Anders Koppel Drops Ambitious Work for Orchestra/Jazz Trio (Benjamin Koppel, Brian Blade, Scott Colley) On ‘Mulberry Street Symphony’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

The prolific Danish composer Anders Koppel, a household name in his own country for his theatre, film, ballet, and over 150 scores for various classical ensembles, pays homage to his fellow countryman, the famed photographer and social reformer Jacob Riis, who emigrated to the states in 1870. Riis is renowned for exposing the poor living conditions of impoverished immigrants in his groundbreaking photojournalism book, How the Other Half Lives. Inspired by Riis’ compelling photographs, Koppel created Mulberry Street Symphony, an epic work in seven movements, each one based on a different Riis photo depicting tenement life in New York City during the 1880s. Koppel’s symphony for jazz trio and orchestra (the Odense Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martin Yates) features the composer’s son, alto saxophonist Benjamin Koppel, as the main voice through all seven movements, performed live in Odense on October 17, 2013. 

We covered the pure-toned Koppel for his two simultaneously released double-CD projects, The Art of the Quartet and Ultimate Soul & Jazz Revue. Bassist Scott Colley was aboard for both of those projects and returns here playing alongside one of the most versatile and in-demand drummers, Brian Blade.  The 2-CD set comes complete with a 20-page booklet, filled with Riis’ photographs, journalist Bill Milkowski’s liner notes, as well as notes from the composer.

Aside from the image and mood-inducing orchestral score, the fascinating aspect of this project is this trio’s ability to improvise throughout. Anders says, “The whole symphonic score is completely developed and notated, but I didn’t write that much for the trio. Great musicians have fantastic ears. And I wanted to take advantage of that by giving Brian, Scott and Benjamin the freedom that I knew that they could fill. And they interpreted my vision completely.”

Each of the seven movements is designed to be an aural accompaniment to a particular Riis photograph. “Stranded in the City,” conveys the awe and wonder of an immigrant’s arrival into New York City during the time of Riis’ arrival. Benjamin Koppel likens his dad’s scores to that of an abstract painter in terms of capturing a feeling.  He points to that as making it easy for the trio to develop their own explorations. Koppel’s sax darts in and out, always expressively connoting the various moods. Equally visual, and even more deeply emotional are “Minding the Baby” and “Tommy The Shoeshine Boy.” The former is a ballad, almost a lullaby, accenting the gorgeous, melodic tone of Koppel’s alto while the 20-minute latter has him in frenzied modes, blowing aggressively through its more turbulent sections. Calm returns in the emotive “Blind Man,” meant to portray the lonely figure in Riis’ striking photo. Koppel’s mournful, yearning tone impressively defines the piece, which exits so quietly, as if a figure just vaporizes.

Disc 2 begins with the dramatic “The Last Mulberry” a blues-tinged requiem for the last mulberry tree in Little Italy. The trio unleashes with inspired interactive conversations as the orchestra swirls around them. One may think it’s the orchestra in reaction mode when in fact it’s the trio that is reacting to the score. The enlivened trio moves next to unfettered swinging in “Bandit’s Roost.” Koppel reaches his peak of wailing and assertiveness as Colley and Blade lay down a driving pulse. The composer’s description here is worth noting, “Young Italian mobsters posing underneath their mothers’ laundry hanging out to dry. Fragments of a popular song echo between the walls while plans are being made and energies collected, ready to burst.” The seventh piece is the hopeful hymn, “The New House,” based on a 1894 Riis photo of a new home for orphans and homeless children that he helped build on a green hill in the countryside. The encore piece, the West Side Story– like “Puerto Rican Rumble,” replete with rhythmic clapping, is taken from a live performance in the foyer, after the symphony had ended, with Anders joining the trio on Hammond B-3. 

This may come across as hyperbole to some, but Mulberry Street Symphony induces similar evocative moods and visual imagery as such major works like Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown & Beige (1943), Miles Davis-Gil Evans’ Sketches of Spain (1960), and in more contemporary terms, but equally as stunning, Mehmet Sanikol’s & What’s Next?’s The Rise Up (2020) (covered on these pages) or the lesser known Claus Ogerman-Michael Brecker collaboration Cityscape (1982). Just to be in that same conversation should encourage a listen. You will be amply rewarded.

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