Jochen Rueckert.

Still, while Copland's discography is peppered with a great many piano trio releases, and his preference is clearly for smaller, more intimate environs, he's also participated in a great many other contexts, ranging from duo dates like his 2011 Pirouet session with Abercrombie, Speak to Me, to full-on quintet sessions including Five on One (Pirouet, 2010), the sole release by Contact, a short-lived, collaborative quintet that, in addition to Copland, Abercrombie and Gress, also featured saxophonist Dave Liebman and drummer Billy Hart, two others who can also be found as regular collaborators throughout Copland's forty-plus strong discography as a leader/co-leader.

That Copland has chosen to continue, for his first piano trio date in seven years, with the other members of Abercrombie's last group is a testimony to the profound communication of that quartet and, now, the trio that remains. Of course, it's no surprise to hear the elegant, in-the-moment compositional spontaneity of Copland in concert with Gress and Baron. The pianist's relationship with the drummer may only date back six years but Baron's forty-plus year career, working with a great many artists including guitarists Bill Frisell and Jakob Bro, saxophonist John Zorn, and pianists Steve Kuhn and Enrico Pieranunzi, has been relentlessly defined by stylistic diversity and an uncanny ability to quickly and flexibly intuit what is happening around him musically and fit into any context with seemingly effortless and natural ease.

Copland has been working with Gress for much longer, dating back to the pianist's 1996 Denon release, Second Look, a quartet date that, also including Abercrombie and Hart and followed a dozen years later with Another Place (Pirouet), would presage Abercrombie's last group (with Baron replacing Hart) by seventeen years. Like Baron, Gress' four decades in music have found the bassist demonstrating similar pliancy and keen-eared, lightning-quick chemistry with artists as diverse as the unconventional The Claudia Quintet, modern mainstream-driven pianist Fred Hersch and latter-day John Coltrane-informed drummer Franklin Kiermyer, to trumpeter Dave Douglas' early string-driven quintet, M-Base progenitor/saxophonist Steve Coleman and more cerebral, envelope-pushing trumpeter Ralph Alessi.

All of this contextual background to say, simply, that And I Love Her functions at a level of empathy—telepathy, even—to which many groups aspire but few manage to achieve. Take the album opener, a fairly radical re-imaging of Mongo Santamaria's classic "Afro Blue," first recorded by the percussionist when he was a member of vibraphonist Cal Tjader's sextet in 1959 but rendered far more famous by saxophone giant John Coltrane, who first recorded the tune four years later, in a significantly altered form, for his Live at Birdland (Impulse!, 1964).

What's remarkable about this compelling album opener is that it was never planned to be a part of And I Love Her's recording session, which took place in August, 2017 at New York City's Samurai Hotel, captured with remarkably pristine and crystalline clarity by engineer David Stoller and subsequently mixed and mastered, a year later, with similar attention to detail by David Darlington. "We were warming up," Copland says [in the press sheet], "and as so often happens, Joey started a groove, in this case a 6/8 thing....and I heard 'Afro Blue' in my head, which I'm not sure I'd ever played before."

While the original warm-up wasn't used, the take that began just a few minutes later is the one found on And I Love Her, with Gress delivering a captivating opening statement, bolstered by Baron's soft snare and delicate cymbal work. A minute into the six-minute track, Gress spontaneously cues Copland by playing the first three notes of the familiar melody, twice. With the trio now fully engaged, another minute passes as it gradually finds its way to the proper form, though it's far from the two-over-three cross rhythm that drove Coltrane's version.

Instead, Baron's refined, less-than-overt pulse—cymbal-driven initially, but gradually layered over the rest of his kit—not only eschews Coltrane's characteristic boil but avoids even a hint of simmer and is, instead, a perfect example of implied rhythm. As has long been a Copland signature, the pianist reharmonizes the well-known melody with characteristic harmonic ambiguity, opening the song up for a fully engaged, three-way conversation. The trio feels more like a single organism rather than a collaboration of three individuals, though their personalities are a clear foundation, with each player periodically and organically moving to the fore here and there, only to dissolve back into the unified whole that drives this most unusual and unique take on a jazz standard.

