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Marc Copland: Growth Through Collaboration

Marc Copland: Growth Through Collaboration

Courtesy Steven Sussman


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There's no cut and dried technique other than this: the desire, when playing, not to hit a single note or a single chord unless it has a certain touch, a certain blend, a certain feel.
—Marc Copland
Pianist Marc Copland is one of those rare artists who have had a shot at two careers in music. Starting out as a saxophonist in the '70s, he would ultimately put down the instrument and move exclusively to the piano, the instrument that has ultimately defined his career, as he developed a style as distinctive in its attention to detail as it is in its innate lyricism that, nevertheless, always avoids the obvious.

Copland is a truly collaborative player, who works with an ever-increasing group of musicians in duo, trio, quartet and quintet format. That many of his collaborations take on a longer-term life of their own is testament to Copland's ability to mold to any context, yet always retaining his own personality and approach.

Moving from Saxophone to Piano

"I was working with Chico Hamilton," Copland says, "and we made a couple of records that never came out, for one reason or another. [Guitarist] John Abercrombie was in the band, that's how we hooked up, which was great. But I began hearing chords and sounds that were very difficult to realize on the saxophone; on the piano they seemed to make sense. In addition I was starting to write tunes that didn't sound right on saxophone. Ultimately, the harmonic direction I was hearing and the tunes coming out pointed me away from the saxophone. I still love the horns and am very lucky that I get to play with such great saxophonists—[David] Liebman on tenor and soprano, [Greg] Osby on alto, Jane Ira Bloom, Mike Brecker, Jason Seizer and Stan Sulzmann now and then. But the piano just seemed the suit that fit right.

"Most musicians play some piano," continues Copland, "and there are many musicians, unbeknownst to the public, who play more than one instrument very well. I'd received some recognition as a saxophonist, so that made it a little different. The bottom line is this: if an artist—or any human being—is faced with a choice to go with what's inside or not, the only sensible thing is to go with what's inside. It would be pretty frustrating to carry around a lifelong regret at not following one's muse. Finding and following one's true path is more fulfilling."

While Copland would seem to disappear from the scene in the '70s and '80s, that's far from reality. "I needed time to develop my ability on piano," Copland explains, "but also I got a call to be in a band in Washington, DC. I started commuting there [from New York City] to play, and it turned out there was a nice scene down there, and there were a lot of gigs. So I ended up staying there for almost ten years—from around '73 to '83."

Copland returned to New York in the mid-'80s, and while some might find the challenge of re-establishing oneself daunting, for him it was an invigorating experience. "It was like coming back for a second lifetime," says Copland. "I met all different people, played with a different group of cats and, with the exception of John Abercrombie, the hook-up was totally new, and a real treat; like getting to do it twice. Years ago, when I was playing with [percussionist] Eric Gravatt in high school, he said something to me that I never forgot. 'If you just practice your axe and take care of business, somebody will hear about you.' As hard as things are today, this is still frequently the case. Not always, but frequently."

Emerging on the Recording Scene

But while Copland retained a busy schedule, it was only in the late '80s that he would become visible on a variety of recorded projects with artists including saxophonist/producer Bob Belden, trumpeter Tim Hagans and bassist Steve LaSpina. Copland would begin releasing albums under his own name as early as '88, with My Foolish Heart (Jazz City), an album that brought together long-time friend Abercrombie with drummer Jeff Hirshfield and bassist Gary Peacock—another artist who would figure prominently with Copland. He recorded a series of albums through the '90s, most notably At Night ('91, Sunnyside), All Blues at Night ('91, Jazz City), Second Look ('96, Savoy), Paradiso ('97, Soul Note) and Softly ('98, Savoy). But the turn of the millennium represented something of a watershed for Copland, as he established relationships with a number of record labels including (in alphabetical order) Challenge, Hatology, Nagel-Heyer, Pirouet, Sketch and Steeplechase.

