Pianist Marc Copland is the most ECM-friendly musician without a record under his own name on that label. Via his frequent and longstanding engagement with ECM headliners like John Abercrombie and Gary Peacock, and through his prolific recordings on the German Pirouet label, Copland has consistently displayed the harmonic elegance and crystalline intonation that compels and rewards keen listening.
There is no better way to listen to Copland right now than in the quartet that prompted him to start a record label of his own, InnerVoice Jazz, for the 2016 disc Zenith. The group consists of Abercrombie’s rhythm section—Copland, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Joey Baron—but swaps out Abercrombie for the crucial presence of trumpeter Ralph Alessi. Their followup to Zenith, entitled Better by Far, acknowledges that Copland’s compositions can be as masterfully controlling and cerebral as an Ingmar Bergman film, and intersperses three playful group improvisations plus a Monk cover (“Evidence”) as recess from the delightful rigor of the more meaty material.
The five Copland originals are exquisite, calibrated with a sage appreciation for each member of the band. With Paul Motian no longer with us, who better than Baron to fashion a delicate latticework of beats that ushers in the refrain of “Gone Now,” with its music-box simplicity? And when the soundscape of “Room Enough for Stars” begins to feel limitless in its tranquilly, it’s a tonic to hear Gress ground the proceedings with his earthy tone. Best of all, as with Zenith, the contours of the Copland-Alessi tandem are an ongoing revelation. In particular, the trumpeter’s pellucid solos on “Day and Night,” “Gone Now” and “Dark Passage” are slightly harsher extensions of Copland’s own aesthetic, nudging the interplay into a bit more aggression without disrupting the harmonic grace and unruffled flow. Yes, InnerVoice Jazz is a fine name for a label created to convey this music.