The value of the “working band”–the worth of keeping the same group of musicians together over the years –is a commonly accepted positive. The benefits of shared experience are obvious: empathy (sometimes described as “telepathy”), a foreknowledge of what a band mate will do (or how they’ll react) in a certain situation; an evolved compatible, complementary sound and, apart from music, a kind of identity branding. Keith Jarrett’s longtime “Standards” trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette is the often cited example. That trio, after so many years, can also be cited for the negative side of the longstanding group: a certain predictability.

Pianist Marc Copland seems to get the best of both worlds when he records. Working with a revolving set of musicians, he develops familiarity with his sidemen while finding contrasting approaches to frame his (mostly) meditative and harmonically adventurous keyboard work. Including different musicians make some of the dates unique; think of trumpeter Kenny Wheeler’s presence on That’s For Sure or the tunes with saxophonist Michael Brecker on And… .

Copland’s latest recordings, one a trio, one a quartet, find him working with familiar partners…but not exclusively familiar. Bassist Peacock has previously recorded with Copland (the duo date What It Says on Sketch) and his presence on Copland’s Voices makes for simpatico mood and method. Peacock contributes four of the disc’s eight tracks, Copland three (they do Miles’ “All Blues” as well). The pieces are so similar in mood that it’s hard to tell who wrote which though repeated listenings reveals Peacock’s tunes to be slightly more up front and assertive. Peacock’s playing is equally important to the date’s quality; his sound is stout, rhythmic and complementary to the piano. He adds harmonic counterpoints to Copland’s phrases or thickens the mix with richly toned double stops. The most Copland-like of Peacock’s tunes is the thoughtful “Vignette,” the least is the brief “That’s It?” with the pianist’s firm and deep intro leading into a slow-motion game of tag. Paul Motian’s brushes sweep the loose ends into a neat, orderly pile. Indeed, Motian—that most sensitive and responsive of drummers—makes this date outstanding. He keeps everything crisp and propelled in tasteful fashion.

On Another Place, guitarist John Abercrombie gives additional depth to Copland’s layered harmonics. These two also have shared history. Both played together in the Chico Hamilton combo, Abercrombie was on Copland’s first recorded date as a leader as well as Second Look from 1996 and 2000’s That’s For Sure. The bassist is another Copland collaborator, Drew Gress. As is Copland’s way, he allows both men to contribute numbers to the date. Here, the personalities seem more pronounced, Abercrombie contributing tunes with airy introductions that proceed on definitive, slightly offbeat themes. Copland’s compositions get right to the point. If anything, the pianist’s playing is literally in another place from the trio date. He’s less harmonically ambitious, no doubt in deference to the guitar. Gress’ “Dark Horse” is the kind of tune you expect from a bassist, with a theme that allows him to explore the range of his instrument even has his pins the tune’s melody for the soloists. Drummer Billy Hart, like Motian, shows himself to be a master of shade and color. Listen to his brush and cymbal work on Abercrombie’s “Ballad In Two Keys” and marvel. He can take a sensitive tune that most drummers would tackle with brushes and bring it out with touch and feel from his sticks. Why rate one of these two excellent recordings over the other? Both feature Copland’s mix of urban and pastoral moods with unexpected phrasing and progression. Still, the trio disc better highlights its leader’s harmonic strength. Another Place, released June, 2008; recommended. Voices, released September, 2007; highly recommended.—Cabbage Rabbit

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