Interview Marc Copland
There will always be listeners, and musicians, old and young, who get bored by pop music and are looking for something more. And jazz has what a lot of them want.
The story of pianist Marc “The Piano Whisperer” Copland is exceptional. He started his career in jazzmusic playing the saxophone and later on changed to the piano. His trio, including giants Gary Peacock and John Abercrombie, is groundbreaking. His cooperation with pianist Bill Carrothers on the wellreceived album No Choices (which finds two artists on equal ground, deeply committed to the interpretive, interactive and conversational fundamentals of improvisation, John Kelman, All About Jazz, August 2006) has left the jazzworld breathlessly. I’m happy I have interviewed both Copland and Carrothers.
First, who is Marc Copland?
“Copland (may, 27, 1948) became part of the jazz scene in Philadelphia in the early 1960s as a saxophonist, and later moved to New York where he experimented with electric alto saxophone. In the early 1970s, while pursuing his own harmonic concept, he grew dissatisfied with what he felt were inherent limitations in the saxophone and moved to the Baltimore-Washington D.C. area, where he remained for a decade to retrain as a jazz pianist.”
He returned to New York in the mid-1980s, his own keyboard style firmly in place. Since that time Copland has enjoyed considerable success, both as a solo performer and a group leader. (wikipedia.org)
Mr.Copland, in 1966 you moved to New York City where you became involved in the city’s jazz scene. How has music evolved since you started performing?
Everything is totally different. The business side has changed enormously, with respect to the clubs in NY and with respect to record companies. The music has changed dramatically also. It would take many hours to go through all of this. But one constant, for me at least, has remained: European record companies often remain dedicated to producing music that they believe in, that they think has merit. In America—and this may be the biggest change since the sixties– most of the record companies are now owned by large corporations, and have been so for twenty-some years or more. The focus of these American record companies is very different from what it was in the 1950s and 1060s.
You started to play the piano since you were 7 years old. Why did you choose this instrument? Later on you switched to the saxophone and eventually you switched back to the piano. Which instrument do you like best by now, beneath piano
I started taking piano lessons, like many young children, around the age of 6 or 7 years. When I reached age 9 or 10, the school I attended offered me a choice of band or orchestra instrument to learn–and I chose saxophone because my aunt had a toy plastic one that I thought was cute! I still love the saxophone, I love playing with saxophonists! But for the harmonies going on in my head for the last forty-five or fifty years, piano is the best vehicle.
You’ve been working with so many beautiful musicians, among many others: Randy Brecker, Bob Berg, Hank Crawford, Art Farmer, Curtis Fuller, Tom Harrell, Eddie Harris,Harold Land and Blue Mitchell, Dave Liebman, Bob Mintzer, Chico Hamilton, John Abercrombie, Gary Peacock, and Sonny Stit, Bob Belden, Jane Ira Bloom, Joe Lovano, Herbie Mann, James Moody, John Scofield, Jim Snidero, and Dave Stryker What have you learned, working with them?
Again, answering this question could be an entire article by itself. I will concentrate on just a few:
From John Abercrombie I learned to play only from the heart,and to play honest music.
From Dave Liebman I learned what it means to be dedicated to the music.
From James Moody I learned that as a leader, it’s important to treat the members of the band the way you would want to be treated.
From Gary Peacock, I learned that I was not alone in this musical world. We both believed that it was important to feel free to go with the feeling of the moment, and if the music came to us, to get out of its way.
You are an innovator in jazzmusic, an example for many pianists. What music do you listen to yourself nowadays? Are you inspired by contemporary jazzmusic?
I listen to all kinds of music, especially orchestral music written from the 1890s thru the 1950s. The use of colors and harmonies in this music is so varied and sophisticated, one could study it for a lifetime, which is more or less what I’ve done.
I am happy to say that there have been some younger players coming up in the last several years who are really trying to say their own thing, and are very talented. I have listened to their work and been moved by it. I almost hate to mention names, because I will doubtless leave some out, but in particular there are some players who deserve much more recognition for their work: (in alphabetical order) Bobby Avey, Bill Carrothers, Jason Moran, Craig Taborn.
In 1988 you recorded your debutalbum My Foolish Heart with drummer Jeff Hirschfield and longtime playing partners, guitarist John Abercrombie and bassist Gary Peacock. How do you look back at making this album?
It’s a nice album, and certainly I’m in good company there! The first albums I made that really seem to capture the sounds I hear are “All Blues at Night” (Jazz City, same label as “My Foolish Heart”) and “Haunted Heart and Other Ballads” (Hatology). After that, it became easier to put the sounds in my head onto cd, and most of my recordings since then are a pretty fair representation of what I was hearing at the time.
In 2006 you recorded the album “No Choice”, a dual-piano recording with Bill Carrothers. Please, tell me more about your your cooperation with Bill.
