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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."

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