Over two albums and a decade of live performances, bassist Bryan Copeland’s band Bryan and the Aardvarks have honed a unique and personal brand of instrumental music, memorably dubbed “pastoral shred” by Rolling Stone Magazine’s Hank Shteamer. This Sunday, May 26, Bryan and the Aardvarks return to The Jazz Gallery alongside special guest drummer Kenny Wollesen to celebrate their tenth anniversary as a band and premiere a new suite of compositions commissioned by the NPR program StoryCorps. We caught up with Bryan Copeland by phone to talk about the band’s history and how he approaches writing direct, confessional music without lyrics.
The Jazz Gallery: Since this concert is celebrating ten years of the Aardvarks, I’d love to talk a bit about the band’s history. What made you want to start the band in the first place?
Bryan Copeland: We actually started in 2006, which is when I moved to New York. Joe Nero—our usual drummer—and Fabian Almazan were going to school together at the Manhattan School of Music. The only person I knew in town was this bari saxophone player who was going to school there named Jacob Rodriguez. So when I got to town, I called Jacob, and he hooked up a session with Joe & Fabian. They had a collective going on—it was a septet I think—and everybody just brought in tunes. We would play gigs, we played in Philly a lot, actually. So I started writing some songs for the group. The first song I wrote was “Sunshine Through the Clouds,” which ended up on the Aardvarks’ first record. So I brought that tune in, and it didn’t really work for the big group. We had all of these horn players, and it wasn’t really a horn player tune. It’s this kind of folky tune. At the gigs, we would play that tune as a trio.
So we did that for quite a while, and then I started writing more music. Then this good friend of mine Barry Bliss—he’s a wonderful singer-songwriter—contacted me. He had a residency at the Sidewalk Café—which is no longer the Sidewalk Café. He emailed me and said, “Do you want to play this gig on a bill with my band?” I was like, “Yeah, sure,” and he was like, “What’s your band name?” Bryan and the Aardvarks just popped in my head. I don’t really know how it came. I guess a lot of those bands were singer-songwriter projects and they all had band names, so I didn’t want to be “The Bryan Copeland Jazz Trio” or something like that. So that was our first gig as the Aardvarks.
TJG: How did you expand out from the trio configuration?
BC: At about the time of our first gig, vibraphonist Chris Dingman moved to New York. He had just gotten out of the Thelonious Monk Institute. Fabian set up a session with Chris and I remember being blown away by Chris. He was just a monster. I was kind of intimidated by his playing! He was so good that I was getting nervous at the session! I then talked to Fabian and asked if he thought Chris would be a good addition to the Aardvarks and he was really into it. So we ended up playing that Sidewalk Café gig as a quartet.
It was a good venue for us because the music we were playing had this pop music influence, and that heavy folk element. The audience was really receptive to the music there. Everybody was raving about the group, and that was really encouraging for us. We ended up playing there quite a bit. They ended up trying to do these “jazz nights” to accommodate us, but they ended up kind of being a disaster, because that wasn’t really their audience. People didn’t come out, and I was like, “I’d rather just keep playing with the singer-songwriters.”
We added Jesse Lewis after Chris couldn’t make a gig. Jesse was one of the first people that I met in New York, so I asked him to sub for Chris. It went really well, and then Chris came back, and I was like, “I miss having Jesse, too.” He added a lot to the music and so became a regular. That was maybe a year after our first gig.
One of our first major gigs with this configuration was at the old Jazz Gallery. It was a big goal of mine to play there since I moved to New York. I remember seeing some really heavy groups there, like Brian Blade’s group—I used to go see them all the time before he left New York. I saw some really life-changing shows there, so it was really great to get to play there myself.