BENJAMIN KOPPEL / SCOTT COLLEY / BRIAN BLADE - Mulberry Street Symphony
"Mulberry Street Symphony" is an epic compositional work for jazz trio and symphony orchestra, featuring Benjamin Koppel on alto saxophone, Scott Colley on bass, and Brian Blade on drums. The trio is with the Odense Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Martin Yates.
Anders Koppel's compositions include over 150 scores for classical ensembles, theatre, film, and ballet music. In this work, he pays homage to Jacob Riis, a photographer and social reformer who used his photographic talent to document the impoverished conditions of New York in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. His groundbreaking photojournalism book " How The Other Half Lives" introduced the middle and upper classes to the poverty-stricken realities of some of their neighbours. The son of the classical composer and pianist Herman D. Koppel, Anders Koppell sang in the Copenhagen Boys Choir and studied piano with his sister and father from the age of five. He played the recorder and later clarinet and made several television and concert appearances as a youngster, including the first performance of his father's "Variations" in 1962. With his brother, Thomas, he founded the legendary Danish rock group The Savage Rose, who toured Europe from 1967 to 1974 and played Newport Jazz Festival in 1969. They recorded eight albums in London, New York, Los Angeles, Rome, and Copenhagen studios. Koppel left the group in 1974 to make his first solo recordings, "Valmuevejen" with singer Otto Brandenburg, and "Aftenlandet," a progressive instrumental album. He was part of world music trio Bazaar for thirty-seven years with bassoonist-clarinetist Peter Bastian and percussionist Flemming Quist Møller. Benjamin Koppel has been a featured player in six of his concertos. In recent years, father and son have also played together in a highly interactive quartet setting with Colley and Blade. In honouring the legacy of Danish-American immigrant Riis, Koppel drew on the increasing debate over the growing wave of refugees and immigrants worldwide. His family came to Denmark at the beginning of the 20th century as Jewish immigrants from Poland. At that time, Russia occupied Poland, and there were pogroms on the Jews, so they fled to Denmark and made a living there. Later, when Germany occupied Denmark in 1940, the family fled to Sweden. So the idea of being an immigrant has always been present in Anders Koppel's mind.
When he viewed Riis's photographs at an exhibition in Copenhagen, Koppel felt moved to write music to honour him and considered how music has endlessly inspired and changed lives.
"Mulberry Street Symphony" is in seven movements, each based on a different Riis photograph capturing tenement life in New York City during the 1880s. I asked Anders about the work and how the collaboration came together. He said, " Well, so many important threads in my life come together in this work. For example, my life-long effort in many compositions to include inspiration from so-called rhythmic music like jazz and rock that I have played for almost 60 years combines naturally with symphonic classical music. This has also been a cornerstone for me to give birth to new, open, and modern music with no boundaries—also my lasting collaboration with the three soloists, Benjamin Koppel, Brian Blade, and Scott Colley. It has been lifelong with Benjamin through countless projects, including five saxophone concerts, and I have worked with Blade and Colley for many years. This idea to create this– a grand-scale work for the trio and symphony orchestra was actually Colley's from the start, and the opportunity to stage it came almost five years ago in connection with my 70th birthday. Now, as I approach 75, this great event of serious music-making is finally accessible. What a joy! The photographs of Riis were an immediate inspiration. They raised the question of immigration and refugees and the level of human morality this reflects. Unfortunately, this has not always been for the better in my country, Denmark. My family's history - immigrants from Poland, later fugitives to Sweden - is hidden somewhere in the work too. We are all immigrants at some point. Politics divide people worldwide, with a sea of human suffering in its wake. In music, we unite. Immigrants cross borders; musicians do as well. As musicians, we travel through time and space, language and expression. Riis, an immigrant from Denmark, was overwhelmed by these people's hard, desolate lives and dreams. The work is a eulogy to the life and dreams of these people. We developed the music in a wonderful, easy, and happy meeting between the classical musicians of the orchestra, the three jazz musicians fronting it, and the conductor. We were all carried by love, friendship, and mutual understanding. The score was written with discipline and care of the classical tradition - with the trio's open, highly sophisticated, and organic, improvised lines played by the trio. Again, so much more unites than divides us. "
The symphony showcases the composer's son, Benjamin Koppel, on alto saxophone, as the leading voice throughout all seven movements.
