A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Clockwise, from top left: Chris Dingman, Bryan Copeland, Fabian Almazan, Joe Nero, an aardvark, and Jesse Lewis. Photos by Dominick Nero.

Whimsey, wonder, and despair go head-to-head on Bryan Copeland’s new album, Sounds From The Deep Field. Inspired by the Hubble Space Telescope’s photos of the impossibly endless depth of the universe, Copeland’s new album asks searching questions about our sense of self-importance on a personal and biological scale. The album is another in a flurry of releases from Biophilia Records, an environmentally-conscious effort headed by Fabian Almazan to raise awareness about our consumption on Earth.

At The Jazz Gallery this week, Bryan and The Aardvarks will take the stage to celebrate the release of “Sounds From The Deep Field.” The band will include Jesse Lewis (guitar), Chris Dingman (vibes), Fabian Almazan (piano/keys), Bryan Copeland (bass), Joe Nero (drums), plus special guest Dave Binney (alto saxophone). We caught up with Copeland over the phone to discuss the means and methods behind this extra-terrestrial new release.

The Jazz Gallery: In an interview with AXS, you said that after you discovered the Hubble Deep Field photos, you “had this insatiable desire to express this enormity in my music and I composed most of the album in about one month.” Has anything ever spoken to you like that before?

Bryan Copeland: It actually all coincided with buying Logic Pro X. I got so into the program that I’d sit there and compose for twelve, sixteen hours a day for a month, maybe two months. It was winter, two years ago, and I just sat there and wrote the tunes, one after another. We didn’t rehearse, really. I’d booked a studio to record another project, but I realized what I’d written was much more important to me. Everyone is so busy, but I pieced together the rehearsals, and the album came together. Some of these charts are like fifteen pages long, with big roadmaps. It was a bit scary having one day booked in the studio, there was a lot of pressure, a lot of open questions. But it was amazing. And The Clubhouse Studio in Rhinebeck is so great, so welcoming. It’s on a farm, with a converted barn for sleeping quarters.

TJG: In an interview with us from several years ago, you discussed how your composition process mostly happens on the computer, because it’s visual, and the musical elements become kind of modular.

BC: Yeah. Before Logic, I’d compose all my music at the piano, playing it myself. I’m fairly limited at what I can play on the piano, and I’m obsessed with being able to hear stuff back in real time. So I would spent hours learning to play these parts on the piano, just so I could hear them. It was hugely time consuming just to be able to hear the music I was creating. In Logic, you can record it, hear it, adjust things, move forward.

TJG: So what was so inspiring about the new Logic when writing the new album?

BC: It opened up a whole compositional world where I wasn’t limited by what I could play. Again, I could record bits and pieces, move them around, and I wouldn’t lose ideas. Playing by myself on the piano, I’d come up with something, try to revisit it, and forget where my fingers were supposed to go. In Logic, it’s there forever. So before, my compositions were more standard jazz forms, AABA, fairly simplistic. With Logic, it helps with arranging, opening up sections, finding new ways of charting the territory. My compositions have expanded.

TJG: You’ve mentioned that “When we stop and appreciate that we are such a tiny part of this unimaginably infinite universe, it becomes quite difficult to continue to imagine ourselves to be some all important center of it.” As a musical prompt, this feels beyond overwhelming.

BC: I was hit by seeing those gigantic trees I’ve discussed before: I started thinking about all the things humans do to justify doing ill will on their environment and each other, out of the belief that we’re the most important thing in the universe. The more you start to look at our place in the universe from an existential standpoint, you see that we’re such a tiny, imperceptible part of this gigantic, infinite thing. It’s hard. When we look at ourselves in this huge context, how important is what we think is important?

TJG: So how did you become inspired to create, rather than go home and curl up in a dark room?

BC: Well, it’s such an abstract idea. It’s hard to express in words. Music is a better vehicle than words sometimes for expressing these things, because music is more abstract. You can paint pictures with the music. It’s a feeling I’ve always had. It’s hard for me to put into words. Trying to take this thing inside me, express it in a certain way. With the last album, my best friend growing up had just passed away in his late twenties. It was a hugely devastating experience for me. I didn’t know how to deal with it, but I sat down and started writing music. I tapped into this subconscious place, where I started drawing these things out. It was a satisfying experience, expressing something I could never have expressed through words.

TJG: With this project you were reaching for the same ways of relating to ideas through music?

BC: Definitely. Once I unlocked that door, that’s a place I always try to go back.

TJG: So with Fabian in the band, it seems like releasing on Biophilia Records was a natural fit.

