A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo courtesy of the artist

Photo courtesy of the artist

According to The New York Times, Bryan Copeland “specializes in an unabashedly pretty strain of postbop, chamberlike and euphonious.” While the bassist-composer, originally from Texas, is noted for his work as a sideman alongside Toby Goodshank (formerly of Moldy Peaches), Ashley Arrison, David Binneyand Roy Hargrove, he has steadily led Bryan and the Aardvarks in the New York area since the release of Heroes of Make Believe (Biophilia, 2011). The Aardvarks, taking on jazz “infused with a wistful pop sensibility” (Time Out New York), were formed as a quartet configuration, but have expanded over time to include Bryan Copeland on bass, Camila Meza on vocals, Chris Dingman on vibraphone, Jesse Lewis on guitar, Fabian Almazan on piano, and Joe Nero on drums. Having brought the Aardvarks to our stage in an earlier formation, Bryan returns again to present all new music this Tuesday. Glenn Zaleski will be featured on piano this evening.

Bryan was kind enough to sit down on the phone and discuss the new material and some backstory behind the Aardvarks:

The Jazz Gallery: You’re prepared to debut all new material for the up coming performance. Could you give some context about the material?

Bryan Copeland: Yeah, I mean there will probably be a few new tunes that we’ve played before and three or four brand new songs that I’m hoping to unveil. We’re going to rehearse later and see how it goes. It’s pretty complex stuff, a lot more involved than the former stuff. Some of these scores for these tunes are about 25 pages long. [laughs] Hopefully we’ll be able to work them out. We’ll have to see how the solo parts sit next to the melodies we wrote for some of the “heads,” which can be up to six minutes long or so themselves.

We’re going to record soon. We’ve been trying to get it going but it’s been tough with everyone’s scheduling. I think Fabian and I will likely produce it. I want to record it at this place upstate called The Clubhouse. Chris recorded his last project there and had a great experience. It sounds like a nice getaway; they let you stay there.

TJG: Is there a certain inspiration you’re drawing on in these new compositions?

BC: Yeah, this new stuff has a strong science fiction influence—definitely a futuristic, outer-spacey vibe. I’m a huge movie fan: I’ve seen thousands of movies and sci-fi has always been my favorite genre. Definitely into Ridley Scott stuff like Blade Runner and Alien or the original Solaris or Brazil. I particularly love the music in sci-fi films. The more films I’ve watched the more I’ve gotten inspired to write.

The last album was very heavy influenced by composer Jon Brion; he’s been a really big influence of mine for a long time. I think this new stuff is really organic. It’s just straight out of my imagination or sub-conscious or something.

TJG:  Would you consider yourself to be existential?

BC: I have a song called “To Gaze Out the Cupola Module.” I was reading about these astronauts up at the International Space Station that built the “Cupola Module.” It’s a big window that looks down on earth and it reminds me of the evil emperor’s window in Star Wars—it’s crazy-looking. These astronauts were talking about what an impact it had had on their lives, just looking down on Earth and seeing your place in the universe, realizing what a small fragile part of this whole thing we are.

We went hiking a few years ago in northern California up at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. I just remember seeing these giant trees, thinking that these things have been here for thousands of years. My life span is nothing compared to these trees. I think about that kind of stuff a lot.

TJG: In describing the creative inspiration that led you to initially compose for and conceptualize this band, you said that you “…Let the subconscious write the music.” Is that an approach that you still carry?

BC: Yeah, definitely. That is still what I’m trying to tap into when I sit down. That’s been such a deep meditative process for me: trying to find that place when I compose. It translates also to just playing bass or trying to function within the band. I think most of the time I just sit down at the piano with no real direction in mind. I usually start with harmony, check out different voicings and chords, etc. Usually I stumble on something that interests me and then I pick it as a starting point, then it just organically builds from there. I’ll play a chord and then figure out where the chord wants to go, how the voicings should resolve.

I write with Logic these days. Before, I was just writing on the piano and I’d have to be able to play and hear all of the parts that I was writing simultaneously. I’m not a very good piano player so I was limited in terms of what I could do at one time. It was also difficult to really layer things the way I wanted to. It’s really nice having it laid out on the computer for me. I can manipulate more. I have more freedom to compose. This material has individual parts for everyone. Before, it would be your typical jazz lead sheet type of thing where I write down the melody and harmony.

I just have this compulsion around music. It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s just part of expressing the way I see the world. I’ve never been very good at speaking in public or talking to others, so I guess it’s a way for me to express my views. That has always kind of been my thing. I’m not as outspoken usually and the music I write is very personal’ it’s not formulaic at all. Every chord and note is something I spend a long time on. It’s an excruciating process for me to write music. I spend 12 hours a day for two straight weeks composing a tune because I want to make sure that every single note is exactly where I want it to be in the composition.

TJG: Tell me more about the formation of the band. How did you all come together?

BC: Joe [Nero] and Fabian [Almazan] were really the first two people I met here in New York. My friend of a long time had passed away and the experience inspired me to move to the city. My wife and I started saving some money, then packed up and moved here. I knew one person when I moved here: he was a baritone saxophone player going to Manhattan School of Music. He set up a session with Joe and Fabian. From the first time I played with them, I really liked the way they approached music. They were both very sensitive and open. Really, everything that they do well is all about helping bring the music to life. Joe and Fabian introduced me to Chris [Dingman]. We played a couple of my songs and I remember just thinking immediately that this is the missing ingredient. A friend asked us to play on this one bill at the Sidewalk Café in the East Village. He was like, “What’s the name of your band?”

We didn’t have an official name at the time; I just spouted of “Bryan and the Aardvarks”. That was our official first gig with the four of us. We played like that for a couple of years and then it got to be that we’d have Jesse come in to sub for Chris when he wasn’t around. Jesse came to do a whole gig with the band as well and that was very eye-opening for everyone. We did another gig without Jesse, and everyone seemed to be commenting that they really missed his sound.

Fabian was playing a bunch with Camila so he introduced us. I guess the tunes that I had been writing have very lyrical melodies. She seems to be a really nice fit; we’ve done about three shows thus far.

As far as relationships, it’s a very close-knit group of people. Chris got married in North Carolina and the whole group was there, heavily involved in his wedding. That is something that I value as much as the music: the relationships I have with these guys. These guys are like my brothers at this point. It’s funny how unifying the name “The Aardvarks” has been with the band. A lot of people have told me that the name is too goofy, that we’d have to change it, but people have adopted it. It’s not something I really anticipated.

TJG: What were you thinking about when you thought of the name?

BC: I don’t know. It just sounded interesting [laughs]. Aardvarks are pretty interesting. They’re the only animals that have these prehistoric teeth with holes to secrete acid for digestion [laughs] … They’re just interesting. I think they’re kind of like me: you don’t see them in the wild too often, and they’re more introverted. I grew up in Lubbock, Texas and was around a lot of Buddy Holly appreciation; I kind of liked that whole “Buddy Holly and The Crickets” thing.

Bryan and the Aardvarks will perform at The Jazz Gallery this Tuesday, November 4th, 2014. This performance features Bryan Copeland on bass, Camila Meza on vocals, Chris Dingman on vibraphone, Jesse Lewis on guitar, Glenn Zaleski on piano, and Joe Nero on drums. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. First set is $15 general admission and $10 for Members. Second set is $10 general admission and $8 for Members. Purchase tickets here.