"Afro Blue" may represent the first time Copland has thought about, let alone played, this Santamaria/Coltrane classic, but this isn't the first time he's visited Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island," first heard on the then-Miles Davis pianist's 1964 Blue Note date, Empyrean Isles. Still, with his first reading appearing on a 2001 Steeplechase duo date with trumpeter Tim Hagans (Between the Lines), followed by a 2003 trio-plus session for Hatology, where the pianist's regular trio with Gress and Rueckert is fleshed out, on this song, by a guest appearance from the late, great saxophonist Michael Brecker (Marc Copland And ...), Copland has clearly evolved significantly in the ensuing years, rendering this a far open-ended version...and one with an unexpectedly rarefied, atmospheric coda.

Still, if his reinvention of "Cantaloupe Island" isn't as funky as Hancock's, it still manages to groove ineffably and reference the original's pulse in a way that only Copland can, with Gress acting more of an anchor while, at the same time, infusing it with the same interpretive freedom as his trio mates. The form and melody are both there, including the shots at the end of each section (albeit more delicately delivered), and Copland's harmonies refer, at times, to Hancock's groove-enticing voicings. Still, if Hancock has always been something of a poetic player, Copland is even more so, with all manner of surprising re-harmonizations and ear-cocking dissonances. The song is also a feature for a brief but impressive drum solo, with Baron's free-wheeling approach so joyful that it's not hard to imagine that his photo in the CD booklet was shot right at this moment.

Gress' Figment" follows and, like the bassist's relatively rare but impressive releases as a leader, including 2005's 7 Black Butterflies (Premonition) and 2013's The Sky Inside (Pirouet), demonstrates his more sophisticated leanings. It's a dark-hued piece whose innate complexities are rendered less obvious by the trio's clearly relaxed stance at expounding upon it. Copland's strength as a motivic improviser is particularly notable here, whether it's a descending reiteration of the same intervals or his ability to take a linear phrase and build upon it by subsequently harmonizing it in multiple, unanticipated ways.

Generally a less-than-prolific writer who clearly favors quality over quantity, And I Love Her includes two Copland compositions. "Might Have Been" is a relatively new piece that begins rubato, its initial theme surprisingly hummable but assuming an even more lyrical disposition once the trio introduces its gentle yet clear rhythm. Again, largely driven by Baron's nuanced cymbal work, it's also bolstered by Gress, who manages to straddle a fine line between anchoring the piece and acting as a melodic foil for Copland during the pianist's gracefully formed solo, before taking a turn of his own, midway through the composition, that might be surprising in its inner sense of swing if it weren't for Baron alternating between implicit and explicit swing throughout. Indeed, Copland clearly comes from the jazz tradition, but in his unique approach to harmony, melody and rhythm, that tradition may often seem somewhat distanced. Still, it only takes little attention to realize that it's closer than it might seem.

Copland revisits "Day and Night," the opening track on Better By Far (InnerVoiceJazz, 2017), where the pianist, Gress and Baron are joined by Ralph Alessi. It is, as the press sheet states, a relatively simple piece but, as Copland responds, "musicians I play with seem to like it, as it's comfortable to blow on." In addition to a characteristically oblique yet, at the same time, both melodic and swinging solo from the pianist, "Day and Night" (And I Love Her's longest track) also provides plenty of space for Gress to deliver his most impressive feature of the set, while Baron, almost always a joyous player, is positively buoyant and ebullient as he takes his most dynamic solo of the set. Indeed, Copland's groups may be better defined as elegant, graceful and understated, but with "Day and Night," his current trio not only simmers, it actually boils over on more than a few occasions.

A gorgeously altered rendition of The Beatles' classic ballad, And I Love Her's title track, still remains relatively faithful to the original, even if the pianist's solo takes considerable liberties, moving the original's straightforward changes into more enigmatic territory. As the song nears its close and Copland and Gress reiterate the the two-chord vamp that also serves as its introduction, Baron's relatively spare but effective solo, with the pianist taking the harmonies even further out, twists and turns the pulse so significantly that it's only when the pianist returns to a more recognizable harmonic underpinning that everything magically comes together to bring the song to a conclusive ending.

