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Marc Copland – Better by Far – InnerVoice Jazz

Marc Copland – Better by Far – InnerVoice Jazz IVJ 103, 62:29 [Spring 2017] ****:

Pianist Marc Copland’s quartet makes it better.

(Marc Copland – piano; Ralph Alessi – trumpet; Drew Gress – double bass; Joey Baron – drums)

Pianist Marc Copland is and has been a persistently clear example of the lyrical side of jazz piano music. On Copland’s many releases as a leader and projects with other artists (see John Abercrombie, Bob Belden and more) he has become well-known for his modern harmonic jazz which is also typically accessible to general jazz listeners. In other words, Copland is innovative without sacrificing listenability. Copland’s quartet outing, Better by Far (on his own InnerVoice Jazz imprint) is a fine follow-up to his 2015 CD, Zenith, which had Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Drew Gress on bass and Joey Baron on drums. The four intuitive players are together again on the 62-minute, nine-track Better by Far.

The album was issued with little fanfare in Spring, 2017—an official release date, in fact, was not provided—but the music speaks for itself. There are five Copland compositions; three credited to the quartet; and a Thelonious Monk tune. In total, the music blends subtlety and shimmer, along with a more vivid musical palette and occasional energetic fringes. The band opens with “Day and Night” (a Copland original not to be confused with Cole Porter’s similarly titled “Night and Day”), a nine-minute swinging affair with a thematic melody and instrumental sophistications. Gress presents a rhythmic freedom which goes hand in hand with Baron’s drum kit flourishes. Alessi offers a cerebral but user-friendly solo, followed by a piano improvisation which illustrates Copland’s ability to swing and maintain a contemporary timbre. The other upbeat piece is the exhilarating, group-penned “Who Said Swing?” where the tonal quality is both melodic and marginally frictional. Alessi delivers some surprising turns on the trumpet while Copland shines on the piano. Baron adds rhythmic complexity which amplifies the somewhat askew arrangement. There’s a befittingly awry affection and prancing pace to Monk’s “Evidence.” There was a time when covering Monk was an edgy proposition. Those days are long gone. “Evidence” is now a standard; and Copland and his cohorts furnish an appropriate slice of tradition as well as modernity to this Monk classic.

Nuances and inky introspections lace through various tunes. The title track (written by Copland) has a splendid character highlighted by Alessi’s finely-etched trumpet soloing and Copland’s graceful piano. “Better by Far” has a gentleness which shows a balanced tenderness missing from some contemporary jazz performances. A comparable refinement permeates Copland’s gliding “Room Enough for Stars,” a picturesque, lengthy ballad which features Copland’s poetic touch on piano. “Room Enough for Stars” has a superb trio section for piano, bass and drums. When Alessi reenters, he provides a quietening solo; and then Gress takes the lead with a peaceful but not lulling bass solo. The quartet supplies a shadowed stylishness on some cuts, such as the dimly-hued, eight-minute “Dark Passage,” which shares a noir-ish attribute with David Goodis’ 1946 crime novel of the same name (also a 1947 movie). If anyone redoes Dark Passage as a neo-noir film, Copland would be the person to do a suitable soundtrack. The nearly ten-minute “Gone Now” is a ruminative reflection suffused with memory, contemplation and loss. Copland, Alessi, Baron and Gress sustain a melancholy ambiance which demonstrates the foursome’s harmonic significance and translucent inflection.

Over his career as a jazz artist, Copland has collaborated with musicians in myriad settings from duos to trios to quartets to quintets. His large discography showcases his distinguishing work as performer and composer. It would be hard to choose one or two Copland albums above any others. But Better by Far is one which should make anyone’s list of Copland CDs to hear.

Day and Night
Better by Far
Gone Now
Room Enough for Stars
Dark Passage
Who Said Swing?

—Doug Simpson

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