While some artists restrict the number of releases to no more than one a year or less, under the assumption that they might saturate their market, Copland has steadfastly countered that argument by releasing as many as three or four albums as a leader in a given year. '01 saw the release of the piano trio recording, Haunted Heart and Other Ballads (Hatology), his first solo recording, Poetic Motion (Sketch), and That's For Sure (Challenge), his first recording with Abercrombie and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. '05 looks to be equally active, with a new Hatology solo disc, Time Within Time imminent; a new Challenge disc with Abercrombie/Wheeler, Brand New, just out; a new trio date with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Jochen Rueckert on Pirouet and a new quartet release on Nagel-Heyer with trumpeter Randy Brecker, both due out on later this year.

"After the end of my relationship with Savoy," says Copland, "there was a period of a year or two with no recordings as a leader. At that point, one European company after another became interested. They're all wonderful labels, very artist-oriented, really dedicated to the music. All of them have different areas of strength in terms of distribution and so forth, so it's not like recording for Sony and Warner at the same time. The projects seem different, and many are pretty much cooperative efforts. My goal has always been to make every CD one that accurately represents the artistic side of the music, that keeps the music evolving, so that each CD has its own thing."

Multiple Labels, Multiple Producers

Copland's open approach to every project and ability to work with a variety of aesthetics has resulted in strong working relationships with a number of producers. "I've found the producers for all the labels," says Copland, "to be extremely creative and flexible—whether it's Sketch, which unfortunately is no longer around, or Hatology, Nagel-Heyer, Pirouet or Challenge. Ideas go back and forth a couple of times and then a concept usually crystallizes; and the nice thing about these cats is they are all very tuned into and dedicate to the music. I'd like to say that all labels are like that, but of course that's not true."

"Most times," continues Copland, "there's not a theme until the work is in progress. So the music can evolve and take shape, and in so doing dictate the theme or hook, not the other way around. For example, a typical scenario with one type of record company is they come to you and say, 'We want you to do an album of Cole Porter's music.' That's the project, and the music has to adapt to a preconceived concept; it can't grow, evolve, and create a concept organically. Contrast that with Time Within Time, a solo album that started out in one direction and ended up somewhere else. Between the first and second day in the studio, Werner Uehlinger and his wife Barbara listened to the tracks we had, and suggested the title. It made sense to me, and Werner asked, 'Do you want to do one tune a few times again, you know, your trademark?'—and I thought, if the title is Time Within Time, how about Bernstein's 'Some Other Time'? I hadn't played this tune in years, but it felt right to do so.

"The great thing is that all the producers are really tuned into laying back and letting things happen," Copland continues, "only occasionally coming in and making a suggestion. Hein van de Geyn, for example, who produces for Challenge, is himself a wonderful bassist, and he's very knowledgeable. He does basically what all the producers I work with do, but it's interesting that, as a musician, he can make certain kinds of suggestions that other producers don't, and he's still very, very sensitive about laying back. But once in a while, he'll come into the room in between the takes, he'll put his second finger up to his chin and he'll say, 'you know I was thinking...' and that's when I know he's going to say something; and it's good to listen very carefully because, like all these guys, he doesn't say a lot, but when he does, it's usually something good.

"Jason Seizer of Pirouet, a great saxophonist, hooks up in a slightly different way," Copland continues. "We've played together on a couple of Jason's CDs and on a lot of gigs, so we have this kind of unspoken communication, similar to what happens on the bandstand. Jason can give me a 'heads up' with just a look or a nod, and it will be very helpful. He's great at hearing which is the best take, something that is sometimes hard to do.

"Frank Nagel-Heyer gets in there in a different way," Copland concludes. "We'll have long discussions about music—any music—rock, jazz, whatever—and in tossing around different aesthetic ideas, we both get a sense of where things are going. He's very open to different kinds of thought, which is how we found a home for the duo with Greg Osby. That's a challenging ensemble—two cats, no bass, no drums—but Frank could hear the potential in it."

