Two Sides of Marc Copland: Quartet and Solo

Jakob Baekgaard By

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Both Better By Far and Nightfall show important aspects of Copland’s art. The musician who feeds off and shares the energy of his fellow musicians and the lonely poet who sings through his instrument.
Anyone interested in discovering the fascinating story of pianist Marc Copland should start out by reading John Kelman's excellent article: "Marc Copland: Growth Through Collaboration" (2005). It follows the trajectory of an artist that has evolved immensely throughout his career, with the most radical change being the shift in instrument from saxophone to piano. This shift happened because Copland needed to express himself fully and discovered that the sounds that he heard were sounds for the piano rather than the saxophone. Since he took up the piano, Copland has evolved into one of the most remarkable stylists on his instrument, earning the apt epithet of "the piano whisperer." He seems to understand every facet of his instrument and has a sensitive touch, but the thing that really sets him apart from the overwhelming number of lyrical pianists is his understanding of harmony that makes him immediately identifiable in a blindfold test.

Hearing Copland playing the piano is like walking out on a frozen lake where the ice seems to be able to break every moment. The dark current of water flows beneath the beautiful icy surface and there is a sense of the musical safety net being removed. This "safety net" is the familiar understanding of harmony that is constantly being threatened by dissonance, or put in another way, the opposition between harmony and dissonance starts to dissolve in Copland's playing. Instead, a new concept of harmonic dissonance arises that is so intriguing because it feels like a new musical language. This unfamiliar language is the spell that Copland continues to cast, and he does so on the recent releases on his own imprint, InnerVoice Jazz, where he both plays with a quartet and solo.

Marc Copland
Better By Far

Better By Far is Copland's second album on InnerVoice Jazz with the quartet featuring trumpeter Ralph Alessi, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Joey Baron. Like any good jazz musician, Copland lets his sidemen influence the music that can be experienced as a conversation between equals. The first thing that is noticeable is the wonderful sound, clear and warm, it lets every instrument be heard and has a spacious, almost tactile quality.

The drums benefit from the sound. Joey Baron is perhaps the most energetically lyrical drummer around. He understands silence and Zen, but at the same time, he has a vitality and restless energy that seems to say: Let's play! The most intense track is "MR DJ," an unusual track for Copland that fortunately is much better than its title. The punchy, punctuated brass of Alessi, the percussive attack of Copland and the deep groove from Baron and Gress echo an acoustic version of trumpeter Miles Davis anno Bitches Brew. It could be interesting to hear the quartet pursue this road further. The antidote to "MR DJ" is "Room Enough for Stars" (great title!) whose slow, spacious mood seems to stretch out into the sky, Baron playing reminiscences of a march that never happens while Alessi's muted trumpet floats lyrically on the dark river of Copland's piano.

A more playful take on the nocturnal theme is "Day and Night" that seems to mirror Cole Porter's "Night and Day" with a sophisticated theme that swings with Drew Gress in walking bass mood. "Better By Far," on the other hand, is another strong Copland-composition that deservedly gives the album its title.

Marc Copland
InnerVoice Jazz

Nightfall finds Copland alone at the piano. Those who are unsure about the concept of harmonic dissonance need only to listen to Copland's version of legendary bassist Scott LaFaro's composition "Jade Visions." It starts with single notes like the tolling of a bell that breaks into chords like shattered glass and then the breathtaking beauty of chord combinations, piecing it all together, and the tension between a spiraling ascension and the descending silence. This is Copland's conversation with LaFaro, but it is also his dialog with pianist Bill Evans, LaFaro's kindred spirit and musical partner in the famous trio with drummer Paul Motian. Copland references Evans, but walks down another path, using other techniques and timbres. This is a perfect example of why lazy comparisons between Copland and Evans would be off the mark. Copland might play in the tradition of Evans, but he also plays himself out of it.

Copland has developed his own unique musical relationships with bassists. Drew Gress is one of them and hopefully they will someday make a duo- album like Copland did with Gary Peacock, whose "Vignette" is thoughtfully unfolded, along pieces by the late guitarist, John Abercrombie, another close musical companion. Copland even covers "Song for a Friend" by guitarist Ralph Towner, who famously played together with Abercrombie on Sargasso Sea (ECM, 1976) and Five Years Later (ECM, 1981). It is a beautiful way of weaving different threads together and the guitar theme continues on Copland's own "String Thing" that shows that both the piano and guitar strings can sing.

Every solo piano record from Marc Copland feels like a gift and Nightfall is no exception. It's an album that can grow -just like Time Within Time (Hat Hut, 2005) has grown. Both Better By Far and Nightfall show important aspects of Copland's art. The musician who feeds off and shares the energy of his fellow musicians and the lonely poet who sings through his instrument. Speaking of poets, it is always a pleasure to read poet Bill Zavatsky's interpretation of the music in words. His poems have accompanied countless Copland-releases and are yet another reason to get physical copies of the albums, along with the photography that also accompany these two albums. The last word goes to Bill Zavatsky and an excerpt from his liner poem to Nightfall:

Music exists only for you who listen. / It wants to come to you; it comes to you / the way that someone who loves you comes / deep in the night, or on that sunny afternoon / when everything grows and trembles. // You should be there for it. You could / be waiting right now for it to pour / over you. Sit down. Put it on. Let it / happen -and see what happens to you.

Tracks and Personnel

Better by Far

Tracks: Day And Night; Better By Far; Mr. DJ; Gone Now; Twister; Room Enough For Stars; Evidence; Dark Passage; Who Said Swing?

Personnel: Marc Copland: piano; Ralph Alessi: trumpet; Drew Gress: bass; Joey Barron: drums.


Tracks: Jade Visions; Nightfall; String Thing; Song For A Friend; LST; Vignette; Another Ralph's; Greenstreet.

Personnel: Marc Copland: piano.

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