Acclaimed Danish saxophonist Benjamin Koppel showcases his versatility and virtuosity on two distinctly different releases for the Unit Records label. While the 2CD set The Art of the Quartet finds the alto sax star engaging in freewheeling musical dialogues and executing thoroughly composed pieces with top American jazz luminaries Kenny Werner on piano, Scott Colley on bass and the great Jack DeJohnette on drums, Ultimate Soul & Jazz Revue (also a 2CD set) has him throwing down with authority on familiar funk and R&B anthems alongside two American music icons in trumpeter Randy Brecker and legendary drummer Bernard Purdie. Whether searching in uninhibited fashion and navigating heady compositional waters with his fellow intrepid improvisers on The Art of the Quartet or testifying to the power of groove on Ultimate Soul & Jazz Revue, Koppel handles both worlds with equal aplomb.
The extraordinary lineup featured on The Art of the Quartet came about through some longstanding musical hookups that Koppel had fostered through his celebrated career. He and Werner met in 2007 at an all-star event that Koppel put together to celebrate Danish drummer Alex Riel's 50 years in music. They further explored their chemistry together on 2008's At Ease, which featured Koppel playing alongside fellow alto saxophonist Bobby Watson, and in 2009 they recorded their duo album Walden, with music inspired by Henry David Thoreau. Since then they have toured extensively in both US and Europe and have recorded a dozen albums together. Scott Colley, known from his work with Carmen McRae, Herbie Hancock, Jim Hall and the supergroup Hudson (consisting of guitar great John Scofield, Medeski, Martin & Wood keyboardist John Medeski and drummer extraordinaire DeJohnette), is also a member of the Koppel-Colley-Blade Collective formed in 2012 with Benjamin and top drummer Brian Blade. "Scott and I met in 2009 at my annual Summer Jazz festival when I put together a quintet with him, Kenny Werner, John Abercrombie and Al Foster," said Benjamin. "Scott and I instantly became very good friends and have worked frequently on many different projects since then, including a duo album we made. Scott is a great spirit, an amazing player and composer."
It was Werner who recruited DeJohnette for The Art of the Quartet. As Koppel recalled, "After hearing some of the music, Jack wanted to join as an equal partner in the project. He even recommended the studio, Clubhouse in Rhinebeck, which is very close to where he lives near Woodstock. We all had a very good feeling about recording at the Clubhouse. Everybody brought music and we had a ball working together over three or four days."
CD 1 is bookended by the daring collective improvisations, "Free I" and "Free II," each of which travels from searching, rubato introspection to turbulent freebop paced by DeJohnette's whirlwind drumming and Colley's insistent pulse. Koppel's exchanges with Werner here are both provocative and highly conversational. "Since we had all worked together before in different configurations, we felt that we really knew each other well, so it felt really natural for us to go into the studio without any directives at all and just invent together, create from a mutual understanding. And since we are all composers, everybody was simply composing right there on the spot. We didn't have to talk about anything up front."
Koppel's sparse and gently introspective "Bells of Beliefs" was inspired by an orchestral piece by György Ligeti. "A very little spot in this piece had a certain bell-vibe to it and the sound stuck with me," he explained. "I went home and composed 'Bells of Beliefs' in a minute. "At the session, Jack heard my demo of this tune and he was super excited and wanted to postpone the recording of this particular song in order to drive back to his house and pick up a very special set of bells that he had just been given prior to our session. And his playing on those bells is amazing!" With DeJohnette's bells, Colley's bowed bass and Werner's sparse tinkling setting a peaceful tone, Koppel summons up a depthful Trane-like vibe on this pensive piece.
Koppel addresses his own near-sightedness on the gently droning "Night Seeing," which unfolds gracefully and gradually before segueing to an exploratory drums-alto breakdown at the 6-minute mark. Regarding the title, the composer said, "It's inspired by the thought of us as human beings too often not comprehending, not seeing what is going on right around us. Too often we don't see climate change at night, we don't see racism unless it is recorded on film. But at the same time I didn't want this music to be a lecture in any way. No raised index fingers, but hopefully just inspiration."