Using Songs to Thematically Sub-Divide

On three earlier Hatology recordings, Haunted Heart and Other Ballads, Bookends and And..., Copland chose a song that would be recorded a number of times as a solo piece, with different variations ultimately book-ending the album and appearing in the middle of the program to create a feeling that the album is broken up into chapters or acts. "This is an example of a hip producer. Werner suggested that for the Haunted Heart album. He wanted merely some kind of introduction and some kind of epilogue. The recording session started at 6:00PM in New York after a flight back from Europe, so I was pretty spaced out. At the end of the session [producer] Art Lange said, 'what about the introduction and the epilogue?' The cats were packed up, and not being able to think of what to do, there was that moment of panic, and all of a sudden, the thought came that these tunes were some of my favourite things. So why not use 'My Favourite Things'? We rolled the tape, and did about nine or ten takes, and kept the best three.

"Preparation is a two-edged sword," Copland continues. "One wants to prepare, but it's nice to leave room for whatever happens in the studio. Take Brand New, for example—the trio is coming from two different countries to a third country to record. Everybody sees the material beforehand by fax, but interpretations evolve on the date. Time Within Time was kind of the same—there was room for the idea of 'Some Other Time' to come up. If one works with people who are simpatico, both musicians and producers, all kinds of nice things can happen.

"Similarly, Philippe Ghielmetti from Sketch asked me on the spot to record 'Love Theme from Spartacus,'" Copland continues. "This tune and 'Some Other Time' presented the same problem—Bill Evans made them into signature pieces, not with chops, but with the trademark lyricism and sensitivity that made him the great pianist that he was. Attempting to record these pieces kind of felt like entering a church, and I was afraid of committing a kind of musical sacrilege—how could one do anything more than Bill did to touch the inner spirit of these tunes? In recording these tunes there was no point trying to do or redo what Bill did musically. The point was to get in touch with the essence of the tune in one's own fashion. That's what Bill did so well."

How Copland has used the idea of multiple variants of the same piece as a way to subdivide his albums is, perhaps, difficult to describe. "With Time Within Time there are three chapters, so to speak," Copland explains, "and each one has a particular feel. LPs had two sides—you had to get up and turn it over to hear the second half—and each half had a thing, twenty minutes or so of a vibe. Breaking a CD up into sections helps get some of that effect back. On Time Within Time, 'Some Other Time' occurs four times to demarcate the three parts—first in the key of C, then D flat, then G, and then in C again to finish. So the renditions form a kind of cadence in C. The key organization came after all was recorded—it wasn't preplanned—but it seems to work."

"The organization of the album And....," Copland concludes, "was also not preplanned. I hadn't been able to decide whether to do three versions of one tune or not, or what the piece should be. I woke up the morning of the date and it hit me—'John and Mike and Drew are my old friends, why not do "Old Friends?"' My wife, bless her heart, ran out and bought the CD, because I hadn't heard the tune in years and wasn't sure I remembered it correctly. It's a through-composed tune; the form is not so easy. She came back with it and put it on the stereo, and it turned out I had it right, but I felt better for having heard it again."


Copland has collaborated with a wide range of artists over his career, but there are a few who stand out as the most significant. Always capable of finding the middle ground that links musical sensibilities that can sometimes, on the surface, appear to be disparate, the ongoing relationships that Copland has forged have resulted in some of the most deeply intuitive music of the 21st Century. "The common thread," explains Copland, "in the different collaborations is this: making music with a partner or partners who have their own approach, someone who sounds like himself or herself, allows the making of music that sounds like its own thing. I feel fortunate to work with players of this nature."

