Combine the smoothness of a dry martini with a slightly musky cologne and a starched collar: riffing off the vibe of Mancini and others makes Gabe Pope’s new album “Cool Composure” some welcomed time travel. He’s created music that feels like an orchestra is in your living room with original melodies activating a happy nostalgia.
The tracks sound newborn-fresh with each instrumentalist in hyper-focus when the right time comes around. Take “Zingiber,” which offers an easy bounce as drums and piano jointly take on the rhythm, artfully complementing the sax who blows a perfect story. “Snow Dreams” is painterly and pretty, with just enough brushes to get you in the feels as the piano assumes a laid-back lead, almost (but not quite) approaching bluesy. Vocalist Abby Graf (a younger Basia?) takes “Samba Wonderland” by the hand and skips about with a confident, lovely voice laced with her dialed-in phrasing. Maybe the standout is “Westbound” – it swings like “Pink Panther” but is contemporary, smart and innovative with unexpected do-si-do’s from guitar and accordion.
You’re so versatile in your playing. What do you consider your primary instrument?
I’d have to say drums. It’s the only instrument that I studied formally, as well as the one on which I have the most real-world experience, playing gigs and so forth. When I’m multi-tracking a rhythm section on my own, I always start with the drum track, and try to nail it in one or two live takes.
I’ve been playing piano even longer. I started to teach myself as a toddler, but never learned proper technique. I believe knowing piano is essential as a compositional tool. But playing other instruments gives you a better idea up front of how a tune will actually come together in an ensemble or in a recording.
What was the best thing about attending Berklee?
Living and breathing music 24/7 is an amazing part of any music school! But Berklee is somewhat unique, with its focus on jazz and popular music. I got to play in a 60s rock cover band, arrange big band charts, and compose counterpoint in the style of Bach all in the same day! Given the curricular variety, I was able to absorb a wide range of knowledge in a relatively short period of time.
What inspired “Cool Composure”?
The main objective was to showcase my compositions. So composure is intended to be a little pun on composer. Some of the best jazz albums have clever pun-laden titles and I wanted to follow in that tradition.
When you analyzed and pulled apart the threads of music by the likes of Mancini and Silver, did you find anything surprising?
Henry Mancini was a huge influence on me as a composer. His music is infectious, fun and playful, and yet very smart and economical. I found a strong symbiosis between composition and arrangement in his scores. Mancini’s orchestration choices are often crucial to bringing out the unique character of the melody and vice versa. Of course I didn’t have a studio orchestra at my disposal, but in working with a limited number of instruments, I tried to emulate this approach to achieve a bigger sound. “Bachelor’s Theme” in particular is a strong nod to his classic television music.
Horace Silver and Art Blakey were big influences on my playing style and the overall sound of the album. I find that Horace Silver, in his soloing, really favors space along with funky percussive repetition. He also likes to lean on 4ths and 5ths in the right hand to invoke that slightly exotic, earthy tone. For me, as a more primitive pianist with limited technique, those are all fairly painless tricks that I’m able to incorporate into my own solos.
Where in your head do you go when you compose?
A new composition usually starts with the germ of something like a melodic motive, a chord progression or a lyric. From there I’ll quickly shift to the bigger picture and think about high level concepts like style and theme, the overall arc of the song, before digging into the nuts and bolts of putting down notes. The high-level stuff usually comes to me when I’m taking a walk or trying to fall asleep at night.
Why did you decide to work with these artists?
I’ve known Nick Bartell (saxophone) for years, and he’s been on the front lines playing jazz gigs for a couple of decades. Having him involved really gives the album some street cred. Nick never sounds like he’s copying any of the greats. He has a genuine tone on the instrument that’s all his own.
Abby Graf (vocals) is a versatile talent whom I had recently worked with on other projects. She brought a classical discipline when it came to learning the songs and nailing the more difficult written passages. But she also puts so much heart and soul into what she sings and has this intuitive, authentic feel for all different genres.
John Kirchner (guitar) has a great knack for concise solos and a deep knowledge of the guitar masters. He also shares some of my perfectionist tendencies.
I wanted this album to be palatable for both jazz and pop fans, which is why most of the tunes clock in at three minutes or less, and most of the solos are less than a chorus. In gathering the talent I aimed to achieve a solid balance between precision and spontaneity.
Did you illustrate “Planet Squiggle” after this was written or did it spark the idea for this project?
Painting is something I’ve done sporadically, and “Planet Squiggle” is one of a handful that I created several years ago. In an abstract way I had always thought of that particular painting as a self-portrait. So when I started planning the artwork for “Cool Composure” I was inspired by Neil Fujita and the way his work was utilized on many jazz album covers in the 1950s and 60s. Abstract art and jazz music are very complementary, so the existing painting was a perfect fit!
Do you have a favorite track?
“Swagger in Step” still brings a smile to my face almost every time I play it. It’s kind of triumphant in a very cool and understated way, and the other players filled it with so much infectious energy. The tune actually started life as a 16-bar compositional exercise at Berklee. I didn’t have a higher-level concept for it starting out, so it’s always neat to see something like that take on a character of its own.
You produced and funded this by yourself. That sounds heroic. What was it like?
Thank you! It is an accomplishment that I’m certainly proud of and represents the culmination of several personal goals that I can check off my bucket list. And to be honest, it was also an exhausting, draining experience that I haven’t been able to fully process yet. Covering the musical material as well as the technical and business ends of a project doesn’t leave you with much time to smell the roses. Maybe six months from now I’ll be able to sit back and enjoy the final product with a more detached perspective.
Your earlier CD “Love in All Directions” – how would you say the new CD differs in its sound and message?
Well, I can’t call “Love in All Directions” my own. That’s one of two folk/rock albums that I recorded with my talented songwriter friend, Alex LeClair. He wrote all but one of the songs on those albums, while I produced, engineered and played multiple instruments. My jazz background does come through in many of the tracks, but we also had the luxury of dipping into any style we wanted to serve the songs; in the same way something like The Beatles’ “White Album” covers a dozen different genres and yet you can still call it a “rock” record.
With “Cool Composure” I put more constraints on myself. At least in terms of style and production, this was my attempt to evoke a fairly specific time in jazz history.
What do you hope people take away from “Cool Composure”?
Joy, mainly! And I hope that the more poignant or melancholy moments of the album will resonate with listeners in a way that is meaningful to them. I endeavor to make music that’s fun to listen to but sticks to the ribs and make you think a bit. I’d also like to inspire other composers or any artist who aspires to share with the world a piece of themselves that is also something bigger than themselves.
For more information, visit www.gabejpope.com and https://gabejpope.bandcamp.com/album/cool-composure.