Octave Records continues to expand its musical horizons with the release of Ancient Rhythms by guitarist Bill Kopper, a diverse album that blends Brazilian, African, jazz and other musical influences into a compelling new sound that sounds contemporary, yet timeless. Ancient Rhythms features Bill Kopper on electric, classical, and seven-string nylon-string guitars, in a set of-all-original compositions recorded using Octave Records’ latest Pure DSD high-resolution audio system to deliver an extraordinary listening experience.
The songs are the result of pure inspiration. “Most of my music tends to come to me fully formed,” noted Bill. “A melody will come to me and then the chords will come and it just kind of happens. It’s like me being a radio, as best as I can describe.”
Bill Kopper. Courtesy of Octave Records.
Bill Kopper is joined by world-class pianist Erik Deutsch, who also co-produced the album, along with Bijoux Barbosa on bass, Paa Kow playing drums and percussion, and John Gunther on flute. Ancient Rhythms was recorded using PS Audio’s latest Pure DSD 256 process, featuring the Merging Technologies Pyramix recording system. As a result, the music can be heard with remarkable clarity and presence, where every instrument is conveyed with richly detailed tonality and dynamic shadings, from powerful to subtly nuanced. Bill’s guitars are simply a delight to hear, and the seven-string adds a depth and rhythmic drive not usually heard from nylon-stringed instruments. “It’s almost not a guitar,” Bill pointed out, since it adds a lower string to the guitar’s range.
Ancient Rhythms was recorded by Steven Vidaic, Recorded and mixed by Jay Elliott, and mastered by Gus Skinas. The album features Octave’s premium gold disc formulation, and the disc is playable on any SACD, CD, DVD, or Blu-ray player. It also has a high-resolution DSD layer that is accessible by using any SACD player or a PS Audio SACD transport. In addition, the master DSD and PCM files are available for purchase and download, including DSD 256, DSD 128, DSD 64, and DSDDirect Mastered 352.8 kHz/24-bit, 176.2 kHz/24-bit, 88.2 kHz/24-bit, and 44.1 kHz/24-bit PCM. (SRP: $19 – $39, depending on format.)
The up-tempo leadoff track, “From the Outside” sets the pace from the first burst of drums, percussion and electric bass to the sinuous interplay between guitar, piano and flute. The energy picks up with “Stars Rain,” featuring Bill playing electric guitar with understated elegance and melodic invention. The rest of the album flows through a variety of moods, tempos and musical textures, from the heartfelt “Elegia,” written in tribute to an old friend, to the haunting melody of “The Cup in Front of Us,” and the closing track, “Samba du Soleil,” capturing the mood of a warm summer day with its harmonic inventiveness and irresistible polyrhythmic bounce. On “Elegia,” because of a happy accident, percussionist Paa Kow even used items found in the forest instead of drumsticks, to achieve a unique sound and musical resonance.
I talked with Bill about the making of Ancient Rhythms.
Frank Doris: Did you have an overall idea or concept for the album? Because it sounds very contemporary, but it’s called Ancient Rhythms.
Bill Kopper: Most of the stuff I've written, and this is my fourth disc, has been in some way either Latin or African-inspired, or some mix of the two. Melodically and harmonically and everything for me kind of [comes] first from a rhythm. Brazilian music and Afro-Cuban, and that thing, that direct line to Africa is there. So yeah, I guess that's the background of everything I've written and that's where my inspiration comes from.
FD: That leads right into another question: you've obviously got serious Brazilian and jazz influences. How did the Brazilian thing become such an influence in your composing and playing?
BK: If you knew where I was from, that would be even more mysterious. I grew up in Northwest Illinois, three hours from Chicago. You wouldn't know any town near where I grew up, but it was on the Mississippi River. One thing we did have was a really good public radio station. I was cleaning out the barn or something one day, and they were playing this concert by this guy who I'd find out later was Carlos Barboza-Lima, a very famous Brazilian guitar player. I didn't know what I was hearing; what we would [hear] mostly back there was American music. But that just – I stopped everything and my life changed at that point. (laughs)
FD: I'm a guitar player also. I often think, why does someone want to get into jazz or classical guitar when the obvious thing is to play rock guitar? Everyone wants to be a rock star! So how did you wind up playing with such jazz and classical influences? Classical meaning nylon-string guitar.