Gary Peacock

Copland has collaborated with Gary Peacock many times over the years, from trio efforts like At Night to quintet records like Softly. Perhaps the most compelling collaboration of their work together was the '04 duet on the sadly-defunct Sketch label, What It Says. "Gary Peacock is an old friend," says Copland, "and a very thoughtful guy. He's perhaps the most harmonically aware bassist. When Gary hears a complex chord from the piano, he'll cock his head to one side, listen for a moment, and then run his hand up or down the neck of the bass, playing an arpeggio that nails the chord. He also plays piano, and that no doubt contributes to this kind of awareness—it's quite a talent, one that few musicians have. A bassist with ears like that is remarkable."

John Abercrombie

Aside from the two recent trio collaborations with Kenny Wheeler, Copland has worked with Abercrombie on a number of past projects, including Second Look and My Foolish Heart. "Other than the Brecker brothers—with whom I grew up in Philly—I've been friends with John longer than anybody," Copland explains. "We met when I was 23. He's such a considerate guy, not your prototype guitar personality. And the wonderful thing about John is that he's a direct descendant of Jim Hall's approach to guitar—he thinks about what he's going to play before he plays it, what kind of chord he'll play and how it'll sound. When piano and guitar play together, if it's not bebop or something with tightly organized changes, the road can go one of two ways: one way, a beautiful orchestral mélange of textures and sounds; the other way, a complete train wreck.

"John listens so well," Copland continues. "He's very into joining hands and making the music work as a cooperative effort. When you listen to all the recordings we've done, and all the gigs we've done, there's just no clashing. That's the result of two players giving up their egos and saying, 'we want to make this work.' Sometimes that means one of us laying out while the other comps behind Kenny Wheeler; but even more important is how we comp together. Even as far back as Second Look we did that a lot. It becomes a question of, on an eyes closed, intuitive, listening kind of level, seeing where the other guy's going with his chord, and then saying, musically, with a chord coming back, 'that sounds good, let's continue there,' or 'wait, how about we go in this direction?' with the confidence that the other guy will come back and say, 'OK, let's do that.' We get a lot of grins going back and forth when we play together, which is always nice."

Kenny Wheeler

Copland's association with Kenny Wheeler is more recent, but no less significant. "Kenny's such a sweet and shy man," Copland says, "who probably somewhere down inside still doesn't think he plays very well. There are a lot of trumpet players out there, but when you put on a Kenny Wheeler CD you know it's him from the first note. How many trumpet players can you say that about? Not many! I think his prodigious talent as a composer has contributed significantly to shaping the way he plays, and the kind of progressions he comes up with in his writing and his playing have a certain beauty and poignancy that are really his.

"Other than all the obvious things that have been said for years about this cat," Copland continues, "I can only add that when I'm as old as he is, I hope I'm playing half the music he's playing. I see it all the time, when we play, these young trumpet players in the backs of rooms shaking their heads, going 'how does he do it'? The trumpet is, with the possible exception of the oboe, the most physically demanding instrument, and Kenny's not a big strong guy. It reminds me very much of descriptions I've read of [cellist] Pablo Cassals in his later years. He was gnarled and bent over, and when he got up in the morning he looked like a frail old man. He'd walk over and sit at the piano and play some Bach chorales and the minute he started playing it was like his whole physical appearance changed; he straightened up, he seemed to have more power and then by the time he got to the cello he was wailing. That's Kenny."

Greg Osby

While Copland has worked off and on with Greg Osby over the years, he has only recently recorded with him, specifically on two subtle and sublime albums on Nagel-Heyer—Round and Round, and the followup, Night Call. "Where to start?" says Copland. "He plays lines unlike any other saxophonist; absolutely unique. There are many saxophonists who draw from different sources and mold their influences into something original. Greg is familiar with all these sources, knows them as well as the next guy, but at some point in his development—it's as if Salvador Dali had been painting like Rembrandt, and then one day stopped on a dime and said, 'Wait, I'm going to paint like Dali now, that's the end of Rembrandt.' And here's Greg who all of a sudden developed this entirely new way of approaching linear development on the instrument that is totally unlike anything I've ever heard.