"Joey's really good at throwing down a groove that opens a door," Copland writes, and the four-minute collective improv, "Mitzi & Jonny," is a perfect example. As close to funk as this trio gets, it's still remarkable to hear both Baron and Gress suddenly dropping out in tandem twelve seconds before the two-minute mark, leaving the pianist alone for two bars before picking up its quirkily unpredictable yet booty-shaking groove for the balance of a piece that also demonstrates how the pianist can, when called upon, turn from a softer, more refined touch to something firmer and more potent.

The album closes with an open reading of Cole Porter's "You Do Something to Me," an early song from the 1929 Broadway musical comedy, Fifty Million Frenchmen and released as a film two years later. Often considered a "tender prequel" to Porter's first popular song, "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love," and subsequently recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald to Bryan Ferry and Sinéad O'Connor, Copland's trio reshapes the ballad into an expansively swinging nine-minute tour de force, finishing the album in an utterly freewheeling fashion where the interplay between the pianist, Gress and Baron is at its euphoric best, demonstrating in no uncertain terms how this whole truly exceeds the sum of its parts.

But it's the album's virtual centerpiece, "Love Letter," that represents And I Love Her's most poignant and bittersweet moment. Written and performed regularly by Abercrombie before he passed, the song didn't even have a title, which Copland subsequently provided. That it was recorded, along with the rest of And I Love Her, the same month that the guitarist died (thus either while he was ill in hospital, or during/not long after his passing) makes it all the more evocative and meaningful.

Abercrombie loved waltzes, and the trio's interpretation of this characteristically refined waltz not only stands as the sole recording of this near-final Abercrombie tune; it almost seems as though the ghost of the guitarist can be felt, comping gently in the background while adding the occasional phrase that, as ever, defined him as a player so perfectly matched with the members of a group that now carry on as Copland's trio.

Copland and Abercrombie not only dated back decades in their collaborations as pianist and guitarist, but even further back to when Copland was saxophonist Marc Cohen, playing electric alto saxophone alongside Abercrombie, bassist Clint Houston and drummer Jeff Williams on the free-fusion of Friends (Oblivion, 1973). And so, as the jazz world was hit hard with Abercrombie's passing, it's likely that few felt his loss as strongly as Copland. And with Baron's relationship with the guitarist dating back to Cat 'n' Mouse (ECM, 2002), and Gress' recorded Abercrombie appearances beginning with Within a Song (ECM, 2012), there's little doubt that their grief was also especially profound.

Still, beyond grief come memories and legacies, and there's little doubt that Copland, Gress and Baron share in both of them. Now an inimitable entity unto itself, Copland's trio is, of course, first and foremost a continuation of the pianist's longstanding evolution, one which largely focused on pianist Bill Evans's innovations of the mid-'50s as a starting point, but was also imbued with the subsequent harmonic sophistication of both Abercrombie and guitarist/pianist Ralph Towner. Still, as he's continued to hone, over the past thirty-plus years, a most personal approach to his instrument, his writing and his ensembles, Copland continues to impress and, most importantly, surprise.

As a return to the piano trio format, And I Love Her stands with earlier trio recordings like Haunted Heart (Hatology, 2010), not to mention solo high points including Time Within Time (Hatology, 2005) and his last quartet date to foreshadow Abercrombie's final group, Another Place. It's a clear milestone in a career that, with Copland now in his early seventies, seems to be moving from strength to strength, and from success to success. The only hope is that the increased visibility brought through his ECM recordings with other leaders will be reflected by interest in his own work.

It may be on a small, independent upstart label, but And I Love Her (the label's first) possesses the same kind of attention to detail and clarity as any of the pianist's work for the larger Munich label. That he's yet to be recruited to release an album under his own name for ECM Records remains a curiosity; but until that wrong is set right, with a sublime, finely detailed and intimately engaging album like And I Love Her, Copland continues to hone his reputation as one of the past thirty years' finest pianists, composers, bandleaders and musical conceptualists.

Track Listing: Afro Blue; Cantaloupe Island; Figment; Might Have Been; Love Letter; Day and Night; And I Love Her; Mitzi & Jonny; You Do Something to Me.

Personnel: Marc Copland: piano; Drew Gress: bass; Joey Baron: drums.

Title: And I Love Her | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Illusions Mirage

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