Marc Copland: Zenith

Whenever pianist Marc Copland is a sideman on a session, much less leading the session, there are very high expectations for the music. Whether it is the lustrous sound he gets from the keyboard, which includes his pedalling, the dense harmonies which create shimmering harmonics or the intelligence of his lines and compositions, Copland has a unique voice and musical personality.

Zenith meets and exceeds any expectations one might have; it is a joy to listen from many different angles, with repeat listenings deepening its impact.

As the initial release of Copland’s own label, InnerVoice Jazz, he brings to fruition the desire to control his own destiny. Musical relationships are built, expand and extend. Bassist Drew Gress has played with Copland going back fifteen years on the Hat and Pirouet labels, while drummer Joey Baron joined Copland in bassist Gary Peacock’s trio. The three play together in John Abercrombie’s latest quartet. Trumpeter Ralph Alessi, who seems to finally getting the recognition he deserves, rounds out the current quartet and adds his own unique voice. His musical mind is quite flexible and adaptive, and he is able to play in both free and structured settings (see most recently, Enrico Pieranunzi’s Proximity, as well as his ECM debut Baida, on which Gress appears).

The album features four original compositions by Copland, one group improvisation and a dazzling version of a relatively unknown Ellington tune, “Mystery Song” (see here for the original). Copland’s connection to Bill Evans is clear, and to these ears, there is also a connection to Bobo Stenson, exemplified in the abstract (but sharp and highly intentioned) side of his music.

The opening (almost title) tune, “Sun At The Zenith,” starts off with a rather menacing, foreboding feeling, which is maintained by the off-kilter bass vamp. Over this flows a long-limbed, twisting and turning melody that pushes and pulls against the prevailing rhythm of the vamp. We are in dangerous aural territory here —the melodic component wants to float, but struggles against the dark claws of the vamp. Alessi is brilliant as he balances on an emotional knife edge, his lines incorporating the dark and light, as Copland continually fills the space between top and bottom with a gleaming intensity. This is a fabulous track which demands attention, setting the dominant mood.

Ellington’s “Mystery” follows, and must have been chosen for the way it combines an underlying simplicity of structure and harmony with the mysterious way it sounds like it might fall apart or fly away. The band bubbles, set up by Baron (who you can almost feel smiling). Alessi again gets to heart of the tune, while picking it apart and putting it back together; Gress is an essential part of the mix, both as a soloist and in his important role as partner to Baron.

At this point, it is clear that, while led by Copland compositionally, the quartet is very much a cooperative and what comes across is a group sound and musical personality. The next (and longest) track, “Air We’ve Never Breathed,” is the group improvisation, and shows how everyone has a voice in the group; Baron is just as important as Copland, Gress’ voice adds as much as Alessi’s. The piece, which is given three parts on the liner, but not queued on the record, grows and evolves, and has a wondrous two-minute middle section (about nine minutes in) featuring Baron alone just on cymbals, leading to a long, leisurely line by Alessi with sparse accompaniment by Copland -magical.

“Hurricane,” which ends the album, is very openly and outwardly emotional. The title itself gives an idea of the music’s power and intensity. Listening to it is very much a full-body experience, and a bit of a change of pace from the intellectual slant of the earlier tracks.

Copland continues on his journey, and with this excellent quartet has reached new heights.
Track Listing: Sun At The Zenith; Mystery Song; Air We’ve Never Breathed: I. The Bass Knows, II. Up and Over, III. Lips; Waterfalls; Best Bet; Hurricane.

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

Title: Zenith | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Innervoice Jazz

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