by Ian Mann
July 29, 2020
An astonishingly mature début. There’s a freshness and vitality about the music that honours the tradition while finding something new to say both within and beyond it.
(Ubuntu Music UBU0058)
James Copus – trumpet, flugelhorn, voice, Tom Cawley – piano, synthesiser, Conor Chaplin – double bass, Jason Brown – drums
“Dusk” is the début album as a leader by the hugely talented trumpeter and composer James Copus.
Copus, aged twenty five, is a graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Music and a former member of the Royal Academy Big Band. Other large ensembles with which he has worked include the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO), Troykestra and the Patchwork Jazz Orchestra.
Something of a rising star Copus has also been much in demand as a sideman for smaller groups and has appeared with drummer Dave Smyth’s Timecraft Octet, saxophonist Alex Hitchcock’s Quintet, pianist Sam Watts’ Octet, bassist Joe Downard’s Sextet and vibraphonist Ralph Wyld’s Mosaic sextet. He has also guested with the group Slowly Rolling Camera, led by keyboard player and composer Dave Stapleton. Currently he’s a member of drummer Clark Tracey’s Quintet, a group acknowledged as a ‘finishing school’ for talented young jazz musicians that has been justifiably come to be regarded as the British equivalent to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.
Other senior figures of British jazz with whom Copus has played include pianist Nikki Iles and saxophonist Stan Sulzmann, and Copus very much regards himself as ‘following in their footsteps’ and of being part of a wider British jazz tradition or lineage.
As a session musician Copus has toured with the band of Riverdance and with pop singer Olly Murs. He has also recorded with Ashley Henry, Jorja Smith, Boy George, Joss Stone and James Bey.
Born into a musical family, both of Copus’ parents were teachers of classical music, the young James developed a love of jazz after hearing Wynton Marsalis’ 1984 “Hot House Flowers” album. His other trumpet influences include Freddie Hubbard, Nicholas Payton, Kenny Wheeler and Gerard Presencer.
Prior to joining NYJO and studying at the RAM Copus took trumpet lessons with the slightly older Freddie Gavita. At the Academy his teachers included Pete Churchill, Nick Smart and Barak Schmool, while his fellow students included saxophonists Tom Barford and Sam Glaser and rising star vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jacob Collier.
For his first solo recording Copus has assembled a stellar international quartet featuring the highly respected British pianist and keyboard player Tom Cawley, rising star bassist Conor Chaplin and the American drummer Jason Brown.
Getting Brown on board represents a considerable coup for Copus. The American has played with a number of the musicians that Copus regards as compositional influences, among them trumpeter Nicholas Payton, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and the late, great pianist Cedar Walton. Others with whom Brown has worked include vocalists Carmen Lundy and Lizz Wright, trumpeter Ryan Kisor, guitarist Pat Martino, saxophonists Dmitri Baevsky and Wayne Escoffery, organist Joey De Francesco and pianists Monty Alexander and Amina Figarova.
Copus first played with Brown at a Ronnie Scott’s jam and later hooked up with the drummer again at the Birdland jazz club when the young trumpeter was visiting New York. It was then that Copus asked Brown if he would consider recording with him. The positive response encouraged Copus to develop the compositional ideas that he had already been working on.
“The music was written with Tom, Conor and Jason in mind” explains Copus, “combining my love for the music of the Blue Note era with my search for more contemporary sounds”.
He also told Peter Vacher in an interview for the August 2020 edition of Jazzwise magazine;
“I wanted to make a statement, to show what I’m about musically, aside from being a trumpeter in other people’s bands. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to get myself out there a bit more. I want to show people what I can do”.
“Dusk” represents a remarkably mature statement from Copus and sees him reaching his goals. The music is rooted in the jazz tradition but still sounds very contemporary with Copus successfully seeking out those new sounds that he was searching for. It’s certainly not a run through of old hard bop / Blue Note clichés, but instead represents something far more adventurous and vital.
