Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Rob Cope

Gods of Apollo


by Ian Mann

July 17, 2019


A fascinating project that has been released at a very timely moment.

Rob Cope

“Gods of Apollo”

(Ubuntu Music UBU0020)

Rob Cope – soprano saxophone, Elliott Galvin – piano, Jon Ormston – drums, Rob Luft - guitar

The current media ballyhoo surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing has reminded me that now is the ideal moment to review this space race inspired début album by the British saxophonist and composer Rob Cope.

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;

Currently 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 as recently as May 2019 and I hope to take a look at it on these web pages shortly.

Cope also helps to run the Jazz Podcast, a platform for UK based jazz musicians and others. Details here;

Turning now to Cope’s recorded début as a band leader, a conceptual affair inspired by the history of the ‘space race’ covering the years 1957 to 1972, but inevitably with a strong focus on the 1969 moon landing.

Cope’s album liner notes and comments in the press release shed light on the inspirations behind the music with the saxophonist stating;
“’Gods of Apollo’ is like a movie soundtrack, a love letter to space and music. It is set to the archival audio material of the race to the moon. There is no notation for this piece, the album is spoken word, and that’s the composition,  just a written script of what’s being said, with the band members improvising in response to what they hear. The piece is in chronological order, we follow the space race from Sputnik’s launch in 1957 to Gene Cernan being the last man to walk on the moon in 1972. I aimed to capture this excitement and add a new level of artistry to the voices of the astronauts”.

As Cope explains the genesis of the project occurred as far back as 2011;
“The idea came to me on a gig at the Spice of Life. I was improvising with trumpeter Laura Jurd and pianist Elliot Galvin while our friend Greg Sinclair narrated stories. Our playing reflecting what Greg was saying gave the audience a new perspective on the music”.

Given his presence at the very start of the Gods of Apollo project Galvin was a natural choice for the recording. Cope has worked with drummer Jon Ormston since the pair were eighteen, with both being part of Jack Davies’ Southbound quartet and Big Band. Rising star guitarist Rob Luft was the final addition to a quartet that sees the leader himself specialising on soprano saxophone.

The album consists of six pieces, with Cope credited as the composer in collaboration with Galvin, Luft and Ormston.

The journey begins with the near thirteen minute “Sputnik” which commences with almost subliminal looped ‘space noises’, sonar perhaps, these providing the backdrop for Cope’s solo soprano sax ruminations. These are thoughtful and unhurried and possessed of an almost zen like calm as he probes gently and airily. Luft’s shimmering guitar adds another instrumental dimension with the guitarist making subtle and atmospheric use of his range of effects. The rumble of Ormston’s drums then helps to give the music more of an orthodox ‘ free jazz’ feel with Galvin’s fractured, Keith Tippett like piano lines also making their presence felt during the latter stages of the piece. Mostly though the opener is about the leader’s serpentine sax meditations, his soprano a searching beam of light in the darkness of space.

A sample of President John F. Kennedy’s famous “We choose to go to the moon” speech provides the segue into the next piece, “Human Spaceflight”. Here the music follows the patterns of speech with Galvin shadowing JFK’s words. Augmented by an array of sound effects the music ranges from free jazz squall, featuring Ormston’s martial style drums, to the rarefied luminosity of deep space as expressed via shimmering guitar, glacial piano and the piping of Cope’s soprano. Speech samples are interwoven throughout the track, helping to shape the flow of the music.

The use of the NASA transcripts to shape the musical narrative invites comparisons with the fifteen minute serial “Moon”, currently being transmitted on BBC Radio Four. Written by Anita Sullivan and narrated by scientist Maggie Aderin-Pocock the script features the words of the original NASA transcripts as spoken by actors to tell the story of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins and the 1969 moon landing. There are obvious parallels between this work and Cope’s, although I suspect that the two projects were created entirely independently of each other.

Returning now to Cope’s “Gods of Apollo” and the shortest track on the album, “Flames”. I take this to be a musical depiction of the deaths of astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee, all killed during a launch test in 1967. Overall the music is less violent than one might expect, but nevertheless there’s a sharp metallic quality to Luft’s guitar and a harsher edge to the leader’s soprano, at least in the earlier stages of the piece. Later a more melancholic and elegiac feel emerges, expressing a sense of loss.

As its title suggests “Neil” brings us to 1969 and via the narrative of the NASA audio transcripts and the musical responses of the Cope quartet the six minute piece takes us on a journey to the moon. We start on the launch pad with the ignition sequence, achieving lift off as Cope and his colleagues gain musical momentum, the leader’s soprano blazing brightly alongside the clangour of Luft’s guitar, Galvin’s spiky piano and the military bustle of Ormston’s drums, all this interspersed with the voices of Mission Control and Apollo 11.

Armstrong’s famous words “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” actually forms part of the introduction to the next piece, “Magnificent Desolation”, the title taken from a phrase uttered by Aldrin. There’s a sense of the isolation, the beauty and the vastness of space, this expressed via Galvin’s crystalline solo piano meditations, his gentle lyricism punctuated by space noises, sampled voices, and passages of more robust piano improvising. Cope, Ormston and Luft only become involved towards the close, the leader’s soprano supplying the link into the album’s final piece.

“One Hell Of A Ride” celebrates the first full moon exploration in December 1972 by Gene Cernan and his colleagues. Again Cope and the members of the quartet respond to the sampled voices before eventually taking flight themselves as Cope’s soprano and Luft’s guitar thrillingly intertwine in a kind of astral ballet. The last words go to the astronauts as Cernan and his crew sing “I was strolling on the moon one day…”. Galvin’s barely audible single piano notes then play us out.

“Gods of Apollo” is a fascinating project and has been released at a very timely moment. As one would expect from musicians of this calibre there’s some excellent playing throughout the album with many instrumental highlights to enjoy. It has clearly been a labour of love for Cope and the way in which the musicians respond to the source audio material is never less than interesting.

The combination of music and recorded speech isn’t exactly new with Pink Floyd being among the pioneers of the genre, notably on the album “Dark Side of the Moon”. There the speech samples were artfully stitched into the songs and instrumental compositions, but Cope’s approach is very different, almost the opposite, with the musicians reacting to the voices rather than the other way round.

Ultimately I found the NASA transcripts and other space noises something of a distraction. With the exception of the opening “Sputnik” the voices run concurrently with the music almost throughout the album. One suspects that “Gods of Apollo” would be an intriguing and absorbing proposition live, especially if enhanced by visuals in some kind of multi-media project. Cope’s brief video on the Ubuntu Music website trailering the project gives a tantalising hint at how effective and exciting that might be.

In the home environment I’m not quite so convinced that “Gods of Apollo” would it stand up to repeated revisiting. Despite enjoying listening to the project during the course of writing this review I can’t see it being an album that I’d be likely to return to on a regular basis. A live performance though would be something else again.

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