For the most recent Marc Copland interview (2005), go to:

Below is an interview from, 2001. 


Marc Copland
Web Site
August 2001

"One of the reasons I ended up concentrating on the piano was that it felt right. It was like trying on a new suit that fit perfectly. I'd been trying to fit the music I heard to the saxophone, figuring there must be a way to do it. But there wasn't, and the emotional feeling was of not being able to find myself."


Meet Marc Copland

By Johannes Voelz

"The piano is a suit that fits"

Marc Copland (52) has been a prolific jazz pianist and composer for almost 30 years. After starting out his professional career as an energetic, fiery alto sax player, he suddenly changed directions in the 1970s. Today he is known for his lyrical piano style, which displays not only the influence of Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, but also a predilection for French impressionist painters as well as Van Gogh. As a prominent promoter of the re/deharmonizing piano school, the native Philadelphian has influenced rising piano stars like Bill Carrothers and Brad Mehldau. Despite the euphoric acclaim by fellow musicians such as Gary Peacock, Billy Hart, Joe Lovano and Michael Brecker - all of whom have appeared on his recordings, Marc Copland has remained the classic 'musician's musician'. Nevertheless, his touring and recording activities have become busier than ever. Within three months, he has toured Europe twice as a leader. First with his piano trio featuring young German drummer Jochen Rückert and Peter Herbert on bass. And after just a couple of weeks at home in New York, he returned with his piano-guitar-trumpet format featuring long-time partners John Abercrombie and Kenny Wheeler. Marc Copland has just released a new Cd with Hat Hut Records entitled Haunted Heart. It is Copland's first true ballad album. Besides three harmonically altered solo renditions of "My Favorite Things", Copland, Drew Gress and Jochen Rückert present a wide variety of ballads ranging from "Greensleeves" and Coltrane's "Crescent" to Sting's "When we Dance". Further upcoming projects include a Cd with Abercrombie and Wheeler for the Dutch record label Challenge which the group recorded in October 2000.

All About Jazz: To start out with, I'd like to go back to your childhood. Tell me about your first musical experiences.

Marc Copland: In school they gave us very simple little flutes that were called melody flutes. That must have been the first instrument. Then around the age of nine or ten, I'd sit at the piano and play lots of different chords on top of each other. I had no idea what I was doing but it sounded good, and with the pedal down it sounded even better. I'd spend hours, lean my head inside the piano and listen to the overtones ringing. I was fascinated with these notes that sounded even though I hadn't played them.

AAJ: Sounds like a musical family if your parents had a grand piano at home.

MC: My parents weren't musical at all. My mother played piano, but pretty terribly and my father is more or less tone deaf. There was some talent a couple of generations back. You know, many parents had a piano because they thought it was good for the children, so my brother and I were given lessons.

AAJ: You played with Michael and Randy Brecker back in high school in Philly, right?

MC: Michael and I did, Randy was already in college. But Mike and I had a band one summer and Randy played with us.

AAJ: What were your musical skills by that time?

MC: I was playing the saxophone in the high school band and big band, and in a jazz quartet. And I was constantly working out harmony on piano.

AAJ: Was that a particular strong jazz program at that high school, like Berkeley High School nowadays?

MC: No, the school was pretty ordinary. The strong program was Mike and I hanging out a lot, listening to records, talking about music.

AAJ: At what age did you take music seriously enough to decide that that's the direction you wanted to take?

MC: From the time I was 16 or so I realized how important music was for me, but it took me another five or six years to decide to go for it. That was after college.

AAJ: What college was that?

MC: Columbia in New York. I majored in music. There were some good American composers on the faculty. But the department was poorly equipped and concentrated mostly on electronic music, using equipment that has long since become obsolete. The most helpful courses were music history and ethnomusicology. That was my first exposure to some interesting music: Gregorian chants, Tibetan music, and so forth.

AAJ: What about the music you were exposed to when you were young? Was that similar to what you are doing now?

MC: I've always been interested in certain kinds of harmonies and rhythms. And I was also always interested in stuff that sounded a little different. I remember when the Beatles were first on television and everybody was talking about them. I was listening mostly to jazz, and I thought the Beatles were just another pop group. Then I heard a few of their songs and I said 'Wait a minute, these are not normal pop song chord changes'. And the phrase lengths were a little different as well. So I learned some Beatles tunes. I still like them.

AAJ: Tell me about your first steps in the New York scene. Did you hook up with people at jam sessions?

MC: A little bit of that. At one point I started getting phone calls to play with Bob Belden, he had a quartet or quintet, and I still record with Bob today. You form associations like that, and sometimes they last. Bob's a real musical thinker, we've discussed music for over fifteen years.

AAJ: From what I understand you focused on playing sax, then decided to shift your attention to the piano and in order to do that you disappeared from the scene, practiced for a couple of years and then came back as a piano player.

