Benjamin Koppel’s “Art of the Quartet”

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KOPPEL: Free I. Bells of Beliefs. Night Seeing. Ahmad the Terrible. Follow. Free II. Iago. Ballad for Trane. ROBIN-RAINGER:  If I Should Lose You. KOPPEL: Americana. One on One. Sada / Benjamin Koppel, a-sax; Kenny Werner, pno; Scott Colley, bs; Jack DeJohnette, dm / Unit Records. no number

Benjamin Koppel, the jazz-playing son of Danish classical composer Anders Koppel, has put together two new releases on the Swiss-based Unit Records Label, but since the second one focuses on R&B and funk, which I enjoy about as much as drinking sour milk, I decided to pass on that one.

In addition to the fact that this 2-CD set is pure jazz, another attraction for me was the inclusion of Jack DeJohnette, one of my favorite jazz drummers from the 1960s. (He played with Bill Evans at Ronnie Scott’s club in 1968 in the album I reviewed late last year.) The opening selection, Free I, is his approach to free jazz: less edgy and hysterical than the majority of free jazz you hear on other labels, this is a softer, more lyrical piece that sort of meanders along in a relaxed style but is still interesting and full of nice little moments. I was particularly impressed by bassist Scott Colley’s musical imagination in coming up with nice counter-figures in addition to his rich, full tone and excellent technique. By the 3:47 mark, the tempo has increased and the quartet is really cooking, particularly DeJohnette whose drum patterns remain as energetic and enticing as ever at the youthful age of 78. Eventually pianist Kenny Werner lays down a repeated rhythmic pattern in which Koppel joins him while DeJohnette breaks things up behind them. I must admit, however, that eventually things become repetitive and really don’t go anywhere towards the end.

Bells of Beliefs opens with DeJohnette playing some sort of very resonant bells, apparently with a sustain pedal since the sounds keep reverberating even after other tones are struck. About a minute and 40 seconds into it, the piano enters, softly, playing slow, repeated rhythmic figures before the bass enters, followed by the leader very softly on sustained alto notes. Bowed bass and chime chords on the piano then follow, with Koppel softly joining the bass along with cymbal washes to create a nice ambience that is also musically interesting. By the 6:10 mark, however, all hell breaks loose: the tempo and volume increase and Koppel plays mad, flying figures on his alto as DeJohnette works out behind him and the other two feed into the melee. Things quiet down again, however, in the final chorus.

Indeed, by the time one gets into the third track, Night Seeing, one is aware that this is in its own unique way a free jazz album in which the four musicians play not only with notes and musical motifs but also with color and space. It’s the kind of music I would categorize as a “late night set,” when darkness covers the sky and one is winding down after a long, hard day. It doesn’t quite lull you into a sleep state because there is a lot going on and neither the pace nor the volume stays at a relaxed level, but it never quite reaches a full musical explosion either. And each piece is built around simple but attractive blocks of sound that somehow coalesce into a complete musical thought. Sometimes they take turns improvising, but much of the time they try to complement what each other is doing.

On Ahmad the Terrible, the quartet opens with what appears to be a promising jazz beat, which then moves into a nice groove swing—a rare instance of them playing a bit more straightahead and less ambient jazz—but Koppel and his quartet keep slowing down, altering and breaking up the beat as they go along, with interesting results. Eventually they explode in a “free” passage which then takes off like a rocket.

Although Werner is clearly a fine jazz pianist, he ironically almost takes a back seat to the other three, in the order of Koppel-DeJohnette-Colley. These three musicians are just so incredibly creative in the way they approach this music that they hold your interest, singly and collectively. Or, to put it another way, Werner feeds into the stream but he does not lead or create the stream.

Follow has a strange feel to it, somewhat related to Coltrane’s Giant Steps, while Free II opens with some really strange, muted percussion sounds played by the masterful DeJohnette while Colley twangs his bass like a Country guitarist. Eventually, pianist and saxist move into the picture as things start to develop. Eventually, they play to a sort of Middle Eastern belly-dance rhythm.

CD 2 opens with Iago, which again has a somewhat regular beat, this time in a medium 6/8. set to a pleasant melodic line initially played by Koppel with the rhythm section supporting him. On this track, Werner really gets into it, playing an outstanding solo that increases in intensity as DeJohnette works out behind him. Eventually they get into a sort of soul groove, not leaning too much towards funk, and work it out. Ballad for Trane, too, has a regular pulse, and though it only has some traces of Coltrane’s style in it, it is an attractive piece. And once again, Werner sounds very good in his solo. I think perhaps that he, of all the members of the quartet, needs a regular pulse to blossom as a soloist.

The old Robin-Rainger tune If I Should Lose You is the one standard in this album, and Koppel and company really swing it, again with Werner really flourishing in the steady pulse. But no matter which track you listen to, or in what order, this quartet is full of surprises. I highly recommend it, particularly to DeJohnette’s millions of fans; they’ll be thrilled to hear that he’s as creative as ever.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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