by Ian Mann
January 23, 2024
Cope is a thoughtful and intelligent musician and these qualities are expressed in his writing for this album, which is astute and varied and draws on both the jazz and classical traditions.
(Ubuntu Music UBU0160)
Rob Cope – soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, Andy Scott – tenor saxophone, Liam Noble – piano, Paul Clarvis – drums
Rob Cope is a London based saxophonist, clarinettist, composer, educator, broadcaster and film maker. “Gemini” is his second album release as a leader and follows 2019’s “Gods of Apollo”, a project inspired by the 50th anniversary of the NASA moon landings. That album featured pianist Elliot Galvin, guitarist Rob Luft and drummer Jon Ormston and also made extensive use of speech samples, with the musicians improvising in response to the words in the transcripts. My review of this fascinating recording can be found here;
Given its title I wondered if “Gemini” might be another space themed album, but it turns out that the inspiration is totally different, as Cope’s liner notes explain;
“’Gemini’, derived from Greek mythology as meaning ‘two’ or ‘twins’ brings together two co-existing duos, and musicians who have inspired me over the years. This project is a deeply personal reflection of what music and musical collaboration means to me, and how important the passing of knowledge is from teacher to student. For this record, I am joined by my great friend and saxophone teacher Andy Scott, whose playing, compositional creativity and freedom of expression through both contemporary and improvised music I have always admired. The great improvising duo of Liam Noble and Paul Clarvis adds a dimension that celebrates true spontaneity, energy and colour. For me, music should be fun to play but also challenging and I wanted to combine my love of difficult, contemporary saxophone music with improvisation, and hopefully contribute to the repertoire in a unique way.”
Cope studied at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester (1998-2006) before moving on to the Royal Northern College of Music (2006-10) and then to the Royal Academy of Music in London, graduating with an MA in Music Performance in 2012.
I first heard Cope’s playing in 2012 when he appeared on three albums featuring three different line ups that were simultaneously released by the enterprising young trumpeter and composer Jack Davies. Cope played tenor sax with the democratic quartet Southbound, clarinet and bass clarinet with the drummer-less folk jazz quartet Flea Circus and was part of a five man sax section in Davies’ nineteen piece big band. A feature containing reviews of all three albums can be read here;
Cope is a member of Matt Roberts’ Bigish Band, fellow saxophonist Andy Scott’s Group S and of the contemporary classical ensemble SoundSPARK. Very much a musician with a foot in both the jazz and classical camps he has also appeared with the Matthew Herbert Big Band and with the Halle and English Symphony Orchestras.
Cope is also an acclaimed educator and teaches at the Donhead, Chepstow House and Westbury House preparatory schools as well as offering private music tuition.
One of his most significant projects has been the making of the film “Richard Turner: A Life in Music”, a jazz documentary telling the story of the much-loved British trumpet player who tragically died at the age of 27. The film charts the young trumpeter’s life and musical achievements through interviews with his friends, family and contemporaries. It was released worldwide in May 2019.
Cope also helps to run the Jazz Podcast, a platform for UK based jazz musicians and others. Details here;
Turning now to this new album, recorded with a brand new quartet. Cope’s album notes also offer insights into each of the twelve compositions, a series of comparative ‘miniatures’, with no piece exceeding five minutes in duration. Given the absence of double bass, plus Cope’s involvement in both the jazz and classical communities, it comes as no surprise to find that the music has something of a ‘chamber jazz’ feel about it.
Album opener “Voices” was written as an introduction to each individual musician. It commences with the reeds only and the rich, warm sounds of intertwining tenor sax and bass clarinet. Based around a simple melody the addition of piano and drums lifts the music in terms of energy and also invests it with a quirky humour. On the fourth take Noble chose to play the melody with his left hand, a spontaneous decision that delighted Cope, who selected this version for the album.
“Together” celebrates the sharing of knowledge between teachers and students. Cope, on soprano, and Scott on tenor again kick start the piece, playing in unison and in complex counterpoint before breaking away to explore individual ideas as piano and drums are added. Cope solos first , followed by Scott. Both saxophonists are educators and the music is intended to reflect the inspiration of mentors, but also to celebrate the individual musical voices that spring from that inspiration. By the close the piece builds up a considerable head of steam, helped in this regard by Noble and Clarvis, a great team, but also two of the most individually recognisable musical voices around.
Cope regards the tune “Gemini” as reflecting his life story and his gradual transition from classical music to jazz. Again it’s introduced by the sound of unaccompanied reeds, with Cope’s soprano and Scott’s tenor combining in the manner of a pared down saxophone quartet. A multiphonic moment within Cope’s solo soprano sax cadenza signals his move from the formality of classical music to the improvisation of jazz, with Clarvis and Noble coming on board and with Scott also featuring as a soloist on tenor.