"There are several things linking us together," continues Copland. "A great friendship, a genuine artistic and professional respect—but even more important, the desire to get off the foundation tonality and add to it and paint around it. We each do this in a different way, which is cool—two palettes going at once.

"This is how we met," concludes Copland. "We knew each other, and played together a bit. In the '90s I had the quintet that recorded Stompin' with Savoy. Bob Berg was the regular tenor player, and he couldn't make some gigs coming up. I tried a couple of cats who were logical choices to fill in, who played in a similar direction, and they were busy. I was speaking with my friend Bob Belden, the composer/arranger/saxophonist/producer, and asked his advice. He said, 'What about Osby?' I said, 'But it's a tenor chair,' and he said, 'So what? Rewrite the book.' Bob and I know each other very well, from working in his band many years, and we can almost read each other's mind. I said, 'You know, you're right.' I rewrote the book, and Greg played the pants off it. So that's when we began working together more. When the opportunity arose, doing a duo record seemed like a natural."

David Liebman

Copland's recorded association with Liebman is also a more recent development, with two albums on Hatology—the quartet record, Lunar, and the remarkable duo recording Bookends where, once again, Copland uses a repeated piece to bookend one of the two discs. "Dave is such a warm individual," says Copland, "with so much knowledge about the music and, to me, he's kind of like Gary in that there's nothing a pianist can play harmonically that Dave doesn't know or can't figure out. He's got a steel trap mind, so if, for example, in going over a tune, he does hear something that maybe he's not familiar with he'll say, 'what's that!' and he'll come over to the piano ?" which he also plays, as well as the drums—and he'll look at it, and in 30 seconds he's got it. He'll start working it out on the horn and bang, it's there. Over and above that, the thing about Dave is his passion for the music. It comes burning out of his horn. This is a man totally committed to and in love with jazz, and in the duo setting he plays with a lot of soul. You know, in the '70s first Elvin [Jones] hired him, and then Miles. There's a reason why he's got such a great résumé.

"A lot has been made of Dave's energetic/expressionist approach," continues Copland, "as opposed to the more lyrical/romantic thing of mine; but opposites can attract as well as likes. What we share in common is the desire to explore and stretch the harmonies."

Drew Gress

Along with drummer Jochen Rueckert, Drew Gress fleshes out Copland's ongoing trio of the past few years. With two Hatology recordings to their name—Haunted Heart and Other Ballads and And..., which is augmented, on some tracks by Abercrombie and saxophonist Michael Brecker—the trio has a new disc, due out on Pirouet later this year. "I've known Drew since he was 19," explains Copland, "and he's got so much music in him, and he does so many different things; he plays in a wider array of styles of music than perhaps any bassist on the scene right now. He possesses a real sense of responsibility to playing the music with the right feel; he's got a flawless command of the instrument, and also an incredible harmonic thing going on. He's the kind of musician one can always trust to play something hip."

Personal Approach to the Piano

Much has been made about Copland's unique legato approach to the piano and his distinctive pedal work, to the point that ambitious pianists often plant themselves as close as possible to Copland in performance, to be able to watch not only his hands, but his feet as well. "As you can imagine," explains Copland, "the question about pedal work and legato comes up a lot. There's no cut and dried technique to it other than this: the desire, when playing, not to hit a single note or a single chord unless it has a certain touch, a certain blend, a certain feel."

"The piano music that's always caught my attention," continues Copland, "including Evans, Hancock, Bley, Ravel, Debussy, some Ives, Joni Mitchell—it all has a texture, in which harmonic colours are blended in a certain way. That's why piano playing of this kind doesn't make it on a digital piano. Some of these digital pianos are very good, but their chips can't calculate all the overtones being generated when eight or nine tones are played together. They can recreate the fundamentals of the eight or nine notes together, and a few of the overtones, but can't copy all the complex interactions between the notes and all their respective overtones, because the digital data to do so is too large for the chips to handle.

