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.
TJG: When did you decide that the Aardvarks was going to be your primary outlet as a composer and bandleader?
BC: I feel like I knew that from the beginning, really. I had done all of these folk-type gigs as a sideman. I grew up in Austin, so I played with a lot of singer-songwriters. I was playing at the Sidewalk a lot with guys like Barry [Bliss] and guys from the Moldy Peaches, like Toby Goodshank. Something that always resonated with me when playing with them was how personal their music was. There was such a strong connection to their personal identity, and that was something I really wanted to do in my own music. There are no lyrics, per se, but I was still having to have that kind of direct expression.
Even that first song, “Sunshine Through the Clouds” I think came from that space. My best friend in the world had just passed away when he was 28, and then I moved to New York—that was a big life shift. I was really starting to tap into this subconscious place to write the music.
TJG: I think you make an interesting point about lyrics being a conduit for direct, personal expression versus just instrumental music. What are the kinds of musical ideas or gestures can communicate your personal feelings in an instrumental piece?
BC: When my friend passed, I had to deal with all of these difficult emotions. I had a really hard time. I would sit down at a piano or my keyboard and get into this kind of meditative state. I don’t quite know how to describe it. I would tap into this space, and then stuff just started to come out, especially “Sunshine Through the Clouds.” I think the music really nailed the emotions that I was having. It’s almost like I was trying to open this doorway into my subconscious with music. After that, I would try to go to that place whenever I would sit down to write.
That tune was kind of an awakening to a music that I was hearing, but hadn’t been able to put my finger on. I feel like it was always in there, but I didn’t know how to get it out. It was like a word on the tip of your tongue.
TJG: Do you feel that the pop and folk elements to your compositions activate this personal space, this particular feeling of nostalgia, perhaps?
BC: Yeah. I definitely think so. I grew up all over Texas. I was born in Abilene, then I lived in Lubbock, then in Dallas, and then I lived in Austin for the most significant part. I wasn’t even really exposed to jazz. The first time I really listened to jazz and figured out that I was into it, I was probably 20 years old. I grew up playing rock music in garage bands. Growing up in the Texas panhandle, it was all about country music and folk music. I identify with that music a lot because I was around it so much. Once I got into jazz, I became obsessed and surrounded myself with it for a long time. I think playing with singer-songwriters helped me get back to that music I was into pre-jazz. I started listening again to guys like Elliott Smith or Nick Drake. That was what I was listening to when I started writing the Aardvarks tunes.
TJG: Going back to what you were saying about activating a meditative state in your composing, I think that feeling comes out in the deliberate pacing of your Aardvarks tunes. A lot of times, I hear the band set up this lush harmonic space and then patiently explore it, building up gradually.
BC: I feel that’s more of a subconscious thing. That’s kind of my style in general. My favorite playing situations are when I can get into something and just stay there. I’m not as much into changing up the momentum of a song. I like to have this kind of arch form—going in one direction to an apex, and then coming down.
When I’m writing the music, it’s a very painstaking process. It takes me forever to write a song. Even if I find something I like, I feel like there could be something else that works better. I couldn’t imagine co-writing music with someone else because they would get irritated with how long it takes!
A lot of times when I’m writing music, I don’t even think about the technical aspects of the music. I block that out of my mind. I’ll just sit down at a piano and I’ll find a chord that I like, this or that particular voicing. And then I’ll think of every note in that chord and where each note wants to resolve. I’ll compose that way without thinking about exactly what I’m doing, and then I’ll go back and dictate it and realize I did this kind of thing or that. A lot of times, I won’t play the song before our first rehearsal and then I’ll be sight-reading my own part and realize that it’s a lot harder than I thought!
TJG: Sometimes I feel that a musical idea can be clearer in one’s mind or one’s ear than when they get written down—the notation makes it look more complicated than it feels.
BC: Yeah, definitely. I struggle with that a lot—writing out charts. I probably have 50 songs that I’ve composed and notated sequences of in Sibelius, but I hate it so much. I have this big folder of songs and I think, “How am I ever going to get these notated?” I just hate those notation programs. To me, logically they make no sense.
TJG: I feel that they’re music engraving programs, they’re not creative programs. They’re designed for copyists.
BC: Oh yeah.
TJG: Maybe someone will eventually make a creative notation-based software, but that’s for another conversation!
I’d like to go back to earlier in the conversation and your talking about the simpatico relationships between everyone in the band. With that in mind, how does drummer Kenny Wollesen fit into the band for this Gallery show? I feel he’s as good a fit as any with his particular pocket and his ability to mix it up as well.
BC: Kenny is just amazing. Bill Frisell is a big idol of mine, and he’s been that for a long time. I remember seeing Frisell at the Continental Club in Austin when I lived there and that was just life-changing. It was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen. Kenny is just an ideal drummer in my mind. I had him on a gig a few years ago and he blew me away. We started playing and his groove was just ridiculous and he just nailed the music. I don’t know if he has total recall or what, but he would just read my chart for a couple of bars and never look at them again, and still perfectly set up all of the different sections.
Having the right people for the music is really important to me. It makes having the band kind of hard—I’ll be trying to book a gig and emailing everyone and nine times out of ten it’s impossible for everyone to be on it. We need to have a large majority of the band do it before we take a gig.
The music is very simple in a way, but it has this very particular vibe. It’s really striking to me that if we don’t have the right people, the music can get really far away from what I want it to be. I’ve definitely played this music with people that didn’t work with the vibe, almost shockingly so. I think that a lot of people who come up through a traditional jazz conservatory, they have their language, they have their thing that they play all the time, and when they bring that to my music, it doesn’t always work. In a way, I feel a kinship with someone like Horace Silver, even though the music is very, very different. It’s all about the vibe.
TJG: What I think can make music like yours or Horace Silver’s difficult is that so much of what makes it work isn’t on the page. It’s about where you place the groove, it’s about frequency of change, it’s about note density. The music is quite complex, it’s just that the complexity is in different domains than what’s typically notated.
BC: Right. Sometimes I feel the Aardvarks stuff has something in common with minimalism, Philip Glass’s music. I think that might come from Jon Brion for me—he’s a huge influence of mine.
TJG: Taking this conversation full-circle, I want to go back and talk about Fabian and Chris. They have these monster chops, but in this band, they use them to build these lush textures, rather than step out and make everything they do the focal point.
BC: They’re completely focused and dedicated to serving the music, making it sound whole. There’s no ego. There’s a lot of sacrifice on their parts, not playing everything they can, doing musical wizardry. I don’t remember what this kind of art is called, but it’s this practice where you draw a tone of simple things. You’ll start with simple shapes and you’ll keep drawing until you have this incredibly complex collection of simplicity. That’s what I think about with my music a lot.
Bryan and the Aardvarks play The Jazz Gallery on Sunday, May 26, 2019. The group features Bryan Copeland on bass, Jesse Lewis on guitar, Chris Dingman on vibraphone, Fabian Almazan on bass, and Kenny Wollesen on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.