Ottawa Citizen

Among the great American pianist’s extensive discography, his new quartet album is one his best.

Zenith (InnerVoice Jazz)
Marc Copland

On pianist Marc Copland’s new disc Zenith, the simpatico between him and trumpeter Ralph Alessi is so striking that I had to ask Copland just how much playing the two of them had done together previously.

I’d thought that their music-making history was negligible, and it turned out that I was right. “Ralph and I played together up here some years ago, just the two of us,” Copland wrote me back. “It was fun but didn’t really stick with me. My bad.

“Then I heard Baida,” — that’s Alessi’s 2013 album on ECM — “and I felt very strongly that I was listening to somebody with a big heart and a real musical intelligence,” Copland continued.

“So I called him and sounded him, and he said sure, he’d like to do something. The hookup was immediate. What a player and composer…..he gets it, totally.

Factor in the splendid playing by bassist Drew Gress and drummer Joey Baron along with the quick connection between Alessi and Copland and the result is some outstanding music. Released this month, Zenith belongs in that special category of jazz discs that are gorgeous on their own terms.

Since the late 1980s, Copland, now 67, has been one of jazz piano’s great harmonic explorers. Whether he’s delving into his own compositions or interpreting standards, Copland has an immense range of colourful chords at his fingertips. His playing is always deeply intriguing yet lyrical. Meanwhile, Alessi, who is a decade and a bit younger than Copland, has his own ways of manoeuvring through or coming at angles to a song’s given harmonies, and the surprising variations of his sound, from pure to raspy, with many gradations in between, add a welcome extra dimension to the music.

Throughout the disc’s six tracks, Copland and Alessi relish the opportunity to get in there and wrestle at length with the guts of each piece to create vibrant, real-time music. Indeed, it sounds as if Copland, Alessi, Gress and Baron went into the studio, turned the taps to their maximum and let the creativity flow.

The five Copland compositions on the disc are full of unique details, with shapely melodies dovetailing with bass lines and mood-altering harmonies holding court.

The album opens with Sun at the Zenith, a slow, patient piece that swells in intensity until it glows. Next comes a rendition of Duke Ellington’s Mystery Song, transported from its Cotton Club origins and reconfigured into a luscious, open, quasi-calypso.

The disc’s second act stresses free playing. Air We’ve Never Breathed, credited as a composition by all four musicians, must be a free improvisation. Even so, it seems almost plotted, if not composed, because the feelings of intention, listening and common purpose are so strong. Over its 14 minutes, the track moves from a duet for bass and muted trumpet to a passage for skittering piano and drums before switching gears repeatedly, becoming reflective and then jaunty and the urgently charged. And just when you think the music is going to find its point of rest, Baron prolongs matters with some cymbal work that leads to a sad and proper denouement.

Waterfalls, which follows, is a concise, knotty theme that launches some rugged, swinging free-bop. Best Bet is a plaintive waltz that puts everyone on their prettiest behaviour.

The disc’s last track, Hurricane, is another tune in three, but it’s broader, more rolling in its feel, and ultimately surging and exciting. On this piece, during and after the bold, swirling solos by Alessi and Copland, Baron offers his most splashy, exuberant playing of the set.

The trio of Copland, Gress and Baron have appeared on record before, on the 2013 ECM record 39 Steps by guitarist John Abercrombie. That record, while lovely, was more subdued than the expansive, questing Zenith, which is the debut disc on Copland’s own label. This maiden release on InnerVoice Jazz sets the bar very, very high, and it will be a delight to see if subsequent releases can match or surpass it.

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