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Benjamin Koppel: Regaling us with Music Dark and Light

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Composer and alto saxophonist Benjamin Koppel

The best measure of how reverently European musicians have paid their respects to The Blues and Jazz – that is Black American Music – is how artists have homed in on the emotional roots of the music rather than the ornamentation that resulted from the unbridled to improvise on themes and melodies, with novel harmonic and rhythmic invention.

An extremely erudite Max Roach, with characteristic sanguinity, once acknowledged in an interview with the late Lilian Terry, that European artists may had found a unique way to express ‘the blues’ – not merely as sadness but as the groaning of the soul with which the Black African diaspora across the Americas had created ‘the blues’.

This had led to a radically different use of unique cultural topography with which to adapt the elements of ‘jazz’ with uncommon success. The wise words [See Dizzy, Duke, Brother Ray and Friends: Lilian Terry – University of Illinois Press, 2018] could well have described the dark eloquence of the music of composer and alto saxophonist Benjamin Koppel.  

Benjamin Koppel: Regaling us with Music Dark and Light
Benjamin Koppel photographed by Robin Skjoldborg

As a composer Benjamin Koppel is a proverbial chip of the old block – gravitating to a profundity that is evocative of his father, the great Dane, Anders Koppel. Biographies of the younger Koppel suggest that his sound comes from the sharp and elemental yowl evocative of Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley and his molten alto saxophone sound, melded with the pliant romance of Johnny Hodges, whose liquid glissandos often make their way on his music with the famous orchestra of Duke Ellington.

Mr Koppel’s wailing alto saxophone has enflamed even the quietest music he has composed and performed on his many celebrated recordings. However, while the sound of hacking and shattering the silence of a continent that is becoming more fractured, as politicians of a nationalistic bent usurp the peaceful welcoming societies of Northern Europe, that once opened their arms to embrace a people persecuted by almost tribal-driven totalitarianism in the global south.

Both these 2023 recordings by Mr Koppel are – not so much utopian as they are humanitarian – both powerful testaments to the poignancy of his artistry. But each expresses his social sensibilities using different means. In the first recording – Koppel Colley Blade, with the power trio comprising Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade.

Benjamin Koppel with Scott Colley and Brian Blade

But the poetics of the music is born of prescient sense of the darkness of the society we live in and reflects this with an aural palette in which, colours and textural devices characterize melodies, driven using minor keys to power the harmonic progressions.

All of which is communicated by the lead character – Mr Koppel’s alto saxophone – which makes way for two other characters – the contrabass of Mr Colley and the battery of percussion of Mr Blade – to pick up the narratives when called upon to do so.

In the second recording – White Buses: Passage to Freedom – Mr Koppel tells of the historic events that marked the celebrated reign of King Christian X of Denmark before and during Denmark’s occupation by the Nazis. It is, after all, the courageous efforts of the King who stubbornly resisted the brutality of the Nazis, something that enabled saving thousands of Jews from death.

The composer and alto saxophonist marks that period in Danish history with a series of miniatures that sewn together with recitatives told in unblemished Danish language by those who experienced that passage to freedom [transposed into English by voice artist Thana Alexa]. The White Buses becomes Mr Koppel’s iconic symbol in the music. The colour ‘white’ far from being the colour of the flag of surrender is transformed metaphorically in the powerful music of liberty in Mr Koppel’s brilliant chamber music album.

Koppel Colley Blade: Perspective The aim here appears to be an attempt to create a prism of light and – predominantly – darkness from the three musical perspectives in a series of Benjamin Koppel, Scott Colley and Brian Blade. The music comes from miniatures, painted [so to speak] by streams of wails from the alto saxophone of Benjamin Colley, the erudite rumble of Mr Colley’s contrabass and the battery of percussion instruments that make up Mr Blade’s drum set.

Koppel Colley Blade: Perspective

But while the backdrop [so to speak] of the aural canvas tends towards density and darkness, the alto issues phrases like blue flames that lick – and eventually scorch their way through melodies that, in turn, are burned in the memory. The music is extremely well-crafted, and unfolds to develop the individual, engrossing musical world of the trio’s making. Mr Koppel and Scott Colley are principal compositional contributors and one can discern a certain like-mindedness when it comes to rendering tones and textures musically.

