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Benjamin Koppel: Curiosity Won't Kill This Cat

R.J. DeLuke BY

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That's always been my thing: to try learn as much as possible and be inspired by as much as possible, from anything and everything.
—Banjamin Koppel
Benjamin Koppel is an extraordinary Danish musician from an illustrious music family. He is all about music—of just about any kind. He's always absorbing it, discovering what there is to derive from it. A kind of restless desire to explore envelops him. He simplifies it in his own words: he's curious. It comes naturally to him.

The alto saxophonist is intelligent and unassuming. His influences are broad, but they start with his family. Koppel, a stellar player and renowned composer, is the grandson of noted Danish classical composer Herman D. Koppel. His father, Anders Koppel, is a well known and successful Hammond organ player and a composer. His sister, Marie Carmen Koppel, is a soulful singer who sounds more like she grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, or Macon, Georgia, than northern Europe.

Koppel too, can be soulful as well as steeped in jazz. He has a sweet, full tone that comes more out of his heroes Cannonball Adderley and Johnny Hodges than, say, John Coltrane (whom he also admires). His approach is thoughtful, not manic, and he glides effortlessly from phrase to phrase. He swings. He's soulful. But he pours out blazing bebop licks, quick and smooth. His superb playing has put him in the company of Kenny Werner, Jim Hall, Joe Lovano, Scott Colley, Miroslav Vitous, Randy Brecker, David Sanchez, Sheryl Crow to name a few.

"I always enjoyed practicing. I always enjoyed producing projects. Inventing stuff," Koppel says from his home in Denmark where he spends much time these days due to the coronavirus pandemic. "I would always be inventing when I was a kid. I invented family games. I invented a whole world. I invented a language for that world. I was always an inventor. I use all that in my music. I always invented different projects because I was, and still am, all about the possibilities in music. I'm always searching for new ways to become wiser and a better saxophonist."

With calm enthusiasm, he notes, "I'm always on fire trying to build up new things. I can't help it. It's a burning desire to keep on doing it."

And build things he certainly does. He released two CDs in 2020 and is already working on four that will come out this year. He has jazz groups and plays classical, pop, R&B, folkloric music and almost anything in between. As a composer, he writes in those genres but has taken on large scale projects that might make a person wonder how they came out of a jazz musician. Part of the answer is that he is more than a jazz musician.

"I've always played different kinds of music," he says. "I grew up with an equal amount of Ellington, Bartok and Beatles records in my parents' record collection. My father is a Hammond organ player and a composer. He had a band named Bazaar when I was a kid. They played a lot of world music. I grew up listening equally to pop and gospel music. I played a lot of gospel music too. Also, Egyptian folk music like Umm Kulthum (an Egyptian singer, songwriter and actress), who was an Arabian goddess. A lot of Cuban music. Music from all over the world. Balkan music. Jazz became a frame for me when I started playing the saxophone when I was 12 or 13. But I love all kinds of music and I couldn't pick one genre over another. That's always been my thing: To try learn as much as possible and be inspired by as much as possible, from anything and everything."

As a composer, he wrote music based on the Koyoto Protocol, an international document developed through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It deals with committing industrialized countries to limit and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with agreed upon individual targets. The same man also wrote original music for a new version of "Romeo and Juliet" and is in the process of developing a major work inspired by and focusing on the "White Buses," a harrowing—and successful—operation undertaken by the Swedish Red Cross and the Danish government in the spring of 1945 to rescue concentration camp inmates in areas under Nazi control and transport them to Sweden.

That is a pallet of many colors, to say the least.

The recordings released in 2020 are both stellar, showcasing his jazz and funk facets. They are on Unit Records. Both are double-CD packages. The Art of the Quartet is a hardcore jazz album, recorded in 2015 with pianist Werner, bassist Colley and drum icon Jack DeJohnette. The Ultimate Soul & Jazz Revue is a live recording from 2019 in Copenhagen; a delightful romp combining funk, R&B and jazz with a great band including fusion master Brecker, Colley, funk meister Bernard Purdie and keyboardist Jacob Christoffersen, augmented by other European musicians.