Scott Colley on bass brings with him the experience of working with Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Carmen McRae, Jim Hall, and Andrew Hill, and Brian Blade on drums is a long-standing member of the Wayne Shorter Quintet and has toured with Bill Frisell, Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock, and Bob Dylan.
The blending of small jazz ensembles backed by a full orchestra is not new, of course. George Russell wrote classical compositions with parts for soloists, including Bill Evans, John Coltrane, and Paul Bley. In 1959 Howard Brubeck's "Dialogue for Jazz Combo and Orchestra" was premiered by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, featuring Dave Brubeck's jazz quartet improvising lines against the classical arrangements for the orchestra. John Henry Lewis wrote music for the "Modern Jazz Quartet and Symphony orchestra." Ellington wrote suites including "Black, Brown and Beige" for orchestra with jazz elements. The links between classical composition and jazz music have been explored by many, including Gunter Schuller and Richard Rodney Bennett. In capturing the essence of Riis' meaningful photographs in music, Koppel manages to integrate symphonic elements with jazz improvisation while conjuring up a broad palette of colours and moods along the way. It is as if he is adding colour to the images in the pictures. He says, "The whole symphonic score is completely developed and notated, but I didn't write that much for the trio. Great musicians have fantastic ears. And I wanted to take advantage of that by giving Blade, Colley, and Koppel the freedom that I knew they could fill. And they interpreted my vision completely."
CD1 has movements 1-4 and CD 2 3-7 plus an encore.
"Stranded In The Strange City" opens the first CD and begins with bass creating an atmosphere using a simple rhythm before the vast sound of the orchestra enters to create a huge swell, adding to the sense of trepidation and expectation. The saxophone is afforded plenty of room to add its interesting rises and falls - each opportunity taken deftly by Benjamin Koppel, backed by steadfast drumming from Blade. As the sound drops away after a bass solo interlude, the sax again rises, the drums respond with quirky, intricate replies, and the orchestra ebbs and flows sonically as if propelling the trio onwards. The sense of a city in full flow is palpable, with Koppel on sax soaring with joy at times, then shifting the mood to pensive apprehension. There is a section of swingy, sassy sax against a frothy, tremulous string section before everything quietens and the sax goes into blast mode, underpinned by Blade's intuitive response on drums. The track ends with some reflective sax interludes and a wonderful coming together of classical and jazz streams, each flowing towards the final beautifully worked finish.
The second movement, " Minding The Baby," is expansive and gentle, with tones of a lullaby infused: the gentleness of the sax and drums, almost daring the orchestra to play louder. In the background, subtle flute parts add playfulness, while rising strings add warmth and a sense of gently enveloping the listener, creating a place of safety and calm. The sax speaks like a song as it tells perhaps of dreams to come and mysteries to unfold in the quiet of sleep. Koppel demonstrates his ability to introduce dynamic episodes and gentle quietude to his delivery. The track's second half works around a lovely melody - rhythmic, lulling, and very sweet.
"Tommy the Shoeshine Boy" is almost twenty minutes of wonderfully rich music. The orchestral arrangements are deep, multi-layered, and overflowing with intricacies, the sax producing intense interludes of frantic, emphatically delivered statements, rising and falling back like a tethered bird. These moments are countered by some beautiful, emotive interludes where the sax flies, the bird now flying free, taking the listener with it as it soars. The bass knows when to come forward, and just before the four-minute mark, the orchestra becomes a little more turbulent, emphasising the life of a shoeshine man, perhaps featuring some ups and downs, some running, and some moments of quiet - and sudden still times - here underscored by short solo bass notes.