BC: Absolutely. Everything he and the label stands for is such a natural fit. I grew up with Fabian, I’ve known him for eleven years from playing. We’re close friends, I think we share a lot of the same passions. The way we think about the environment, helping out, planting trees around New York, cleaning up the parks. The whole label, with the Biofolios, printed on this high grade recycled paper, using plant-based inks, it’s all environmentally conscious and sustainable. That’s a big part of what I’m dealing with in this music, trying to be more conscious and aware and responsible, trying to make better, more sustainable decisions.

TJG: What are more sustainable decisions, in terms of music?

BC: Not so much musically, I guess. Well, I guess it could be musically. Being responsible and fair with all your decisions, trying to stop being so self-centered with your decisions, especially decisions relating to our surroundings. It applies to everything. There’s the whole story of Carl Sagan talking NASA into turning around and taking a photo of Earth from a great distance, to show people that as we venture out, we’re still this fragile little thing. A photo from that distance gives some perspective, the Earth looks so tiny. “To Gaze Out the Cupola Module” is based off that. I was watching interviews with astronauts who had spent time on the International Space Station. They have a big window, looks just like the Death Star window. It looks down on Earth, and the astronauts hang out in there for extended periods of time. They’re the only ones who have gotten to see that. They all had this kind of profound awakening from seeing that, it changed their life to see Earth from that perspective.

TJG: That’s a beautiful tune. I also loved “Soon I’ll Be Leaving This World.” Kind of like Chopin meets Weather Report. Tell me a little about how you wrote it?

BC: The title itself has a double meaning, either morbid (death) or physical (traveling in a space ship). The song has these different parts that mirror both concepts. The first part is really melancholy, then there’s an inspirational outer-spacey part.

TJG: So you’ve been releasing an original, brand-new poster every day for the last month to promote the release of the album. At what point did you come across the idea of Aardvark-ing these recognizable cartoon characters?

BC: I’ve been designing those in Adobe Illustrator. I’ve always been obsessed with cartoons. ‘Bryan and the Aardvarks’ was influenced in a big way by my favorite cartoon growing up, The Ant and The Aardvark, part of The Pink Panther cartoons. It was trippy and weird and narrative. Ant & Aardvark was always my favorite. But cartoons were always amazing to me. Linda Oh and I always geek out on Simpsons knowledge, we’re both huge fans of that. So making the Aardvark stylistically emulate the cartoons has been fun. I’ve been mixing it up with political satire too. I’m almost 40, so the internet wasn’t a big thing growing up. I didn’t have a computer until college, and social media doesn’t come fluently to me. These designs help me be more active and present on social media. I was a graphic artist before being a musician, and I worked as a civilian graphic designer at the Air Force base in San Antonio. It was terrible. One day around 1998, I just quit. I never wanted to deal with a computer or graphic art ever again. And I didn’t even use a computer or really have an email from 1999 to 2005. When I made my first album, I designed the cover myself, so I got the Adobe suite. I re-learned everything from scratch, it was so different from what I had been learning in college. And now, I’m getting more into it, enjoying working in Illustrator.

TJG: Do you find any similarities between graphic design and playing bass?

BC: You know, the programs are actually pretty similar, Illustrator and Logic. I can definitely see parallels there. The software operations and digital processes are similar. But I invest far less time in graphic design. With music, I can practice all day, not eat, forget what I’m doing, get so lost. Graphic design is more for fun for a couple of hours here and there, but eventually I get a little cross-eyed [laughs]. I’m not quite as passionate about it.

TJG: Thanks for chatting—we’re excited to host you for the release of the album!

BC: Likewise. The Gallery is probably my favorite place to hear music. The first show I went to in New York was at The Jazz Gallery, a trio with Brian Blade, Jon Cowherd, and John Patitucci.

TJG: That’s an intense first show to see.

BC: [Laughs] Totally, man. I grew up in Texas, and you don’t get to see stuff like that. When I was living there back in the day, maybe once a year you’d get Herbie or Branford or Wynton. But you never got to see people like Dave Binney or Brian Blade or people like that. After seeing that Gallery show, it was one of my goals in life to play at The Jazz Gallery. It’s always cool to get to play there, and to get to play with Dave Binney is a treat for me too. I’ve been checking out his music for a long time, so I’m really excited to have him.

Bryan and the Aardvarks celebrate the release of Sounds From The Deep Field at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, April 27th, 2017. The group features Bryan Copeland on bass & compositions, David Binney on alto saxophone, Jesse Lewis on guitar, Chris Dingman on vibraphone, Fabian Almazan on piano/keyboards, and Joe Nero on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.