Honoring the memory and life work of Jacob Riis with a jazz orchestral release…
Anders Koppel – Mulberry Street Symphony – Unit Records/ Cowbell #UTR 5029 – 2 LP vinyl release – ****1/2
(Benjamin Koppel – alto saxophone; Scott Colley – bass; Brian Blade – drums; Martin Yates – conductor; Odense Symphony Orchestra; Anders Koppel – composer of entire project)
Jacob Riis was both a Danish social reformer and noted photographer, who emigrated from Denmark to New York City in 1870. He soon helped expose the horrid living conditions for immigrants in metropolitan New York in a moving photo journalism book, How the Other Half Lives.
Danish composer Anders Koppel, who has written for classical ensembles, as well as for theater, film, and ballet, pays tribute to Riis on the just issued, Mulberry Street Symphony, a seven movement blend of classical and jazz. He utilizes a trio comprised of his son, Benjamin on alto sax; Scott Colley on bass; and Brian Blade, on drums. Backed by the Odense Symphony Orchestra (Denmark), Anders based each movement on an iconic photograph from Riis’ book. Each photo depicts the cultural shock that immigrants encountered upon arriving in America, thrown into the melting pot that New York City provided. The photos are in the liner notes of this project, and their inspiration provided Koppel with the passion needed to honor their lives.
Anders wrote the symphonic score, but left the jazz trio freedom to improvise. The result is a symbiotic blend of jazz and classical motifs. Anders’ son, Benjamin, on alto sax, both soars and roars, as lead instrument throughout. Colley and Blade, both consummate musicians, each provide gusto and drive. The Danish symphony, (names and instruments are not provided), help flesh out the arrangements, and their presence on the more uptempo tracks bring passion to Koppel’s vision.
The acoustics are spot on. Recorded in the DXD audio format on Pyramix DAW system with Horus preamps/converters, and using B&W 8020 speakers, the miking is well placed in the Odense Concert House. The recording took place on Oct. 13, 2017.
Opening with “Stranded in the City,” we hear the cacophony of the big city. Benjamin Koppel’s sax darts in and out, bringing to mind the stress of living in “the big city.” At other times hopeful and pensive, we feel the dreams of the poor immigrants eager for a new beginning. For them it must have been both exciting and overwhelming.
“Minding the Baby” has the vibe of a soothing lullaby, but with eyes wide open. In the photo, a little boy holds his little sister in her new surroundings. Quite often, the children adapt to their new world faster than their parents. They learn their new country’s language faster, and soon have to translate for the adults. Benjamin’s alto sax sweetens the mix, while the strings provide accents.
“Tommy the Shoeshine Boy” is much more intense. The tension is ratcheted up to a frantic soundscape with powerful drumming by Brian Blade and free form flights by Koppel. It’s a wild ride.
“Blind Man” expresses the dignity of a blind man in his one and only suit, selling pencils in his daily spot, leaning against a signpost, waiting for a sympathetic customer.
Koppel’s sax makes a compelling statement, backed by the orchestra setting a yearning tempo to match the poignant scene.
“The Last Mulberry” is a blues for the lonely last mulberry tree in the neighborhood, holding on for dear life, but ultimately losing the battle. It’s a requiem likely for the big city being an entirely different place than the countryside that the immigrants left. A bell tolls mid-tune as the musical mood changes. Colley’s bass takes lead, backing Benjamin, who blows blues heavy. The strings and reeds set a final hurrah to perhaps honor the tree’s existence.
“Bandit’s Roost” is a swinging barn burner. A stimulating pulse is set by the jazz trio, with Koppel’s sax channeling the swagger of the young adults in the photo hanging out in the alley, below the drying wash. They’re eager to take a bit out of the Big Apple. Time to spread their wings…
“The New House” is a hymn based on a 1894 Riis photograph of a new home for orphans and homeless children that Jacob built out in the countryside, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Scott Colley has a gorgeous lengthy bass solo, backed by an exquisite string section. Benjamin plays with a passion that drips with emotion.
It’s a fitting ending for an eighty plus minute visit to a world 150 years ago, that still exists for newcomers coming today from around the world searching for a new beginning in a land ripe with hopeful dreams. Anders Koppel honors his fellow countryman, Jacob Riis, in a musical tribute with dignity and grace. Highly recommended!
Side A: Stranded in the Strange City, Minding the Baby
Side B: Tommy the Shoeshine Boy
Side C: Blind Man, The Last Mulberry
Side D: Bandit’s Roost, The New House