Marc Copland, solo piano – Alone – Pirouet PIT3044, 69:45 ***1/2:
On the inside of his latest solo outing, the appropriately titled Alone, pianist Marc Copland includes a Bill Zavatsky poem. The last stanza is an expressive statement relative to Copland’s art: "When songs run out of notes to sing/We’ll all have disappeared/Let’s listen while we have the chance/To music no one’s heard." Indeed, there is a definite denotation of discovery to the ten tracks on Alone.
For those who have not yet encountered Copland’s considerable skills as composer, interpreter and player, Alone is a good path to his lyrical and poetically-tinted talents. While Copland has been playing professionally for over four decades, he is currently better known in Europe, where audiences give him high accolades and where he’s released several albums on various labels.
As any keyboardist can attest, solo piano can be a difficult discipline. The delivery is intimate and needs precise clarity and enormous gifts of melodic and harmonic development. The musician is completely in the open and there is nowhere to hide: only strong musical personalities can make such endeavors rewarding for listeners. On Alone Copland does that and more.
Over the course of nearly 70 minutes Copland brings his textural and sedate aesthetic to bear on three originals, four interpretations of jazz and/or standards material and a trio of Joni Mitchell pop-folk tunes. Everything, even the Mitchell material, is defined by Copland’s tonal vernacular which mirrors his whole being, furnishing each piece an unmistakably Copland-esque quality: in other words, he makes these songs his, even those he did not write.
Copland opens with an affecting adaptation of Mal Waldron’s meditative ballad "Soul Eyes." The seven-minute cut is refined, elegant, intricate without being complicated, and emotionally incisive. Copland delves into Waldron’s melodic shades and in the process dilates them into a subtle charisma. "Soul Eyes" is an acutely honest commencement. Another low-key exploration occurs during Wayne Shorter’s "Fall," which dates back to Shorter’s time in Miles Davis’ second classic quintet and comes from Davis’ 1967 outing Nefertiti. The composition has been remade countless ways over the ensuing years but for his approach, Copland emphasizes the work as a form of purposeful mood music, slightly dissonant and lightly disturbing, akin to a fever dream that niches into the unconscious.
Copland also tackles tunes familiar from Hollywood and the pop spectrum. First up is Sammy Cahn, Axel Stordahl and Paul Weston’s timeless "I Should Care," which has been performed by numerous singers (Nat King Cole to Amy Winehouse) and other jazz luminaries (Thelonious Monk and The Modern Jazz Quartet, to cite two examples). For over nine minutes, Copland analyzes, dissects and deciphers the famous piece with assurance, a sense of poised wit where playfulness balances against seriousness, and measures out pirouetting notes that offer a synthesis of modern classical structure within a swaying jazz framework. It is doubtful anyone else has used this arrangement for "I Should Care" and it’s a hallmark and standout. Lastly is "Hi Li Hi Lo," which is most often titled as "Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo," Bronislau Kaper’s lyrical hit single from the popular 1953 MGM movie Lili. With reflective passages, judicious movements and thoughtful lines Copland details the moments of awakening and blossoming romance and the transformation from childhood to adulthood.
It’s a rare treat when a musician finds so much in common with a fellow artist that a unique mastery is produced. Such is the case with Copland’s translations of three Joni Mitchell titles from her early folk era. Mitchell brought a melodic and harmonic complexity to her relatively concise tunes and Copland reveals and expands those compound elements. Copland starts with "I Don’t Know Where I Stand," from Clouds (1969). During the seven-minute excursion Copland matches Mitchell’s delicate expressiveness while he demonstrates a careful touch that elicits the uncertainty of new love. During the obscure "Rainy Night House," taken from Ladies of the Canyon (1970), Copland spins the melody around to find a different course, a method suggestive of Keith Jarrett (listen closely for some Jarrett-like vocalizations as well) or Ahmad Jamal, both of whom Copland has been compared. The outcome is a superlative and satisfying re-harmonization, teeming with perception and intuition. Copland’s last Mitchell treatment is the likeminded "Michael from Mountain," found on Mitchell’s 1968 debut, Song to a Seagull. Copland has much to work with, since the cut employs sophisticated chord components seldom observed in the folk genre and features Mitchell’s attentive handcraft. Copland applies pastoral twists and turns in off-kilter but leveled ways, embracing Mitchell’s restrained, winsome quality while sifting across a melancholy timbre. These remakes are the quintessence of the atmospheric and innovative sentience that permeates Alone.
Copland’s originals illustrate his personal and angled distillation of blues and jazz. He broadens the title track from his 2009 trio album Night Whispers into an 11-minute, azure-painted achievement that is even more impressionistic than his initial piano-bass-drums rendering. Here, Copland is more explicit but, ironically, also more implicit, insinuating intensity in some instances and building on his dark abstraction at other points. Copland re-interprets his "Blackboard," from his 2001 solo jaunt Poetic Motion. While Copland retains a vulnerable and subdued fortitude and slow tempo, he amplifies the tenseness and manipulates space capably, sometimes sidestepping the melody. While there is a sense of a roundabout journey that does not traverse beyond a circle, Copland provides a determined presence. The icy "Into the Silence" is Copland’s newest conception, another earnest ode where Copland depicts imagery that has the characteristics of memory mixed with current forethought. The bluesy confessional is contemplative and the set’s most austere representation.
Regarding his recent work, Copland’s own words assert his intent best, "There’s no cut and dried technique other than this: the desire, when playing, not to hit a single note or a single chord unless it has a certain touch, a certain blend, a certain feel." Copland has a lot to say musically but has the ability to do so with brevity and resolution. Audiophiles should pay attention to engineer/producer Jason Seizer’s production, since he nimbly captures each tint and hue, from Copland’s lightly brushed keyboard caresses to his rhythmic vocal enunciation, all of which help give weight and ambience to the proceedings and shares similarities to Jarrett’s ECM recordings.
1. Soul Eyes
2. I Don’t Know Where I Stand
3. Night Whispers
4. Into the Silence
5. Rainy Night House
6. I Should Care
9. Michael from Mountain
10. Hi Li Hi Lo
— Doug Simpson