Koppel has been working closely with Werner for about 15 years in different configurations. It began with the duet album Walden (Cowbell Music, 2009), named after Walden Pond, the Henry David Thoreau book from 1854. Koppel produces a summer and winter jazz festival in Copenhagen and Werner has played a lot with him there, with musicians like Jim Hall, John Abercrombie, Al Foster, Chris Potter and Dave Douglas. The pair was also involved in Koppel's ambitious The Kyoto Protocol & Other Climate Considerations (Tiger Records, 2015).

"It was the most important paper in the history of mankind if you ask me," he says of the Koyoto Protocol. "because it was all about how to save the planet. Or not. It's a legislative piece of paper which nobody had read and nobody understood. So I put it to music in a way to make it accessible to people. I brought Kenny into that project."

He has played with Colley for about 11 years, including in a trio with drummer Brian Blade.

As a youngster, Koppel actually started out on the drums and Purdie was one of his favorites. "When I began playing saxophone, one of the albums that I came across, one of my all-time favorite saxophone rhythm and blues records, was King Curtis—Live at Filmore West. There's also an iconic live recording from that concert with Aretha Franklin. The opening act was King Curtis. Bernard Purdie plays the most beautiful soul drums of all time on that. That was one of my biggest inspirations. Then I got to know him. For a few years we talked about working together. Then finally in 2019, it happened. We played a couple of different projects together, including this one."

Purdie played on Brecker's first album,Score, (Solid State, 1969). For Colley, it was a first playing with the funky drummer but "it was the perfect match," says Koppel. He brought in Danish keyboard player Christoffersen, "who's an excellent player... That was a great group of people who love soul music, love jazz, love good vibes and excellent playing. So that became an outlet for us in terms of getting back to the rhythm and blues roots of jazz."

Koppel adds, "We had so much fun making it. It was amazing. If it hadn't been for COVID-19, we would have toured (in 2020). Hopefully, when things settle down and the vaccine comes through and corona is gone, we will return with this group because everybody wants to play again."

The Art of the Quartet is a strong, full-on jazz statement. Werner and DeJohnette bring in compositions and Colley contributes one. There are also collaborative tunes with all the players as co-writers. The interplay among the four is superior. They are sometimes abstract, but never lost. "Free," an improv as the title implies, is actually conversational. The lone standard, "If I Should Lose You" is adventuresome, but true to the song. "Sada," a Werner ballad, allows Koppel to sob a bit, with great effect. The drummer's "Ahmad the Terrible," dating back to his Special Edition band and the recording Album Album (ECM, 1984) is a joyous, angular romp where the band explores together, telling a hip, post-bop story.

Koppel hadn't played with DeJohnette before. "But I knew him. He's a truly unique musician and artist. He heard some of my music and liked it very much. He wanted to be a part of this group. Everybody was participating on equal terms... It became a collective thing, which was a beautiful experience. This particular album is one of the few projects that I know of that has no ego. It's lacking ego so much it's really relieving. Everybody is there for the sake of the music and not for themselves. I hope that comes through in the music."

Koppel shows how much he can burn, with scintillating bebop runs in his arsenal—thick, floating poignant coloring at other times.

The Ultimate Soul & Jazz Revue kicks off with a smokin' version of the Buddy Miles tune "Them Changes" and slides into a "Manteca." This version isn't Latin like author Dizzy Gillespie's version. It's "let's get down" funk, with Brecker delicious and soulful. Koppel does not take a back seat at all, pouring our sweet licks, including a snippet of Miles Davis' popular "Jean Pierre" melody in the process. Koppel has three originals and other songs come from soul masters like Curtis Mayfield ("Move On Up"), Stevie Wonder, ("Don't You Worry About a Thing") and Sly Stone ("Sing A Simple Song"). Marie Koppel, keeping it in the family, digs in and takes no prisoners on Otis Redding's "Respect." She's powerful. "Con Alma and Sax" shows Koppel at his expressive best, each warm phrase rolling into the next. Brecker's solo is bliss, soaring and passionate. Christoffersen follows with his own sweet, ethereal statement.

The solos throughout are sparkling. Brecker is in great form. Purdie, the drummers' drummer in that genre, provides a rock solid groove, tastefully decorating when needed. Colley is with him every step of the way and Christoffersen shows hot skills.