Amazingly, the relative [higher] pitch of the alto seems to also daub the musical canvas with shadowy brushstrokes. Mr Colley, for his part, replies to Mr Koppel’s wailing with the most exquisitely dark rumbling that an American contrabassist has been able to muster from the instrument. European contrabassists [Spaniard Javier Colina comes immediately to mind] somehow inflict a more visceral pizzicato attack while creating light and dark.

Brian Blade is magnificent throughout, playing melodically, completely attuned to the vision and artistry of the other two musicians. His idiom is flamboyant [but never flashy] when it needs to be. Throughout we get glimpses of both the introspective and extrovert side of the musical genius of one of the world’s great drum artists.

Music – 1: Alphabet Thief; 2: Coconino County; 3: Precipice; 4: Speed Cubing Rubiks; 5: 37.33 Seconds; 6: Imaginary Canvas; 7: For Sy Johnson; 8: Don’t Rise; 9: After Time.

Musicians – Benjamin Koppel: alto saxophone; Scott Colley: contrabass; Brian Blade: drums.

Released – 2023
Label – Cowbell Music [87]
Runtime – 53:03

Benjamin Koppel: White Buses – Passage to Freedom Images of the Holocaust remain – and continue to remain – seared into modern memory albeit decades after the Third Reich marched throughout Europe. The prevalence of antisemitism then as now – indeed the raising of its ugly head across Europe and the rest of the Western World – is the reason that this recording will have particular significance, not simply to dampen spirits but to raise them aloft with hopefulness that contrasts with the gloom of Nazi-era persecution. The reason: The stories of freedom, of the long-suffering Danish Jews offers that powerful emotion of hope from traumatic experiences.

Benjamin Koppel: White Buses – Passage to Freedom

This seems to be a disc deeply personal to Benjamin Koppel. The enormous difficulty of the writing – the voices of the long-suffering Jewish people of Nazi-era Denmark – and the muted outpourings of fear and grief ultimately leads to hope and redemption via White Buses, Mr Koppel’s enduring image of freedom.

The writing is luminous, and the music is brilliantly performed, with each of the performers making quietly significant contributions. Mr Koppel – whose writing pieces together and guides the narrative has created a rhapsodic work and his saxophone remains the driving force that propels the emotions of the various characters in the narratives.

However, each of the performers makes a significant contribution – from Ms Alexa’s renderings of the [Danish] experiences in English, the thundering drum roar from Antonio Sánchez and the bellowing rumble of Scott Colley’s contrabass, the beautifully empathetic accompaniment provided by Uri Caine and the strings and keyboards of Henrik Dam Thomsen and Søren Møller respectively. But ultimately it is the hauntingly beautiful work by Mr Koppel that makes this a truly memorable album.

Music – 1: Introduction /Testimonial I; 2: The Devil Under The Skin; 3: Testimonial II; 4: The Woman With Her Violin; 5: Testimonial III; 6: I Was Terrified; 7: Testimonial IV; 8: Talking About Food; 9: Testimonial V; 10: Two Birds in a Nest; 11: Testimonial VI; 12: The Planes in the Sky; 13: Testimonial VII; 14: Rumours; 15: Testimonial VIII; 16: Die Dänen Raus; 17: Testimonial IX; 18: My Father; 19: Testimonial X; 20: The White Bus; 21: Testimonial XI; 22: The Goodbye; 23: Testimonial XII; 24: Potsdam; 25: Testimonial XIII; 26: The Welcoming Pt. 1; 27: The Welcoming Pt. 2; 28: Testimonial XIV; 29: Awake or Dreaming; 30: Testimonial XV; 31: A Fantastic Miracle; 32:Testimonial XVI; 33: The Golden Carriage.

Musicians – Benjamin Koppel: saxophone; Uri Caine: piano; Scott Colley: contrabass; Antonio Sánchez: drums; Thana Alexa: vocal; Henrik Dam Thomsen: cello; Søren Møller: keyboards.

Released – 2023
Label – Cowbell Music [88]
Runtime – 46:39

Deo gratis…

Based in Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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