The sax becomes crazily intense over the track, the pressure building with the long-short-short rhythms emphasised in the background by the orchestra to add tension as it builds. There is a constant changing of interactions, from sax over drums - the drums dominating with their rolling, intricate rhythms, to bass solo over the orchestra with flute rising from the background to sax intermittently rising, coming forward, and dropping back - some of the solos are outstanding. The drum solo just before the fourteen-minute mark is intense and immediately countered by the orchestra in gentle, quirky rhythm mode, over which the sax again solos. The arrangement here is generous to both jazz soloists and orchestra, and the places they meet are magical. The ending is outstanding.
"Blind Man" is as poignant as the previous movement is frantic. This moody tone poem portrays the lonely figure in one of Riis' photographs, as Koppel noted: "Always standing on the same spot, leaning slightly against the lamppost at the corner, peddling his rubber-tipped pencils. The darkness in his gaze, the dignity of his posture, I tried to convey a special character, a man who is very much himself, apart from society, in a sense. " And there is the truth. Knowing the story adds to the poignancy of the music, but it is also dignified, expressive, and almost careful, as if not wanting to intrude. Like you might wonder about the character of a figure in a photograph, there is more under the surface of this piece as you listen with the orchestral arrangements complex, under the relatively simple but wonderfully delivered sax solo work—another outstanding piece that leaves the listener emotional and drained.
CD 2 opens with "The Last Mulberry," a dramatic, blues-tinged requiem for the last mulberry tree in Little Italy as Koppel wrote: "A blues for the tree and for the time closing in. Still blooming every spring, its leaves became more and more sparse. In the end, it was cut down." In this number, you can truly sense the interaction of the trio of Blade, Koppel, and Colley, almost separate from the orchestra at times, especially in the middle of the movement. Yet at others, they draw the orchestra close and interact with the arrangements' dynamics. The near-silence of the very centre of the movement, broken only by the cymbal, seems to herald a new dynamic; hope. The mood rises as the sax flows ever upwards, like a point of change, the demise of the mulberry tree giving way to new hope perhaps. The tolling of the chime at the end could signal hope or despair.
" Bandit's Roost" was inspired by Riis' photograph of young Italian mobsters posing underneath their mothers' laundry, hanging out to dry. The track is dynamic and, at times, swinging, freewheeling, with Colley and Blade setting the kinetic pulse over which Koppel wails with abandon and authority across the top. The energy held in the music is palpable, and Koppel serves as a conduit for some of this, along with Blade and Colley's unwavering interactions with his solos, which are outstanding. The middle third includes some remarkable symphonic arrangements with the entire orchestra, over which the jazz instruments add dynamic and sometimes showy flourishes. The joy here is how symphonic music and jazz simply fit and disassemble any boxes constructed by those who label music to the extent that genres are separate and unmixed. Here, the mix is an absolute delight.
"Mulberry Street Symphony" finishes with " The New House," inspired by an 1884 photograph of a home for orphans and homeless children Riis helped build on a green hill in the countryside. Koppel noted, "The simplicity of the hymn reflects the hope and knowledge that lies behind this photo: things will change – and it matters what you do."
The encore, "Puerto Rican Rumble," is nine and a half minutes of fun, heavily infused with Latin rhythms as you might expect, and delivered with complete joy. The rhythms are explored, changed, returned, and swapped between players and orchestra—a wonder of a piece.
A photograph inspires each "Mulberry Street Symphony" movement, but Koppel says that the music itself often took over, and the symphony speaks of this. It is as if there are definite ideas, starting points, and these then develop, each movement turning into a musical story, a filling in of imagined things that perhaps you cannot quite capture in a photograph - the colour, textures, and depths which only multi-layered arrangements and devastatingly good delivery can create in the mind of the listeners.
This music ticks so many boxes - classical, jazz, and free form flowing, the trio interacting with each other, and the orchestra, which ultimately means everyone on this recording interacts with the listener. As Koppel put it earlier," so much more unites than divides us".
personnel: Benjamin Koppel - Alto saxophone; Brian Blade - Drums; Scott Colley - Bass; Odense Symphony Orchestra; Composer- Anders Koppel; Conductor -Martin Yates