Saturday, January 27, 2024

Andres Koppel's Mulberry Street Symphony: A symphonic/saxophone concerto in the tradition of some of the best.

Mulberry Street Symphony: Cowbell Music
Andres Koppel, Benjamin Koppel, Scott Colley, Brian Blade, 
Martin Yates & the Odense SymphonyOrchestra

I recently took the time to listen to a Symphonic/Saxophone concerto released back in February of 2022- Yeah, I know what took me so long?- Danish composer Anders Koppel's splendid Mulberry Street Symphony which was actually recorded in October of 2017. This glorious music is in the tradition of some of other jazz/symphony collaborations like Duke Ellington's Black, Brown, and Beige, Miles Davis/Gil Evans Sketches of Spain, Stan Getz/Eddie Sauter's Focus, Claus Ogerman/Michael Brecker's Cityscape and even Michel LeGrand/Phil Woods/Images.  

Anders Koppel (photo credit unknown)

The now, seventy-seven-year-old, Anders Koppel, a new name to me, is an accomplished composer whose extensive work includes music for cinema, theater, ballet, and over one hundred and fifty classical scores for orchestra. 

The inspiration for his Mulberry Street Symphony came from viewing a retrospective of the photos of a fellow Dane, Jacob Riis'. The inquisitive lens of Riis captured the expressive,  poignant, sometimes unhealthy, and often desperate conditions of European immigrants who fled the hardships of their homelands to settle in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the late eighteen hundreds. Riis's photography became part of his important 1890 book "How the Other Half Lives."  

Jacob Riis

It's no surprise that Koppel-himself the product of a Jewish family lineage that fled Russian-controlled Poland and made their way to a temporary refuge in Denmark, before having to again relocate to Sweden from the Nazi occupation- would find such artistic simpatico with the refugees of Riis' moving photographs.

When art finds a compelling story, the artist often finds inspiration for creative expression, and Koppel's Mulberry  Street Symphony certainly is a testament to that creative process being inspired by real life. The piece includes seven movements based on seven specific Riis photographs that, in the hands of Koppel, create their own aural story to complement the moving images.

Benjamin Koppel (photo credit unknown)

To create this emotionally charged piece, Koppel enlisted his own son, Benjamin Koppel, as the lead alto saxophonist of the three-piece jazz-oriented trio that is the primary improvisational aspect of the symphony. This talented, multi-reed player, studied with Cuban saxophonist Paquito D' Rivera. He credits his mellifluous, liquid tone as coming from influences that include Cannonball Adderley and Johnny Hodges, his heroes. Besides being active in the improvisational world of jazz, he has performed with such current and past luminaries of the saxophone as Joe Lovano, Chris Potter, Phil Woods, and Lee Konitz to name a few. He is also proficient in playing in the classical music world. Benjamin Koppel brings a unique cross-genre expertise to this project.

The rhythm section of the trio includes two superb musicians. Bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade bring to this music their own unique, extremely virtuosic, and highly attuned sensitives to this symphony. Colley is an American double bassist and composer who has lent his talents to groups that include Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Jim Hall, Bobby Hutcherson, and Toots Thielmans to name just a few. Brian Blade, the American Louisana-born drummer, is perhaps the leading jazz drummer in the world today. Besides his award-winning group The Fellowship Band, Blade is the preferred drummer on a countless number of albums led by such notables as Wayne Shorter, Mark Turner, Billy Childs, and Joni Mitchell among others. 

Scott Colley and Brian Blade (photo credit unknown)

The other piece to this Symphony is the Danish Odense Symphony Orchestra led by conductor Martin Yates. This Odense, Denmark-based orchestra has its roots dating back to the 1800s and presently has seventy-three musicians from seventeen different countries. Anders Koppel has written for this orchestra on multiple occasions.

"Stranded in the Strange City" is based on a picture of an immigrant standing, stiff, hat in hand, anxiously staring with his one unpatched eye at the camera in a dimly lit tenement hallway. The music is cinematic and ranges from the cautiously walking sound of Colley's deep-toned bass making its way into an unknown environment. Koppel's alto and the orchestra's swelling sounds create the tension of bustling activity. Blade's percussive accents add to the scene in perfect sympathy which ultimately rises into a feeling of hopeful optimism. 

"Minding the Baby" is based on a gritty portrait of a young child minding his younger sibling outside on what appears to be a flagstone sidewalk. The two stare at the lens with a bleary-eyed gaze that is both inquisitive and careful. The music is like a lullaby to the two. Koppel's fluid alto playing is emotive, soothing, and at times majestic. Colley and Blade together create an extraordinarily intuitive pastiche under Koppel and the through-written work of the orchestra. 

