Marc Copland’s ‘Zenith’ frees jazz with intentional feeling
Marc Copland

From the first note of Marc Copland’s “Sun At The Zenith,” it’s clear this is no ordinary jazz quartet replicating standards. There is one exceptional standard by Duke Ellington covered by the pianist with trumpeter Ralph Alessi, drummer Joey Baron, and double-bassist Drew Gress. Yet, every one of the six compositions sounds fresh, new, and infinitely deep.

Perhaps it’s the quality of tone on Alessi’s trumpet, as he makes it speak, and occasionally wail to the near-breaking point, in his conversational solo at the top of the hour on the first track. Or how about the way Gress floats his bass just slightly above Copland’s barely-there melodic R&B train of thought in the next tune, “Mystery Song,” both on the verge of breaking away into a full abstract condensation.

When Alessi and Copland merge their trumpet and piano on the same wavering wavelength before an awesome piano then trumpet solo takes hold, Ellington’s “Mystery Song” becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

In the improvised quartet piece, “Air We’ve Never Breathed,” there’s a lot of hurry up and wait going on in the cadence, the dynamics, and the interplay. Copland holds the improvisational piece together, providing the safety net of his prodding, stable time cues, so Alessi can explore the higher reaches of interpretation.

Zenith is Copland’s inaugural March release on his new record label, InnerVoice Jazz. His quartet is made up of his longtime bassist and drummer, and the final addition of trumpeter Alessi taking over a lot of the catchy narrative throughout this six-track romp.

If Copland’s group sounds deeper, better than the average straight-ahead jazz quartet, it’s intentional. That’s been the pianist’s goal, to combine access with a new touch. In a June 2016 DownBeat interview with Bill Milkowski, Copland explained his mantra: “The access is pretty much there most of the time, but the test is are you getting into new territory. If you’re playing a little bit differently than you did a year or two ago, then something good is happening. You’re trying to develop what you’re doing and expand the places that the music can go, which involves expanding the capabilities of the musical tools, in part.”

Each one of the musicians in Copland’s quartet goes the extra mile to extract deeper meaning than a 4/4 send-off. “It helps when everybody listens first, and that certainly happens in the bands I’m spending most of my time with now, which is the Zenith band, Gary Peacock’s trio and John Abercrombie’s quartet. That’s a common feature among all those groups. As musicians we want to leave space. That’s a sound that’s been inside my head from the very beginning. At any recording or gig I play, I try to establish that sound and use of space, and listening is the first step with that. And if everybody isn’t doing that, it can’t happen,” Copland continued in the interview. “But if everybody’s listening and responding to each other and to the sonic environment, then with the piano one can set the musical stage so that harmony and melody and rhythm can interact among the players in a certain way. And when that happens, then it’s very easy to start to go beyond the notes.”

Marc Copland’s Zenith goes beyond straight-ahead jazz and rides the entry to abstract free jazz with a purpose: to provide measured tones, textures, and depth of feeling with every sound byte.