BK: Exactly. Well, honestly, it was that same public radio station. It was broadcasting from Iowa, Cedar Falls. The railroad had some hub there with some area of activity, and a [sizeable] black community. There was a great DJ who, again, in middle of Iowa [at the time], where would you get this? But he was into the tenors, you know, [sax players like] Dexter Gordon that whole Texas tenors scene, and David Fathead Newman. He was just totally down with that kind of blues-based thing.
For a farm boy, it was like, OK, this is cool. (laughs) And then there were the guitar players that came out of that scene as well, like George Benson, that sort of burning bluesy guitar player. And from there, a friend of mine got me into Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.
I became friends with (guitarist) Mitchell Long; he was playing with Melody Gardot for quite a while, and he's plays with Rickie Lee Jones. He totally kicked my ass. I mean, we're the same age. And he was just ruthless. (laughs).
FD: You studied with him?
BK: Not, not formally at all. We would just get together and play. [I’d sit there and say] dude, dude, what are you doing? But man, he scooted me along really, really well.
That’s kind of how I got into jazz, I guess.
FD: I wouldn't feel too humble, because your playing is great. It has a lot of feeling. I'm impressed that you're adept at electric as well as nylon string guitar. What kind of guitars do you play?
BK: Well, I just got an Eastman Cabaret [nylon string], designed by [guitarist] John Buscarino. He makes [a similar guitar] for 10 grand and however long you have to wait. But Eastman commissioned him to do a knockoff of his own guitar. It’s really good.
FD: How about the seven string nylon string guitars you use? (The seventh string is lower in pitch than on a standard guitar.)
BK: The seventh string thing is kind of a staple in Brazilian music. It's used a lot in samba, which they got from Russian folk musicians who immigrated into Brazil. It's a little uncertain what the real trajectory was there and how it ended up in the hands of samba musicians.
They generally tune it to a C. I tune it to a B. That thing is a major ordeal. (laughs) Any kind of solo arrangement [you’ve worked out], forget it. You're screwed. Comping on them is okay. I play that in what they call samba pagode, where there's generally no bass [instrument in the band]. There's a lot of percussion. It’s kind of the folk-pop music of Brazil.
FD: It’s hard for me to describe the songs on Ancient Rhythms. Calling them Latin or Brazilian or jazz is not accurate, though the influences are there. The music is its own thing. How did you write the songs?
BK: Actually, nothing on there took me longer than the length of the form to write it. So, maybe a couple minutes for each tune. (laughs) They tend to come out more or less fully formed. A melody will come to me and I'll record it and the chords will come to me and it just kind of happens. There is a certain amount of editing that I’ll do; you know, I do sweat over them after they're written. If I were to sit down and [try to] put one note after the other on a piece of music, I'd never finish it.
FD: A lot of musicians say they're just a conduit to what's coming through them.
BK: Yeah. I hear this a lot in jazz. I think if it filters too much into our conceptual mind, then it's going to lose that air, that kind of magic.
FD: Do you write out arrangements for the band after you write the songs?
BK: Oh yeah. I write it all out.
I'll generally have a rhythm that I'll be feeling as the melody comes out. The palette for that is mostly informed by Brazilian music. The drummer and percussionist on this record, Paa Kow, is from Ghana, and he knows all these Brazilian rhythms [from their origins] in Africa. He's like, oh yeah, we've heard that for 10,000 years here. (laughs) So he's not gonna play it like a samba, like a Brazilian would, he’ll play it like what it's from in Africa. So [a song] doesn't necessarily sound like a Brazilian jazz thing after that. They mostly deal with everything in the context of some sort of clave [rhythm], 3 against 2 or 2 against 3. They’re just conversant in anything that has that clave vibe.
The bass player on this album, Bijoux Barbosa, is from Brazil. I've known him forever. The pianist on Ancient Rhythms is Erik Deutsch, who I've also known a long time. I don't even know what to call him, he’s so good. He plays with the Black Crowes now, and was playing with the Chicks and Charlie Hunter. He can play anything, but he's not necessarily informed by anything. So, it's his own thing in the end. He's something else.