The opening “Early Hours” is an eight minute tour de force that builds from Cawley’s introductory piano chords to embrace a variety of moods, styles and tempi. Copus features on flugel, thoughtful and lyrical at first, but more impassioned later on as the tension and momentum begins to mount. At the heart of the composition is a dynamic drumming display from Brown, at times almost appearing to lead from the kit in a manner reminiscent of Steve Brown’s volcanic performance on Steely Dan’s “Aja”. Brown’s explosive contribution helps to spark the solos from Copus and Cawley, the pianist responding with a solo that moves up through the gears to embrace a leaping, expressive joyousness.
Copus also features on flugel on “The Line”, a slightly more subdued performance, but still bristling with intent thanks to the simmering intensity of Brown’s performance. Cawley doubles on piano and synth, the latter employed texturally to fill out the ensemble sound. Cawley takes the first solo on piano, his increasingly percussive sound complemented by Brown’s drums as the pair bounce ideas off each other. Copus delivers the quicksilver melody lines with aplomb but also solos with a velvet fluency above a backdrop that contrasts the lush sounds of Cawley’s synths with the increasingly dynamic drumming of Brown.
The shorter title track is a song of sorts, with a fragile vocal from Copus drifting within a swirling sea of synths and trumpets, and eventually bass and drums. There’s an ethereal quality about the vocalising that recalls Robert Wyatt and the Canterbury scene, or some of the more fey indie rock acts. But the power of Brown’s drum contribution helps to ensure that the music never becomes overly whimsical, effete or precious.
It’s Brown’s drum solo at the close of the title track that provides the segue into the following “From The Source”, eventually combining with Cawley’s Tyner-esque piano chording. There’s then a change of mood and pace with the introduction of the leader’s lyrical, gently brooding flugel horn and Cawley’s cushioning synth textures. Cawley then moves back to piano for a solo that subtly raises the tension, then returning to synth as Copus take over on effortlessly fluent flugelhorn.
Brown’s drums introduce “Straight Ahead”, joined in a sparkling dialogue by Copus on trumpet. This episode, along with the rest of the album, helps to demonstrate just how brilliant a technician Copus has already become. His instrumental skills are augmented by an impressive maturity as a composer as the pieces on this album amply demonstrate, this multi-faceted offering representing no exception. Despite the title the piece undergoes a series of enthralling twists and turns, incorporating jazz ideas old and new. There’s a sparkling acoustic piano from Cawley, more trumpet fluency from Copus and a typically inventive drum episode from Brown.
“Yearning” represents the album’s only true ballad, with Brown switching to brushes and demonstrating that he can be subtle and sympathetic as well as restlessly combustible. It also offers the excellent Chaplin the opportunity to step into the limelight with a beautifully melodic bass solo. Chaplin, who was at the Academy with Copus, is now a first call player on both the acoustic and electric versions of his chosen instrument, an adaptable musician who is at home in a wide variety of jazz contexts. Copus himself is at his most lyrical on his own solo. For all his technical facility Copus is essentially a melodic player, eschewing obvious grandstanding techniques in favour of an overall inventiveness and fluency.
Almost seamlessly the ballad gives way to the closing “Outro”, a brief but immensely powerful piece that boasts a rousing, anthemic power and incorporates richly rewarding cameos from Copus and Cawley allied to another dynamic performance from Brown.
“Dusk” has received unanimously positive reviews in the jazz media, and rightly so. As I mentioned previously it’s an astonishingly mature début that showcases Copus’ highly impressive abilities as both a composer and an instrumentalist. The playing by an all star band is exceptional throughout, with guest drummer Brown’s contribution particularly outstanding. The album is co-produced by Copus and his fellow trumpeter Reuben Fowler, who between them capture the spirit of the music and the nuances of the playing.
There’s a freshness and vitality about the music on “Dusk” that honours the tradition while finding something new to say within and beyond it. Let’s hope that current circumstances will not prevent Copus from eventually taking his band out on the road to present this music to the jazz public in a live environment.
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