They revive a buoyant DeJohnette Special Edition piece from the '80s, "Ahmad the Terrible" (from 1984's Album Album) and deliver Werner's delicate through-composed piece "Follow" with conviction. "It's a typical Kenny piece in that it really demands of the musicians that they explore a certain vibe in both themselves and in their collaboration. And that certain vibe is set with Kenny's quite simple but nonetheless really deep composition."
Werner's "Iago," a moving number in honor of Brazilian composer Weber Iago, is a brilliant showcase for Koppel's spirited virtuosity while the pianist's "Ballad for Trane" carries a loping swing feel and has Benjamin blowing over the top in ecstatic fashion. As Koppel explained, "Kenny wrote this tune many years ago after listening to some bootleg Coltrane recordings through a whole night. This tune really sets off a great path of exploring and tributing Trane, without having to try to play or sound like him at all. But just the feeling, the changes, the melody are very connected to Trane's huge musical wisdom."
They deliver a faithful reading of the standard "If I Should Lose You," which has Colley and DeJohnette each stepping out for show-stopping solos. "When playing standards, it feels natural to me to approach them freely, maybe a bit in the tradition of Lee Konitz," said Koppel, "although I also love to just dive into a good melody and more or less stay with it." Then they revel in Colley's striking rubato number "Americana," which Koppel said, "pointed the group in an obvious wide-open-spaces direction where there is room for everyone, both musically and spiritually."
The gestalt quartet next jumps on DeJohnette's hard driving, energetic "One on One" with abandon. "Jack is obviously both a great drummer and pianist, but also a great composer," said Koppel. "This piece immediately set the four of us in a creative and powerful mode, where we take turns leading, pushing or commenting on grounds of the theme. One thing that really struck us all when recording this track was the power of omission. What we leave out, don't play, choose not to react to all makes a conceptual and open-minded piece like this really come to life. Everyone keeps challenging and surprising the others while taking responsibility for both the theme and the composition and track as a whole."
They settle into Werner's peaceful hymn-like closer, "Sada," with uncommon delicacy. "This is one of Kenny most beautiful and long-lasting compositions, based on a chant from his ashram. It contains so much love, hope and yearning, while at the same time confronting each one of us with the sorrows of our lives. But it is a piece of light and thoughtfulness, almost meditational at times. It is one of Kenny's pieces that we have played live the most."
On the Ultimate Soul & Jazz Revue, the saxophonist returns to his roots. "A great part of the record collection in my childhood was American gospel music (Golden Gate Quartet, Mahalia Jackson, Staple Singers) and soul music (Aretha, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye), which is what I listened to the most when I was a kid, besides the Beatles," he recalled. "My sister Marie and I began playing concerts at various cafés in Copenhagen when I was 14 and she was 17 and our repertoire was mainly soul standards. So soul music in various forms is a great part of my musical DNA and something I always return to."
Recorded live at Betty Nansen Theatre in Copenhagen during the 2019 edition of Koppel's Summer Jazz Festival, Ultimate Soul & Jazz Revue features Benjamin, Brecker, Colley and Purdie backed by top Danish musicians in keyboardist Jacob Christoffersen, Hammond organist Dan Hemmer, percussionist Jacob Andersen and guitarist Søren Heller, an impressive newcomer on the Scandinavian music scene. Together they come out of the gate with intensity on a ferocious version of Buddy Miles' 1970 tune "Them Changes" (famous recorded by Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsys at their historic 1970 Fillmore East show in New York City). From there they expertly blend jazz and funk on a Fender Rhodes-fueled rendition of Dizzy Gillespie's Afro-Cuban classic "Manteca" before moving on to the slyly funky "Hammond Street," one of three Koppel originals of the set. Brecker and Koppel play tight unisons on the head here, rekindling some of the Brecker Brothers vibe, before Benjamin breaks loose for some virtuosic double-timing over Purdie's chugging groove. "I love to play with Randy," said Koppel. "The first time we shared a mic was on a session with a Danish piano player, which I co-produced in New York in 1999. And since then we fortunately have had the opportunity to work quite a few times together in different settings, among them in Kenny Werner's Quintet (with Scott and Antonio Sanchez). Randy is so easy to play with. His sound, time and inventiveness are beyond virtuoso and his generosity and curiosity as a musician ever-inspiring.
