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Anders Koppel Brings Jazz and Classical Together with Historic Photography

A look at the pianist's new album inspired by the photos of Jacob Riis

Anders Koppel (photo: Robin Skjoldhøj)
Anders Koppel (photo: Robin Skjoldhøj)

Even through the narrow window of a smartphone-shaped FaceTime screen, it’s easy to see that the walls of Anders Koppel’s home outside Copenhagen are filled with art. The paintings and photos and such are inspiring on their own, the composer says—but even more so are the memories that they evoke.

“What I have here in my room are mostly things from my long life, from friends and so on,” Koppel said. “It’s a life. It’s what you find on the beach after a storm.”

Life and art intertwine majestically on Koppel’s new album, Mulberry Street Symphony. The double-CD is an epic suite for jazz trio and orchestra, featuring the composer’s saxophonist son Benjamin Koppel, bassist Scott Colley, and drummer Brian Blade with the Odense Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martin Yates. The piece’s seven movements are each based on a photograph by Danish photojournalist and social activist Jacob Riis, whose book How the Other Half Lives exposed the squalid living conditions of poor immigrants in late 19th-century New York City.

The melding of jazz and classical music is nothing new for Koppel, who has penned several saxophone concertos for his son as well as numerous other works where composition and improvisation commingle. The 74-year-old pianist and composer has shrugged off easy genre definitions throughout a career spanning more than a half-century. In his native Denmark he’s known as a co-founder of the long-running rock band Savage Rose, and he fused jazz and world-music influences for over 40 years as a member of the trio Bazaar. 

Koppel eagerly acknowledges the debt he owes to American musical traditions, so as he planned a piece that would feature Colley and Blade he decided to honor that transcontinental interchange of ideas.

“American culture has meant so much to me personally,” he explained. “The traditions of blues, gospel, country, and jazz have meant so much to my musical language. So I thought about what Denmark has given America in return.”

Although he initially considered Victor Borge, the Danish-American comedian whose routines often found him playing classical piano, Koppel quickly focused on Riis. The seven photos he chose for Mulberry Street Symphony are stark and moving, vividly capturing the humanity of their impoverished subjects in a way that bridges the years and connects with modern viewers. Koppel’s compositions are expressive and vigorous on their own while also providing intricate backgrounds for the deft trio, Blade offering typically sensitive percussion along with Colley’s eloquent basslines.

An image from How the Other Half Lives (photo: Jacob Riis)
An image from How the Other Half Lives (photo: Jacob Riis)

The vibrant emotions that Koppel felt upon gazing into the eyes of Riis’ subjects come through strikingly on Mulberry Street Symphony, which overflows with impressionistic colors reminiscent of Gil Evans. Opener “Stranded in the Strange City,” with Benjamin Koppel’s darting, weaving alto, suggests the guarded optimism and agitation of its source image: a young man sporting an ill-fitting suit and a wary look in his one good eye. The frantic “Tommy the Shoeshine Boy,” with its zigzagging strings suggesting heavy traffic, borrows its pace from the out-of-focus energy of the young street hustler.

The music also resonates with the still ongoing debate over immigration and isolationism in both Denmark and America, along with much of the rest of the world. As we spoke in late February, Russia was on the brink of invading Ukraine, threatening another refugee crisis.

“The issue of immigration and refugees is so important these days, in Denmark and elsewhere,” Koppel said. “This was my chance to contribute to that dialogue. Immigration has been a part of my family life as well: My grandparents came to Denmark as Jewish refugees from Poland, and my parents were refugees in Sweden during World War II. So when I looked at these photos, I could see in the eyes of those portrayed their lives, their dreams, their disillusionments and their hopes for the future. It was very easy to be inspired by those photographs.” 

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.