FD: What guitar players have influenced you or who do you admire?
BK: It's really gotten to be Jim Hall. [And] Bill Frisell’s kind of minimalism kind of changed my life. I had always liked him, but – I was in New York once and he was at the Vanguard and I was like, OK, he wasn't my first choice but I’ll go see him. Hearing him play live, I was like, holy crap! I know this guy’s got chops, but he certainly doesn't use 'em and sometimes doesn't even solo. And just his minimal [kind of playing] just gave me permission to be who I was.
And of course, Wes [Montgomery], I've listened to Wes every day. He’s just like a magician.
FD: Like the way Bill Evans plays piano. It just sounds so simple and perfect and gorgeous. And then you look at a transcription, and it takes a month to figure out the first four bars.
BK: I was talking to someone about Bill, maybe [Evans’s bassist] Eddie Gomez, he comes to Colorado quite a bit. Eddie said he never heard Bill make a harmonic mistake. And imagine the amount of times they’d played together.
More guitar players? A guy by the name of Peter Sprague, a San Diego guy. And then the Brazilian guys, uh, Carlos Bar-Lima, definitely. Raphael Rabello, who was short-lived, but he was huge. Man, I am leaving out so many.
FD: Is there anything you want to say about any of the songs on Ancient Rhythms in particular? “Elegia” is just gorgeous, and it sounds like it was written for someone.
BK: It absolutely was. There’s a friend of mine and he's not doing well. He's in his early 80s now. This friend of mine got to know Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Thomas Pynchon, and we became really tight and he's a great teller of stories. During the pandemic he made a mad flight down to Brazil because his girlfriend, who lived there, was kind of on her way out. And he didn't make it in time to see her. He was four hours short.
FD: “Modern Art” starts out slowly and then gets into that – I don't even know if you'd call it 3/4-time fast part; I don’t even know how to count it – why does it evolve in that way?
BK: I'm not even sure – I can't say exactly what I was stealing (laughs) when it came out, but it just arrived that way, fully formed again. I'd recorded it quickly, so I wouldn't forget it, as I do with all these [songs]. I [feel like I’m] pretty much I'm taking dictation.
FD: On “Casa De Carmen” – is that referring to Octave Records’ own Carmen Sandim by any chance?
BK: Yeah! We're best friends and every day we're talking or goofing on something.
FD: I ask this question of every Octave artist: what’s it like to hear your music played back with such an exceptional level of recording quality?
BK: I've gone through several phases with that. The first was – holy sh*t, is that what we really want to hear? Like breathing and belching and whatever, the scraping of the strings. My first impression was, we don't want to hear more, we want to hear less! But then I heard it [again] and I was like, good god, this could cure disease.
I guess we all had an [opposite kind] of experience of when we first heard CD [in the early 1980s], that utter disappointment. I walked into this classical music store and heard Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major, and it sounded like tinfoil, awful. I don't know about you, but listening has always been different [for me] since then. The kind of mania that we had [with] listening to analog, I don't think has ever gotten there with conventional digital, but then this DSD thing is like, oh my god. It's like the analog thing with a perfection of digital.
We recorded Ancient Rhythms mostly live in the studio. There was only really one isolation room, and that was for the drums. The tracks were mostly first takes. Probably [some] second or third takes, but [all were] live takes.
FD: So you really had to have the music down and yet it doesn't sound stiff, like you were afraid to make a mistake. You recorded some of it at Animal Lane Studios.
BK: Yeah. It was really unassuming and there just wasn't any stress vibe at all. Just a totally relaxed feeling.
There’s an interesting side note to the recording of “Elegia.” Paa Kow did not bring his brushes and he is like, oh sh*t. So, he goes outside to the woods and gets an assortment of sticks and branches and stuff, and he plays with those. Wow. He just pulled that together without even thinking about it. It sounds like something we would've planned [to do for the song], but no.
FD: He just had to explain why you had to clean tree sap off of the drum heads! (laughs)
BK: Oh yeah, it was kind of a mess. I mean, if he has any pollen allergies…
FD: He's kicking up a cloud of green dust?