"That blend or texture," concludes Copland, "is more important than the pedal and touch used to get that blend; the pedal and touch are the means, not the end. The soft pedal can manipulate that blend a lot, not only when it's all the way down or up, but also in between—it can totally change the sound of the instrument. It's very subtle stuff, and it can't be heard in a really loud band. In a quartet or quintet which sometimes burns, that's fine. But if you get a larger band that's bashing all the time, you'll never hear it."


The late guitarist Emily Remler once said, "There are only two kinds of musicians—those that sound the same as they did five years ago, and those who don't." And so, Copland is always concerned with evolving his sound and approach. One thing is certain: by comparing some of his earliest recordings to his more recent ones, while his deeply lyrical approach remains intact, there's a degree of abstraction that is gradually creeping into his music. One example is "River's Run" on Time Within Time which, with its more intricate harmonic devices, is ultimately a minor blues, but one unlike any you've ever heard. And his solo reading of Wayne Shorter's classic "Footprints" brings new language to well-established piece. "That's actually an arrangement I did for the Stompin' With Savoy album," explains Copland, "which was for quintet; but there's a lot to explore in it. In the quintet, we played the arrangement, but the blowing was just on a minor blues, more or less in the usual way. This time I used some of the things suggested by the arrangement in the blowing, taking it to a different place.

"It's about the quest for new musical materials," Copland continues. "When there's a C7 or A7 on the page, one wants to play something over it that's different from what one played five years ago. When I was coming up, the people who made a difference—Trane, Miles, Rollins, Bill Evans—tried to play differently in their lines. They also tried to do fresh things compositionally, whether with an original or in a standard that was interpreted in a fresh way.

"These cats were all great at breathing new life into standards," concludes Copland. "There's a version of 'Four' that Sonny [Rollins] did where he completely turned the beat of the melody around. It's the only time it's been done to my knowledge, and it's fabulous, the solo becomes a real tour de force. Evans, the same; Miles also, the Plugged Nickel recordings, for example. When cats like that played a tune you knew it would have a twist, but an organic one, not just a gimmick; the twist would suggest a new direction for the blowing. That's a worthy goal, to play something that's new—not new and meaningless, but new and continually developing a direction. That's the reason to get up in the morning and sit at the piano in the first place."


While Copland is best known for small ensembles, he has played in larger contexts over the years. "I played in larger ensembles with Bob Belden for a long time," says Copland. "The primary determinant for me in approaching a project is the sound in my head and the direction of the music, and has nothing to do with the number of people. One night at an after-hours party somebody took Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson to an apartment with two pianos, and they played duets all night. Someone there said, 'Oh my God, I've never heard so much music!' This in the era of Ellington and his large ensembles—but just from just two cats! A friend of mine, Mike Patterson, is writing a new piece for piano and string orchestra for me, and we're going to play it at the Manhattan School of Music; I'm looking forward to that!"

Touring and the Future

In the meantime, Copland spends most of his touring time in Europe. "Perhaps some of it is a function of distribution," says Copland. "The press in Europe is naturally very interested in the music coming out on European labels. They do a lot of coverage, and that helps lead to gigs. There's not always the same interest in those labels on this side of the Atlantic, and that's a shame. When I was with Savoy, we had good press over here and I worked a lot in North America. But it's picked up over here in the last year, and seems to be gaining some steam.

"Drew, Jochen and I are looking forward to our new trio record on Pirouet, coming out in September," Copland continues. "We've got a tour of Europe in the works, and no doubt we'll play New York. The piano trio is kind of a pianist's home base, and there's every reason to keep this trio going."

By bucking the trend and releasing anywhere between two and four releases a year since '01, Marc Copland has proven that, with enough diversity, there's plenty of room out there—and a clear market—for all his efforts. And with '05 seeing the release of four new Copland albums, it will be a good year to assess Copland's ongoing growth as a pianist, composer and collaborator; a continued evolution that Copland has been demonstrating in particular force since the turn of the century.

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