While Koppel listened to and studied the American great jazz saxophonists—and eventually played with outstanding musicians from the U.S. and Europe—he learned the essence of the music and what is important beyond notes, beyond style, beyond technique.

"I try to be myself always, he says. "I played the drums when I was a kid for seven years. I thought I would be a drummer. Steve Gadd was my hero. And Bernard Purdie when I was five, six, seven years old. My drum teacher was amazing. He was an old jazz player. Then I discovered the saxophone when I was 12. Then I discovered Sonny Rollins. Saxophone Colossus and those albums. That was my music. I told my drum teacher, 'I'm quitting drums now. I want to play saxophone and be the next Sonny Rollins.' He looked at me and said, 'Fuck that. The world doesn't need that. The world needs Benjamin Koppel.' That was a great lesson. Maybe I shouldn't try to learn all these licks and learn other people's solos. I just have to be myself.

"That was one of the wisest things anyone has ever told me in connection with music. Try to be yourself at all times. If I play with an Egyptian trio or Jewish folk music or a symphony orchestra, I just try to be me. That goes for the jazz albums as well."

His first alto influence was Johnny Hodges. Then Earl Bostic, who was on the R&B charts in the late '40s and 50's. "He was one of the most amazing players, technically, as well as his phrasing. He was original. All the jazz players came to him whenever they wanted to learn something or had questions about the saxophone. The most amazing players were in Bostic's bands. John Coltrane was there. Benny Golson. Stanley Turrentine, Tommy Turrentine. Blue Mitchell. Jaki Byard. Dexter Gordon's hero was Earl Bostic. He's one of my major heroes. Then came Benny Carter. Then came Charlie Parker, then Cannonball, then Coltrane. And all the rest."

Naturally, with professional musicians in the house he was surrounded by music as a child. He also liked to sing and for a time there were those who tried to push him into being an opera singer because he had a big, full voice. "But when I discovered saxophone, that became my voice."

He practiced incessantly. At about age 15, he formed two bands, a jazz quartet and soul/R&B group that included his sister. They played all over Copenhagen, often for the love of it. If a small place didn't have money to pay them, they played anyway. "That's how we learned to play. We played more than 200 dates a year for a few years in a row."

"Then I was fortunate enough to meet a lot of older and much better musicians than myself early on. For instance, the great drummer Alex Riel. He's a living legend. He's now 80, but he was the house drummer at Jazzhus Montmartre, the great jazz club in Copenhagen. He played with all kinds of people. Cannonball Adderley, Yusef Lateef, Bud Powell. So many guys. He was like my uncle because he was very good friends with my father. I began playing with him, getting that jazz history and the authenticity. We didn't have to pretend we were playing jazz, we were actually playing music with musicians who know the language. That was a tremendous break for me."

People began to take notice. He entered and won saxophone competitions. One was called Jazzmatazz and with that came the opportunity to record and release his debut album, Benjamin Koppel Quartet (Olufsen Records). Winning prizes and awards "gave a lot of attention to what I was trying to do. There was a following and something to build on. It made me capable of taking a lot of musical chances. In 1995, when I was 21, I founded a crossover unit named Mad Cows Sing. It consisted of three jazz players and four classical players—oboe, violin, cello and a classical pianist. The saxophone, bass and percussion. It became one of the first, especially in Denmark, but even internationally, one of the first that dove into the crossover world. We played all different festivals around the world."

His strong reputation led to more connections, more collaborations. His career blossomed. Now, at age 46, Koppel is regarded as a first-rate player with musical colleagues worldwide. Even with the coronavirus prohibiting musicians from making a living by touring, Koppel stays busy. Denmark, he says, is weathering the storm comparatively well. And his musical curiosity remains insatiable.

"I've been touring like crazy for the past 25 years. All of a sudden, there's no touring. It became a perfect time to stay home with the kids, walk the dogs and try to have another life, which has been really beautiful," he says "Under the situation, we've been able to have a good time because we've been able to do a lot of good with the time on our hands."