“Up” is inspired by the Columbian saxophonists Jefferson Salcedo and Juan Camilo Doria. It celebrates the challenges of playing challenging and exciting melodies and features the full quartet throughout. Complex, darting sax melodies are complemented by the nimble rhythms generated by Noble and Clarvis. Soprano and tenor saxes are featured both in unison and individually and there’s also a short, but rollicking, piano solo from Noble, who brings an appropriate Latin element to the music.
Cope describes “Across” as being “a journey through time” and there’s a strong sense of narrative about a piece that develops via rippling, minimalist inspired saxophone and bass clarinet arpeggios through Noble’s improvised piano lines to Scott’s expressive tenor solo.
“Water” features the duo of Cope and Scott only and is a piece written as an interlude, occurring as it does almost halfway through the album. It also allows the reeds duo to explore different colours and timbres, the title reflecting the arc of the piece, with the waters calm at the beginning and end, but with a “stormy and unpredictable” passage in the middle. The closeness of the musical relationship between Cope and his former mentor is palpable and the interplay between the two players exquisite.
Following this ‘interlude’ the second half of the album get underway with the joy and energy of “The Dance”. This features “two intertwined parts moving together as one” and is inspired by the concept of synchronicity. Cope mentions his father’s love of stride piano, ragtime and blues and Noble brings some of those qualities to the music. Reviewing the album for London Jazz News Julian Maynard-Smith also noted a klezmer influence, which can be heard in the swooping and soaring of Cope’s clarinet-like soprano sax.
“Rain” represents Cope’s response to Scott’s double saxophone concerto “Dark Rain”. The composer describes it as a “prequel”, drawing inspiration from the opening cadenza of Scott’s work. The mood is suitably noirish, with long brooding saxophone melody lines accompanied by jangling piano and the nervous bustle of Clarvis’ drums. It’s a highly atmospheric piece that embraces an element of wilful dissonance. This is a storm rather than a gentle drizzle.
The title of “Laika” represents a link to Cope’s previous album, but the tune is a celebration of dogs rather than space, and specifically “the energy, infectious enthusiasm and loyalty that dogs have”. Written in the blues form it’s a lively joyous, quirky piece that harks back to trad jazz, but which still has a contemporary edge.
Cope’s composition “Little Glass Box” originally appeared on the album “Ruby & All Things Purple”, a 2017 recording by Scott’s fourteen piece ensemble Group S. This highly enjoyable release is reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann. For this new recording Cope has “shrunk the piece back down to its original form”. It remains a tender and lyrical piece and in its compressed form the focus is on the ensemble and the interaction between the musicians, rather than on individual soloing.
The title of “Punch” reflects a state of joyousness and seeks to express “that feeling when you want to punch the air with excitement”. Scott’s recurring tenor sax motif forms the bedrock for this brief but coruscating explosion of energy, underpinning the sinuous squiggling of the leader’s soprano sax and Clarvis’ improvised drum barrage. Julian Maynard-Smith likened this dynamic trio performance to the work of Binker and Moses, a very valid comparison.
The album concludes with “Generations”, an apt title as the leader is actually much younger than his illustrious colleagues. The piece also honours the teacher / pupil relationship and Cope dedicates this piece to Jim Muirhead, his former school teacher who gave the young Cope “a life long love of music”. It celebrates the concept of ‘musical ancestry’ and the passing on of knowledge.
Commencing with the sounds of piano and brushed drums there’s a timeless quality to the music, which is simultaneously anthemic, quirky and wistful. In keeping with the overall album concept the track is essentially played in two ‘halves’ as the duo of Noble and Clarvis hand over to the duo of Cope on bass clarinet and Scott on tenor. A transitional passage featuring piano, drums and reeds leads to an unaccompanied woodwind section featuring a lone tenor sax excursion from Scott followed by a tenor / bass clarinet restatement of the opening theme, originally played by piano and drums. It represents a neat way to round off this fascinating album.
Cope is a thoughtful and intelligent young musician and these qualities are expressed in his writing for this album, which is astute and varied and draws on both the jazz and classical traditions. The phrase ‘chamber jazz’ is often used as a pejorative, but that is patently not the case here. Cope’s brand of chamber jazz may be carefully thought out but it’s also surprisingly and admirably robust, thanks in no small part to the contributions of Noble and Clarvis, who bring energy and a wealth of experience to the proceedings.
Jazz purists may regret the fact that Cope’s compositions don’t act as a jumping off point for extended jazz soloing, but nevertheless improvisation does play an important role in the music and as such this is undoubtedly a jazz record.
Discipline plays an important role in Cope’s music, which is intelligent, complex and varied. This clever series of musical vignettes covers an impressive and varied amount of musical ground and the standard of the playing, as one might expect from musicians of this calibre, is exceptional throughout. And, as other reviewers have noted, it’s also gratifying to hear the bass clarinet so skilfully and extensively deployed.
This is an album that is likely to reveal new facets with repeated listenings.
The official launch of the “Gemini” album will take place at the Vortex Jazz Club, Dalston, London on Thursday January 25th 2024.
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