Published in Jazz Improv, V. 4, No. 2 (6/2003)

Marc Copland - John Abercrombie - Kenny Wheeler, That's for Sure, Challenge Records, CHR 70098
Released 2001. Recorded October 28-29, 2000, Netherlands.
“When We Met”; “That's for Sure”; “Kind Folk”; “Soundtrack”; “Played Straight”; “Dark Territory”; “How Deep Is the Ocean”; “#114”; “Neba”.
Personnel: Marc Copland, piano; John Abercrombie, guitar; Kenny Wheeler, trumpet and flügelhorn.

Review by Virginia A. Schaefer

When they recorded That's for Sure, the trio of Copland, Abercrombie, and Wheeler had been performing and touring together for a while. Guitarist Abercrombie's association with Copland goes back much further, to before Copland's ten-year transition from saxophonist to pianist. Also, Wheeler has played and recorded trumpet and flügelhorn with Abercrombie for years. The arrangements and performance clearly show that the three musicians worked as equals in creating this recording. All three musicians are known for a thoughtful and sensitive style, for flexibility, and for compositional credentials.

Throughout, Copland plays melodically, whether soloing or comping, and maintains a feeling of constant motion without excessive busyness. In several of his solos, Copland reveals a Bill Evans influence, such as in “Played Straight”, with its crunched grace notes and descending patterns, and “Neba”, with its triplet figures and cluster chords. A few touches in Copland's solo evoke Herbie Hancock's playing; for example, the dissonant-cluster chords and parallel fourths in “When We Met” and the upward glissando in “Kind Folk”. Copland also occasionally inserts a descending chromatic line reminiscent of impressionistic composer Erik Satie, for example, in “Soundtrack”.

In his playing style, particularly on solos, Abercrombie varies somewhat between tracks. Often he takes a straightforward, folky approach, such as on “When We Met”. On “That's for Sure”, he plays a fantasia-like introduction with a classical baroque style, with a metallic timbre and harmonics; later in that track he solos and comps with a bluesy sound, adding a touch of distortion. On the slowly unfolding melody of “Neba”, Abercrombie's deliberate attack and resonant timbre impart a lingering quality. Abercrombie is sensitive in a backing role, and he and Copland often seem to form their own duet when they play together.

Wheeler's sound is soft-edged and dark, with a light attack. He often selects the flügelhorn, which sounds less brilliant than trumpet. When playing a melody or free-rhythm improvisation, he subtly shapes the color and dynamics of individual notes while minding fluidity and expression in the entire phrase; examples are the rhapsodic introduction to “Kind Folk” and the head on “Soundtrack”. Wheeler's fast-moving improvisation is precise, as displayed in his bop-style solo on “How Deep is the Ocean” and his rhapsodic solo on “#114”.

All the tracks have in common a gentle swing groove, well-suited to progressive-mainstream jazz played without bass or drums. In general, the pieces tend toward diatonic melodies with chord changes with shifting tonal centers and frequent irregular phrasing. Significant, but not always apparent, are the interesting forms of the original compositions (eight of the nine tracks) and the ways they have been arranged.

Copland's “Dark Territory” has a melody in the standard song form AABA, but the change from 4/4 to 6/8 meter in the B part adds another dimension. The other Copland composition, “When We Met”, starts with a major-scale theme in a four-bar A section, which is repeated. The next four-bar section (call it B) introduces a slightly different motif, which could be a bridge. However, instead of a return to section A, there's another four-bar section (C) that develops the new theme, and then two seven-bar sections (D and E) that further develop that theme. In the arrangement, the guitar starts the head with piano accompaniment on sections AAB; on section C the flügelhorn takes over from guitar. The instrumentation creates an interesting tension, as the change in lead instrument implies a break between B and C (a division reinforced by a key change in the melody), while the change in themes occurs between A and B.

Wheeler's “Kind Folk” has a song-like ABCB form with four-measure sections, but the straightforward form is obscured by the melody's irregular phrasing and an impressionistic atonality. The arrangement of “Kind Folk” starts with Wheeler's long, rhapsodic introduction that sounds like it might be the melody, but then a short guitar/piano vamp after it signals that it is not. Wheeler's composition “#114” is metrically intriguing, with seven beats per measure, in an ABAB form with four measures per section. Unifying the melody is a distinctive, chromatically descending motif that's mostly pickup, while complicating it are chord changes with shifting tonal centers.

Abercrombie's “Played Straight” is a ten-measure melody which, like the Bill Evans composition “Blue in Green” that it resembles, is arranged as a rondo in which the melody is restated between improvised solos. Abercrombie's composition “That's for Sure” has an AAB form, with the A section major-mode, roaming harmonically, irregularly phrased; the B section switches to minor, is regularly phrased, and has the minor tonic as its only chord. Also in “That's for Sure”, Abercrombie gives the nod to the arranging style of Gil Evans, has a ragtime flavor that tells the influence of Gil Evans (Abercrombie played in his band for a time), via bluesy guitar licks, and on piano the oom-pah-pah patterns and high-register seconds.

The musicianship of Copland, Abercrombie, and Wheeler is easy to enjoy, but this recording deserves repeated and careful listening for its depth to be appreciated.