They capture the perfect '70s vibe on a rendition of Curtis Mayfield's anthemic 1970 hit song, "Move on Up," then conjure up an appealing Crusaders-type crossover vibe on Koppel's "Feel the Burn" (which he dedicates to Bernard Purdie). Benjamin's sister, singer Marie Carmen Koppel, next tackles Aretha Franklin's "Respect" with all the gusto and earthy intent of a real-deal soul diva. "We went to New York City together in January 1994 (I was 19, she was 23) to experience the city, to hear music, to study, to explore. I eventually went home but she stayed for two years, becoming the first European (maybe even the first white girl) to become a part of the Brooklyn Fountain Church of Christ, where she sang in the choir and as a soloist with a bunch of amazing gospel singers and musicians." Marie's gospel influence definitely comes out on her interpretation of "Respect."
Koppel's noirish "Con Alma and Sax" is a haunting ballad with some expressive playing by the leader while their instrumental rendition of King Floyd's 1970 soul staple, "Groove Me," is perfectly anchored by Purdie's signature backbeat and Colley's deeply resonant, funky upright basslines. Koppel delivers some alto testifying on a funky version of Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing," which has Purdie unleashing on his kit over a mesmerizing ostinato near the end of that epic 10-minute rendition. Koppel also wails with impunity over a soul-jazz take on The Carpenter's 1970 hit, "Close to You."
Their Summer Jazz set closes on a funky note with a organ-fueled rendition of Sly & The Family Stone's 1968 classic, "Sing a Simple Song," that has Koppel channeling his inner David Sanborn, Hemmer offering a greasy B-3 solo and Randy reverting to his Brecker Brothers swagger on his trumpet solo. Said the elder Brecker brother of this Soul & Jazz Revue gig, "I had just come from a week of Billy Cobham gigs which were just great, but his music is very involved with odd tempos and a lot of metric modulation and many, many notes (!), so this gig with Benjamin and Purdie at the heart of it was a lot of fun. I hadn't played with Bernard in years. He was on my first record, Score, back in 1969 and back in the day we did a million sessions together, where he would set up 'Pretty Purdie' signs around his drums with his phone number on it - the technology of the day. So it was like a homecoming to play with him at this festival and he sounded great with Scott Colley on bass. They really locked it up. And Benjamin, who arranged all of the tunes and wrote some, was, as always, outstanding."
The grandson of famous Danish classic composer Herman D. Koppel and the son of musician and composer Anders Koppel, co-founder of the '60s rock group Savage Rose, Benjamin Koppel is one of the most outstanding musicians of his generation. Originally a drummer, inspired by Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, he switched to saxophone at age 13. "My first inspirations when I began playing saxophone were Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter and Earl Bostic," he explained. "Then came Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster (whom I am named after - my father used to play with him in the early 1970s) and Coleman Hawkins. And then Cannonball and Trane." Koppel made his recording debut as a leader in 1993 with The Benjamin Koppel Quartet at age 18. The following year he came to New York and studied with Paquito D'Rivera. Koppel has been the most productive, in-demand and far-reaching Scandinavian musician of his generation, appearing on more than 50 recordings with such noteworthy players as Phil Woods, Jim Hall, Joe Lovano, Daniel Humair, Palle Danielsson, Alex Riel, Paul Bley, Miroslav Vitous, Inger Dam Jensen, Michala Petri, Chano Dominguez, Charlie Mariano, Portinho, David Sanchez and Sheryl Crow.
In 2000, Koppel formed his own independent record label, Cowbell Music, and since 2009 has been the organizer of Summer Jazz and Winter Jazz, two popular independent music festivals that take place in the Danish capital of Copenhagen. Koppel has received numerous awards and honors, including the Palæ Bars Jazz Prize, the Jacob Gade Prize and the Holstebro Music Prize. In 2011, he was named Knight of France, Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres for his musical work. He was also a jazz radio host, producing more than 200 programs for National Danish Radio.