Copland started a jazz career in the early seventies by playing saxophone with Chico Hamilton, John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner, among others. But unlike many other musicians, Copland didn’t continue to play his original instrument. Instead, he realized, for whatever reasons, that he would be more fulfilled as a pianist, and he abandoned the saxophone, disappearing from tours and releasing no recordings for almost ten years.
When Copland emerged again, he devoted his energies to creating his own distinctive style on piano as he backed up already established musicians like Wallace Roney, James Moody and Joe Lovano. Copland’s artistic growth on the piano, and the application of his imagination to the possibilities afforded by that instrument, have allowed him to establish himself as one of the leading jazz pianists, and his playing has been praised by comparisons to Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans or Herbie Hancock. Such comparisons inevitably are misleading and unnecessary. Musicians offer vocabulary and voices as unique as their personalities, and so Copland has developed his own, lyrical, impressionistic, more often than not intriguingly spontaneous. As a result, Copland now has reached the point where his recordings are awaited, and to some extent, savored.
Lately, Copland’s New York Trio Recordings have contributed substantially to even greater awareness while reinforcing the consistency and personal nature of his approach. The concept behind the New York Trio Recordings is Copland’s successive recording of several CD’s with different rhythm sections to vary the movement and textures underpinning his improvisations.
After Modinha, which included bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Bill Stewart, Copland now has released Voices, which substitutes Paul Motian for Stewart. Long-time associate Peacock remains with Copland on Voices. In the tradition of memorable piano trios and particularly Evans’s, whose introspective and impressionistic tradition Copland continues the group on Voices is always interactive as the equally explorative musicians feed ideas to one another throughout the course of a performance. As a result of in-the-moment inspiration, Copland leaves the recording studio as surprised and as pleased as the listener, because of the discoveries that emerged during the course of the session. And that’s the way it should be. No doubt, that accounts for the engaging unpredictability throughout Voices (aptly named, for the recording does document a conversation among three like-minded professionals).
The egalitarian nature of this trio emerges at the start of Voices when not piano, but bass, introduces the project. Peacock in effect calls listeners to attention, first with the eight notes of a phrase he establishes a fragment of melody before he ascends to his instrument’s upper register, masterfully settling into the four-note vamp that fulfills the anticipation he set up. And then we hear the entire trio’s unified sound as Copland states the theme with gorgeous chords, lightly played, as he embellishes the proceeding with treble reflections. Though Peacock includes "Vignette" from his What It Says album, one still expects the piece to be led by the piano, as the result of conventional piano trio expectations. But after "Vignette’s" melody is stated, it becomes evident that the bass is the lead instrument and Peacock’s development of the theme is no less than stellar. Copland backs him up with his characteristic diligent attention to touch, completing the scenic portrait that the trio describes.
Peacock’s "Albert" involves more give and take, Motian kicking off the performance with his own solo before Copland states the sinuous, rumbling, push-and-pull theme with its slight country references. After that, Peacock adds the quarter-note push, allowing Copland to improvise over the foundation in a more conventional way before Peacock once again takes one of his fluid, effortless, melodic solos. Copland’s first composition of Voices is "River’s Run," which appeared first on his Time within Time album. Its loping movement, accentuated by the unison left-hand piano and bass upward line, moves into impressionistic territory with its textural context and suggestions of natural movement, flowing, percolating, rippling and cascading. "Voices" possesses similar qualities of color and motion, not to mention Copland’s broad scintillating chords, consisting of lower bass notes anchoring those in the upper register as loosely woven swaths of rich color.
Copland’s "At Night" is one of the more tightly arranged tracks, basing its first chorus on the written melody. Peacock plays harmony to Copland’s lead without Motian at first, before the piece evolves into a more relaxed mood, which naturally leads into successive solos. The only standard on Voices is the ever-malleable "All Blues," and Copland’s trio, rather than replaying the piece, adapts it to their own voices. Copland re-harmonizes the piano part, making it similar in feeling to some of the other pieces on Voices, the harmonies now becoming characteristically Copland’s as he staggers the beat. The underlying current, of course, is provided by Peacock and Motian, who free the conventional treatment of "All Blues" not only with Peacock’s irrepressible energy and extraordinary technique, but also by Motian’s combination of force with minimalism.
In spite of its fascinating intricacy, Copland’s works remain enjoyable by a broad listening public due to, frankly, the beauty, the lyricism, of the music he performs. Apparently committed to the highest level of performance quality and ever-surprising spur-of-the-moment give-and-take with the musicians he works with, Copland, though one performance after another, and through one recording after another, has inconspicuously built a discography of increasingly masterful recordings that confirm that his choice of pursuing a jazz piano career was the right one.