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Marc Copland: Growth Through Collaboration

John Kelman By

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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.

Chapter Index:
  1. Moving From Saxophone to Piano
  2. Emerging on the Recording Scene
  3. Multiple Labels, Multiple Producers
  4. Using Songs to Thematically Sub-Divide
  5. Collaborations
  6. Gary Peacock
  7. John Abercrombie
  8. Kenny Wheeler
  9. Greg Osby
  10. David Liebman
  11. Drew Gress
  12. Personal Approach to the Piano
  13. Evolution
  14. Ensembles
  15. Touring and the Future
  16. Selected Discography as a Leader


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."

"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
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