THEY call him ‘the piano whisperer’ and he’s coming to Cork. Master American jazz pianist and composer Marc Copland may not be trying to tame or train the piano, but he has spent a lifetime developing a highly individual musical style that values gentle exploration over flashy pyrotechnics, subtle textures over straight lines.
He has an uncanny ability to bring out the best in the instrument: pianos somehow seem more sympathetic under his fingers; mysteriously, the music sounds better.
“The first thing a lot of pianists think about when they go to the piano is ‘How fast can I play?’, but that’s the last one for me — that’s not even on the horizon,” says 68-year-old Copland, via Skype from his home in New York. He talks slowly, calmly, carefully, yet is quick to laughter; even his speech has a certain lightness of touch.
“What I’m thinking is, ‘How does this piano sound? Where is it rich? Where is it brooding?’ I’m not focused on what ‘I’ ‘can’ play, or what I want to play. I’m not going to tell the piano what to do. So, no, I don’t whisper to the piano. The piano whispers to me, and the room, the venue, is whispering to me: ‘Try this. Do this. Don’t do this.’”
This month Copland makes a rare visit to Ireland to play an even rarer solo concert; Cork’s Triskel is the only Irish date on a short European tour.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Copland began taking classical piano lessons at the age of seven, but soon switched to alto saxophone. He progressed quickly, moved to New York to study music when he was 18, andestablished himself as a vital part of a vibrant late 1960s/early ’70s scene that championed experimentation, especially in the fusing of jazz with rock and folk.
Initially inspired by the mellifluous, inventive soloing of Dave Brubeck’s alto payer, Paul Desmond, he increasingly began to play in a more free, fiery and expressive way. “I had one foot in Paul Desmond, one foot in [John] Coltrane, and one foot in Jimi Hendrix,” explains Copland.
In his mid-20s, however, he became more and more frustrated with the saxophone, in particular its lack of harmonic reach; Copland wanted to express the extended chords and richer sounds he was hearing in his head.
“At a certain point with the saxophone I realised, ‘Hey, wait a minute, that’s not who I am.’ In a way switching to piano was a big change, but to me it felt like I’d been wearing a suit that didn’t fit for years, and I took it off, and I got one the right size, and I was like, ‘I can breathe’.”
He moved to Washington, DC, worked on his technique by exploring piano chords, colours and voicings; wrote compositions; “played from the heart”; and listened to a lot of records by “musicians who made more sense” to him: lyrical jazz pianists such as Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock, Impressionist composers such as Debussy and Ravel, and the timeless songs of Joni Mitchell.
Gradually he began to make a name for himself again, this time as a pianist. Ten years later, he returned to New York. “It was like coming back for a second life, like getting a second shot, and that was exciting,” he says.
He cemented his new musical identity a few years later by dropping his birth-name Cohen in favour of Copland, to avoid confusion with a singer of a similar name. The new surname was inspired by his love of the great American music of composer Aaron Copland.
Since then, the prolific Copland has released dozens of remarkable albums, in a dizzying variety of often all-star line-ups, from stellar small groups, to intimate chamber duos and trios, and mesmerising solo recordings.
Copland has patiently earned his place in the piano pantheon; more than that, he’s become a roving ambassador for quietly intelligent, winningly complex and wholly engaging improvised music, a charismatic risk-taker — maybe even, I suggest, “a kind of JFK of jazz”?
“Yeah, ask not what the piano can do for you,” he says, laughing, warming to the phrase. “Ask what you can do for the piano.”
- Marc Copland plays Triskel Christchurch, Cork, on Saturday