For many years Bill seemed to be the only other pianist who heard harmony in a way that relates to my own work. Recording the CD seemed like a logical outcome of this common feeling for harmonic usage, although stylistically we are quite different.. The session was very enjoyable, but that’s a once-in-a-career thing. I have no plans to do another piano duet album.
Trio can be very intimate and one has partners up there helping make the music, so that feels easy and personal. It’s easy to do night after night and watch the thing develop. Solo piano is very, very personal, but it’s also very draining. I like doing it, but not every night!
Miles Davis. I have interviewed your companion Randy Brecker, Miles taught him: ”How to tell a story in as few notes as possible. Sound comes first. Take chances. Fuck whatever anyone else thinks. Rehearse as little as possible since as he said :’ You can’t rehearse the future!” Do you agree with this method?
In many cases this is exactly right. Sound does come first. Taking chances is the essence of playing, this is something I always felt, and when I started playing with Gary Peacock, I knew I’d met a musical soul who believed this as much as I did.
But that only works for me if I’m practicing, listening, expanding my ears. Going out for a drive with no plan, with just the desire to explore new places and see new things, works fine—but only if there is gas in the tank.
Your latest record, Some more Love Songs, is a beautiful one, and received very well, as we can read at Allaboutjazz (http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=42219#.UieSSpLp2t0 ), what is the secret of the succes of this album?
There’s no secret to making a good recordiing. It’s always worked for me like this: go in with a plan, but don’t follow it, just let the music happen. Go in to express what’s in your heart, not to show what a terrific musician you are. Go in with musicians you believe in and feel comfortable with. Don’t go in to try and play. Go in with the thought that you need to sit at the instrument, find a quiet space, and let the music find you.
In his book Primacy of the Ear, pianist Ran Blake, states “one’s single most crucial ally in the exploration of music is the ear. When you listen, the ear reacts before the brain has time to process; it is an honest broker.” This means jazz or improvisational music cannot be related to the intellect. Do you agree with him? Why (not)?
Yes and no. The intellect is, as I see it, responsible for learning the tools of the trade, exploring and working with new musical materials. The intellect can also be an important guide in making sure one remembers to be artistically honest. If the intellect had no role at all then an animal could play jazz.
That said, when you start to play, you can’t think. You just go for it, and what Ran says applies….but the intellect has worked in the background, and continues to observe and learn.
Think of it this way. An athlete or dancer learns all sorts of techniques and strategies, which are practiced over and over with a great deal of thought and self-observation, until they become second nature. But in the heat of competition, the athlete doesn’t think a whole lot, there isn’t time. Of course sports and music are very different, but I believe this analogy makes sense.
Jazz is kind of worldwide now, and the directions of the music are more than ever independent of where the musicians live. However, record companies still decide what gets recorded, and as noted above, this does affect what type of music is released on CD in Europe, and what time is released in America. And I think there is a difference there, although it’s not all black and white.
Charlie Parker. This year it’s fifty-eight years ago he has died. Sheila Jordan said to me in an interview: “people don’t talk about him anymore,The younger generation of jazzmusicians say they are inspired by Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Parker is a forgotten part of jazzmusic. That’s a pity, because he is an important part of the jazztradition.” What is your opinion? Do you regard yourself as a part of this jazztradition?
Without the tradition, I wouldn’t or couldn’t exist. And Bird’s not dead, certainly not for me. He’s a big part of the foundation on which everything else has been built.
In an interview with allaboutjazz (you quote at your website), you said: “Commercial interests often lose sight of important artistic developments – or, sometimes while recognizing them, lose faith in the public’s ability to do the same. As a result, a lot of great art goes undiscovered; and when an art form loses opportunities for growth it is all the poorer for it.” What does this mean for the future of jazzmusic?
What it means is this: we’ve all got to hope that enough people will continue to come out and support good music to keep it alive. We can’t count on the record companies developing the best artists anymore. Some of the record companies are still dedicated to this, particularly in Europe; but many of the companies, in American and also in Europe, are not. One positive development is the growth of artist-owned labels and the use of the internet to spread the music. These are hard roads to travel, but in some cases the artist may not have any other alternative.
Dave Liebman, one of your playing partners, said to me: “If you compare music to the Amazon River, jazz is one of the major tributaries. Its future lies with how the music will be absorbed and transformed by people from other parts of the world other than the U.S. and Europe. For these people, jazz is new and exciting. This is the hope for jazz, that by spreading its wings, it will stay relevant.”do you agree with him? Jazz is the most recorded musicstyle by now, but do you think jazz will reach our youth?
I only know this: there always seems to be an audience of people in any age range who are looking to hear good jazz. I see it every few years, here in NYC, at the clubs. There will always be listeners, and musicians, old and young, who get bored by pop music and are looking for something more. And jazz has what a lot of them want.
Your musical activities span a wide range of styles. Which projects do you have in store for us?
A new project in quartet with John Abercrombie, under his name, is being released at the ECM label as I write this. As to future projects, there are ideas and plans, but I’d rather not say until it happens!