"Tommy the Shoeshine Boy" captures a ragged young entrepreneur who stands against a soot-stained, white-washed brick wall in his dirty, unkempt clothes. His wooden shoeshine box is loosely slung over his left shoulder with his cocked stovepipe hat. His eyes are presumably squinted closed to protect them from the coming photographer's flash. The music runs for almost twenty minutes as it builds from an orchestral ebb and swell that creates a building tension. There is beauty and frantic kineticism to this as Koppel's improvising alto soars in ascending flights. There is a beautiful section midway in the piece that finds Blade's drum work, Colley's bass, and Koppel's beautiful alto all finding a common expressive connection as the orchestra creates the palette on which they create. This can't be written but just happens at the moment when intuitive musicians find their way to a common strain of creativity. As the orchestra creates a boil in the music, Blade is featured for a brief but combustive eruption that completes that section with authority. 

This is what Anders was hoping for in creating Mulberry Street Symphony when he says

"The piece is a meeting between a meticulously worked-out score, written with the discipline and care of the classical tradition, and the open, highly sophisticated and organic improvised lines played by the trio."

The cover photo of the album features  "The Blind Man," perhaps one of the most expressive of the Riis' pictures that inspired this music. A tall blind man is dressed in a long black coat and doffed in a black derby. He is leaning on a street lampost for both support and protection. There is a two-horse-drawn wagon and piles of bricks dumped on the filth-filled street behind him. He holds an open cigar box in one hand and a bunch of pencils in the other to a peering crowd off the picture. He is hoping to elicit some charity from any passersby who might be moved by his condition.  The music is a sober, melancholic tone poem that conjures up the loneliness, isolation, and darkness that awaits this man's daily struggle for life. A man who Anders says represents "a man who is very much himself, apart from society." 

"The Last Mulberry" is a revelation to me. The picture is of what became Little Italy in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The alleyway shows the encroaching squalor of an alleyway between two bustling tenements. A line of washed clothes is hanging on a slacked rope tied between buildings in the background. Trash sheds line the left side wall of the alley. Midway down, a lone crown of a spindly tree can be seen, its outline against the rear background of another row of tenement buildings and an upper sky. It's a solitary mulberry tree- once a part or descendant of a one-time mulberry tree grove of the revolutionary times- now the sole organic survivor of the humanity-impacted area. The music that Koppel creates has a blues sensibility. A requiem of sorts for the lost tree and to juxtapose that with the loss of innocence. The tolling bell, the cadenced processional rhythm, the counterpoint strings, Koppel's pleading alto, Colley's plucky bass lines, and Blade's impressionistic drum work all rejoice in the celebration of organic life even amongst squalor and the celebration of its memory.

"Bandit's Roost" is like a scene from a Scorcese gangster film. Riis' photo captures the neighborhood "hang." A small side street whose flagstones separate the entry stoops of four or five tenements. The Immigrant men- supposedly young Italian thugs- hang out like members of a gang, propped up on railings and standing on stoop platforms or in the street. Communing, maybe plotting, awaiting their next move. Koppel's music erupts with kineticism and swinging swagger. The music finds Koppel's alto loose and freewheeling, as Colley and Blade stir the pot with nervous energy that coincides with testosterone-driven energy that may have possessed the young men in the picture. The orchestra builds the scene's tension and later maintains a joyful, proud, strut-like feel that celebrates the fun that can come from male camaraderie and mischief. 

"The New House" is a picture that is counter to most of the other Riis photos in this suite of songs. It pictures a new structure created to house orphans and homeless children. The house sits on a rise in what appears to be a countryside setting that must have been some distance from the crowding sprawl of the Lower East Side. According to the composer it represents "...the hope and knowledge that...things will change-and it matters what you do."  His music naturally brings the suite to a positive and uplifting conclusion. Out of the squalor and hopelessness, the overcrowding and poverty, the fear and anxiety, people can rise above their lot and aspire to a life that offers them and their children a new future. Koppel's alto offers a Phil Woods-like solo that is gorgeously expressive as Colley's bass rings out with tonal richness and the orchestra fades out to the coda.

There is bonus track at the end of the album, titled "Puerto Rican Rumble" that doesn't relate to the Suite but finds the elder Koppel on organ, and in a live concert with the trio of his son, Colley and Blade. Just pure fun.

Andres Koppel's Mulberry Street Symphony is a modern tour de force and like any good music tells a story that is compelling to anyone, especially those of us who have emigration in our historical ancestry.