Marc Copland in Montreal, May 27, 2006

John Kelman By

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Copland's melodies can sometimes be a step away from the obvious, but they're clear signposts in his own mind, with his soft vocalizations the link between what he hears in his head and what comes from his fingers.
Marc Copland
Upstairs Bar and Grill
Montreal, Canada
May 27, 2006

Pianist Marc Copland leads a remarkably busy life, often releasing as many as four records as a leader or co-leader in a single year. Yet, despite all that activity, he's perennially underappreciated in his own country, and a far bigger draw in Europe, where he records for labels like Nagel-Heyer, Hatology, Challenge and Pirouet.

Appearances in Canada are rarer still, and so Montreal jazz fans had the unique opportunity to catch Copland in a two-night run at the Upstairs Bar and Grill over what was, in the US, the Memorial Day weekend.

Upstairs has been open for eleven years now, and while its primary focus has been on supporting Montreal's vibrant local jazz scene, it's begun to widen its reach in recent times, bringing in artists like saxophonist and occasional Copland collaborator Dave Liebman. The venue is, paradoxically, downstairs in a lovely old-style building with plenty of exposed brick that, surprisingly, does nothing to affect what is a warm and rich sound in the house. With a fine menu and wine list, Upstairs is making a name for itself as the place to go for an evening of fine dining and jazz in Montreal.

Solo piano performances in a club setting are often fraught with problems, but the club's announcement at the beginning of each of Copland's three sets, asking patrons to keep talking to a minimum, was met with full cooperation. In fact, if it weren't for the occasional sound of an autodialer ringing up charges at the bar, you'd think you were in a concert hall.

Of course maintaining such decorum places considerable responsibility on the artist to deliver music that captivates the audience so completely that the idea of conversation becomes moot. Despite his generally introspective and abstractly impressionistic approach—one that has nothing to do with any kind of grandstanding and feels aimed at pulling the listener in rather than reaching out—Copland had the house's full attention. His first set focused on material from last year's outstanding Time Within Time (Hatology, 2005), the second on his earlier solo recording Poetic Motion (Sketch, 2002).

While Copland is no stranger to the blues, his unique voicings make songs like his own "œRiver's Run" and Wayne Shorter's classic "œFootprints" so abstruse as to make the standard form almost unrecognizable. At the beginning of each set Copland spoke briefly with the audience, laying out how the set would play. "œI probably won't speak again," he said, "œbecause once I'm in there it takes me a while to get out." Within a few notes it became clear what Copland was talking about, as he became fully engrossed and completely committed.

And while Copland's melodies can sometimes be a step away from the obvious, they're clear signposts in his own mind, with his soft vocalizations the link between what he hears in his head and what comes from his fingers. Tension and release is also a fundamental component, but in an understated way. And though his approach is generally soft and gentle, Copland is also a master of subtle dynamics that lend his music an elegant ebb and flow.

Much has been written about Copland's use of piano pedals, and he's a master of finding ways to allow notes to linger beyond the norm. His left hand/right hand independence is so well-developed and against convention that it becomes difficult to identify which hand is doing what. He also demonstrates a remarkable ability to use repetition in ways that, even when he breaks away from a pattern to play another phrase, that pattern is so ingrained in the mind that it seems to continue unabated until he actually returns to it.

Unlike solo performances by artists like Keith Jarrett, Copland always works with form. But these forms can sometimes be so opaque that it's some time into a tune before one recognizes it. In the same way that a Monet painting can be looked at up close, but reveals a larger theme when viewed from a distance, so too does Copland's playing sometimes make more sense when taken in on a broader scale. And while there were pauses between songs during his sets, the same narrative sense that infuses both Time Within Time and Poetic Motion was on display in live performance.

It takes considerable nerve to perform solo in any context, but perhaps more so in a club setting. However it was clear that once Copland was inside the music, he was unaware of anything extraneous and completely involved in finding new ways to take what was to him familiar material into uncharted territory. And yet, as outré as Copland sometimes was, he never jarred the senses, instead creating more a sound that lulled the listener into an almost meditative state.

Copland has often been referred to as a romantic player, but there's nothing syrupy or sentimental about what he does. And for two nights in Montreal, audiences were given the opportunity to hear a multifaceted approach to solo piano that was light on flash, heavy on substance and profound with complex emotion.

Related Article: Marc Copland: Growth Through Collaboration (Interview, 2005)

Photo Credit: John Kelman

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