"France is closing down completely. Italy is closing down completely. In Germany, you can't even be together with more than five people. Even in private homes. Denmark is a bit better, but still everything is canceled. All concerts and events like that. But at least we get to leave our homes... But in Denmark, the health system is not overloaded like it is in other countries. In Sweden, it has reached the max. In the U.S. I hear there are states that have reached the max. That's the really scary part about it," says Koppel. "People in Denmark are taking it super serious. Even though it is super annoying, in Denmark we don't have the same kind of fear for the public demands as you have in America. In America, if you tell a lot of people to wear a mask, they go into the streets with guns. In Denmark we wear the fucking masks and we keep the numbers down. It's quite simple."

He says the people get government financial support and people are not hurting. Shops are not forced to close and musicians, while unable to perform, can get by. "We have a very good system. Denmark is a super privileged country... There are only six million people, so it's easy to make things work here. We have a strong state... Nobody's left behind... No one is dying in the streets."

In March of 2020 when everything closed down Koppel had three European tours, two American tours, a South African tour and a China tour canceled.

"I created a whole new version of the "Romeo and Juliet" project, where I more deeply collaborated with the director. We made a beautiful theater production, intertwining 15 new songs, taking lyrics from Shakespeare's scripts and putting them into music. That was a big commission I was lucky to be doing. Then I had another theater production based on the life of Monica Zetterlund, the Swedish singer, a national hero in Sweden. I had that production in one of the big theaters in Sweden. I also had the chance to finish six albums (including the two 2020 releases)... I wrote a novel as well. I've kept super busy all the time."

Rather than sit on his hands last summer and cancel his usual summer jazz festival, Koppel pushed onward.

"Instead of just waiting, we said 'fuck it' let's try to see if we can make something new out of this. We made 20 concerts and produced it with eight HD cameras, the highest broadcast quality. We actually succeeded and made a great product both artistically and technically. It was a first, at least in Denmark, for creating a brilliant and great online jazz festival," he says. "We couldn't have an audience in our two theater halls we use for our concerts. So we made it an online festival and tried to go down that path, which was a great learning experience. We had to invent a lot of different shit for that as well."

He says if the pandemic cancels the winter jazz festival he produces, slated for February, he will again produce the online version. "I'm not canceling. It's too dull canceling. We have to find other ways to play the music and get it out to people."

"The things that was really different in addition to not having a live audience is that all the foreign musicians we asked to come couldn't come. No one was allowed into the country. So it was an all-Danish program. That made it special because I'd never done that before. Usually it's at least half foreign musicians mostly represented by Americans. That was a big change, but super fun and a great result."

The CDs set for release in 2021 include two with the Koppel, Colley Blade Collective—a trio album and a double CD with the trio and a symphony orchestra, comprised of 100 minutes of music that his father composed, entitled "Mulberry Street Symphony." Then there are two trio recordings coming out with drummer Blades and his father—one with Anders on organ and one with him on piano.

The biggest, an extremely impressive project, illustrates the bright mind, open attitude, and the "why not" spirit of Koppel. It involved the White Buses.

Danish Jews fled to Sweden in October 1943 including his family. "Almost all the Danish Jews survived, including my grandfather and his family," he recounts. "It was the only country in Europe where 98 percent of the Jews of that country survived the war. In Poland, the numbers were opposite. That story is super intense."

Koppel went above and beyond notes on music paper. Starting before the pandemic, Koppel tracked down survivors of the ordeal. He went out, interviewed them and recorded it, documenting first-hand oral accounts of a tragic portion of world history and what those people experienced.

"I took sentences from these interviews, where the survivors tell about their experiences. I used these sound files in the music and created a big one-hour suite around these sentences. It's quite powerful, because it is the people who were actually on those buses. They tell about it, with the music being played around it."

When things ease up worldwide, rest assured Koppel will be back to bring his music—whatever form it takes in whatever genre—to the people.

"I'm not good at being bored. One of things I'm bad at is watching television and TV series," he adds with a knowing sense of glee. "My whole family likes TV series. I don't have the patience for it. When the family puts on a new series or a new season of something, I'm kind of lost. I get too distracted and too impatient. I can't watch it. So I'm working on a lot of different projects."

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