MC: Yeah, that's more or less it. But my way of practicing was not the normal approach. Mostly, I played ballads over and over and worked with different kinds of chords and voicings. I didn't practice technique, but sort of let that come.

AAJ: John Abercrombie mentions in the liner notes to your "Second Look"- CD that you sounded more like a guitar than he did when you first played together and you were still playing sax. Did you sound a lot different on sax than on piano? I always imagined you as a lyrical player on sax as well.

MC: That's a reasonable conclusion, but the wrong one. I had one foot in Paul Desmond, one foot in Coltrane and one foot in Jimi Hendrix.

AAJ: You'll have to explain that a little more. Were you essentially trying to do the same thing on sax and piano but ended up with a totally different result? Or what was your conception on sax?

MC: Well, it didn't work (laughs). Whatever came out was never quite what I intended. When you're making music you want the music to sound the way you hear it in your head. Like any musician, I did my best to learn to master the saxophone, I learned to play different styles. The culmination of that kind of work is hopefully to develop and play your own ideas. But see, for years I'd already heard what I wanted to play. And I always assumed that if I played the saxophone at a certain level, then I would be able to play these ideas on the horn, and there would be a saxophone voice that was new and individual. But it came out sounding distorted.

AAJ: Would you say you had the harmonic ideas back then or did that gradually develop?

MC: I've had the harmonic ideas since I was ten years old.

AAJ: Did you have the feeling that depending on which of the two instruments you were playing you took on a different identity or personality?

MC: I know I felt... One of the reasons I ended up concentrating on the piano was that it felt right. It was like trying on a new suit that fit perfectly. I'd been trying to fit the music I heard to the saxophone, figuring there must be a way to do it. But there wasn't, and the emotional feeling was of not being able to find myself.

AAJ: You were already getting established as a professional sax player when you switched to the piano. Was that easy as far as musical relationships are concerned?

MC: That's a very perceptive question. And ... the answer is that it was like starting all over. With a couple of exceptions - John Abercrombie was one - nobody who knew me as a saxophone player was really interested in my piano playing. I came back and started playing with a completely different set of people. It was kind of like getting to live life over again, getting a second shot at New York, and that was exciting. The difficult part was that a lot of people I knew quite well kind pretended they didn't know me. Somebody like John, who saw the person and the music inside the person, not just the instrument-that's somebody worth knowing.

AAJ: So maybe from the perspective most other people saw you the instrument change did have to do with a different Marc Copland...

MC: Most people equated the axe with the person. In New York, people come and go all the time for a lot of reasons, and there were many who thought "why is he giving up a promising career?" Don Grolnick said years later, "that took a lot of guts."

AAJ: In Berlin you told me about other players who switched instruments as well. I think Gary Peacock was one of them, right?

MC: Yeah, I think so. The public would be surprised how many musicians play more than one instrument, even if they don't play the others in public. For instance, I can think of Victor Feldman who played several instruments, and Keith Jarrett who plays the saxophone as well as the piano. I was at sessions where Mike Brecker played great drums, or Abercrombie had an incredible groove on upright bass.

AAJ: Jack DeJohnette, too, I think. He plays piano.

MC: Right, and he's made records on piano. It's not that unusual.

AAJ: You mentioned John Abercrombie. It seems like he's your longest and closest musical partner, or at least one of them.

MC: If I played guitar I would want to sound like him.

AAJ: Why is it that your musical conceptions fit together?

MC: We're both into listening, approaching harmonies in a certain way, playing lyrically as well as swinging - we have a lot of that in common. In some ways of course we're different, and that's good because otherwise it'd be two players who sound exactly alike.

AAJ: I found the "Second Look"-Cd very interesting in that respect because the two of you play together and even though you both play harmony instruments you never interfere with each other.

MC: Piano and guitar can be difficult if it's not handled right. Playing without guitar, I can play pretty much any chord that I hear and I don't have to worry about anything else in the midrange clashing with it. Playing with guitar I have to co-ordinate with another chord instrument. By listening carefully and working together, it's possible to get absolutely stunning effects, textures, colors, orchestral sounds.

AAJ: If you had to name just a few major influences as a pianist, who would that be?

MC: That's a difficult one because I've listened to almost everybody. There's a school of piano playing that has historically dealt with expanding and improvising harmony - Nat Cole, George Shearing, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett. Lesser known-Clare Fischer, Lennie Tristano. On guitar, Jim Hall, John, Ralph Towner. I probably left people out, for which I apologize.

AAJ: What's your perspective on the economic situation of jazz? A lot of people seem to be pretty pessimistic considering that jazz plays such a minor role in the overall music industry.

MC: There needs to be more recording and promotion of artists with musical merit. There are fortunately still labels, both large and small, who believe that good music will sell either sooner or later. I think that their continued commitment to the music is important.

AAJ: Do you think that jazz as we know it might disappear in one or two decades?

MC: Who knows? As long as there are enough record companies who will work with artists based on the merit of their music, jazz has a good chance to survive.

AAJ: Does that mean that the demand for the music by the people is still there and it's the companies' fault?

MC: There's nothing to be gained by blaming companies, all of them fulfill a positive role as disseminators of music to the public. It's not easy to run a business, looking at profit and loss sheets every month and worrying about how you're going to stay afloat. Many companies work hard in terrible market conditions to promote good music. In the long run, though, some companies would help themselves and the music if they would strive to make what one of my A&R people called "desert island discs."

AAJ: You mean a CD you would take to a desert island if you could only take a few….

MC: That's it. The more companies that will commit in this way, the stronger the music will become. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans didn't lose money for anybody as far as I know.

AAJ: I have talked to quite a few musicians who really dislike being labeled 'jazz musicians' and say it's all just music. What do you think about that?

MC: Ideally people should listen to music without labeling it. But, you know, I'm a jazzer, and if somebody wants to call me a jazz musician that's fine.

AAJ: So being linked to the jazz tradition is important to you?

MC: Absolutely.

AAJ: You do mention all of these other influences as well.

MC: I've been influenced by all kinds of music. But still, I'm a jazz musician. That's what I do.

AAJ: Does the fact that jazz came out of an African American tradition have any specific significance to you?

MC: I don't know anyone who disputes that jazz was an African-American creation. A wonderful thing about jazz is that it has always been open and inclusive, and as time went on it welcomed all sorts of influences that contributed a lot to the music. Classical, folk, rock, European, Asia, Indian, Middle Eastern, and so on. I love it all.

AAJ: In one of your liner notes, you have talked about the influence of art and painting on your music. How do you translate that into musical language?

MC: I'm not sure how that happens (laughs). But I think many artists, writers, painters, musicians are inspired by the works of artists in other media. In the booklet of the trio CD "At Night" we included a quote from Ernest Hemingway ["I know the night is not the same as the day... and the night can be a dreadful time for lonely people once their loneliness has started"] because it captures the feeling of the title tune perfectly.

AAJ: Is there something that interests you most when you look at art?

MC: Oh yeah, colors and how they blend. Monet's or Van Gogh's colors can mix with each other, they undulate in and out of each other, throwing different textures and splashes of color and feeling this way and that way-all contributing to the whole picture of a river, or trees, or a field. That's music!

AAJ: You've recorded two CDs with Billy Hart and Gary Peacock. Is that trio officially dissolved or were they just not available and so you put together a new trio?

MC: We worked together for a few years, mostly in the United States. It's been about three or four years but I imagine we will work together again in the future. I've been touring trio pretty much every year. There's some special atmosphere to that format so I'll keep doing that. Lately, Jochen Rückert, Peter Herbert, Drew Gress and Bill Stewart have done most of the gigs.

AAJ: Is there anything specifically European about Jochen Rückert who is from Germany and Peter Herbert who's Austrian? Or does it matter where they come from?

MC: It doesn't. The last time I noticed any kind of difference between European and American musicians was in the sixties. There's nothing in the notes Jochen and Peter play that suggest where they were born. Peter is Peter and Jochen is Jochen. I met them in New York and they play great. They could be from Mars and it wouldn't matter.

AAJ: What are your current projects? Do you still have your regular trio gig?

MC: I worked at Cleopatra's Needle regularly for a year and a half, it's been over for a while now. Playing once a week was very helpful in developing the concept for the trio. Current projects include a trio with John and Kenny Wheeler, the trio with Drew Gress and Jochen Rückert, duos with Tim Hagans, Vic Juris, and Dave Liebman, and a solo project.


Marc Copland Trio, Haunted Heart and other Ballads (Hat Hut Records, 2001). Marc Copland, p; Drew Gress, b; Jochen Rueckert, ds;

Marc Copland/Tim Hagans, Between the Lines (Steeplechase, 2000). Marc Copland, p; Tim Hagans, tp;

Marc Copland Quintet, Softly (Savoy/Denon, 1998). Marc Copland, p; Joe Lovano, ts; Michael Brecker, ts; Tim Hagans, tp; Gary Peacock, b; Bill Stewart;

Marc Copland Trio, Paradiso (Soul Note, 1997). Marc Copland, p; Gary Peacock, b; Billy Hart, ds;

Marc Copland, Second Look (Savoy Jazz/Denon, 1996). Marc Copland, p; John Abercrombie, g; Drew Gress, b; Billy Hart, ds.

Marc Copland Quintet, Stompin' with Savoy (Savoy/Nippon Columbia, 1995). Marc Copland, p; Bob Berg, ts; Randy Brecker, tp; James Genus, b; Dennis Chambers, ds;

Marc Copland Trio, At Night (Sunnyside, 1992). Marc Copland, p; Gary Peacock, b; Billy Hart, ds;