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Rob Cope's
Gods Of Apollo

by Howard Lawes




Rob Copes Gods Of Apollo album


The 1950s and 1960s were decades of great change in jazz as in many other fields. It was the time of the Cold War when the USA and its allies on the one hand and the USSR on the other competed militarily, and it was the start of the Space Race in which the two super-powers struggled to be the first to travel into space and subsequently to land on the Moon. It was the USSR that first put a satellite, 'Sputnik', in orbit around the Neil Armstrong One Small StepEarth in 1957, and got a man, Yuri Gagarin in 1961, and then a woman, Valentina Tershkova in 1963, into space. The USA 'Apollo' Program was initiated in response to a challenge from President Kennedy in 1961 but got off to a tragic start when a fire in the Apollo 1 module in 1967 caused the deaths of three astronauts. Fortunately the program continued without further casualties and in 1969 the Apollo 11 mission successfully landed a manned spacecraft called Eagle, on the Moon. It was the captain of the Eagle, Neil Armstrong, who uttered the immortal words on leaving the spacecraft on the Moon, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Perhaps if Armstrong had been a John Coltrane fan he might have talked about 'giant steps' but it was left to the Police in 1979 to sing "Giant steps are what you take, Walking on the moon".  Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon described the landscape he saw as "magnificent desolation", and apparently he was a jazz fan, as it is reported that he was playing Frank Sinatra's version of Fly Me to the Moon with Count Basie on his portable cassette player.  The song's association with Apollo 11 was reprised many years later when Diana Krall sang it at the mission's 40th anniversary commemoration ceremony. She also sang a version of the song in 2012 at the memorial service for Apollo 11 mission commander Neil Armstrong.


Diane Krall sings Fly Me To The Moon with John Clayton (bass).




Composer and teacher Rob Cope has long been fascinated by the 'Space Race', and has been inspired to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the hugely successful Apollo 11 mission with his debut album, "Gods of Apollo", on which he plays soprano saxophone - other band members are Elliot Galvin (piano), Rob Luft (guitar) and Jon Ormston (drums). The piece uses historic mission recordings from the NASA and Soviet space agency archives, woven together to form an audio timeline covering the period 1957 to 1972,  the project was partly financed by a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2018. 

For the Kickstarter promotion Rob Cope said: 'The music on this album, 'Gods of Apollo' has been influenced greatly by space, in particular the crackling and beeping of the radio transmissions published by NASA over the last decade. These audio archives inspired me to create music in a different way, to find new ways to convey a story through sound and to immerse the listener in that world. This led us towards playing freely improvised music in a way that reflects the mood of the audio tracks. The end result is something that, I hope, will resonate with people and make others feel the way I do about this most incredible period in human history. It aims to blend the freedom of jazz with NASA archival audio tracks to create an entirely new experience of space exploration. Above all, it aims to tell what I believe to be the greatest story in mankind's history; the race to walk on the moon.  


Rob introducing a video trailer for the album





There are six tracks on the album, each with its own effect:Sputnik


With Sputnik, a pulsating radio signal introduces a spacey melody on soprano saxophone that becomes more freely improvised before being joined intermittently by improvised piano, guitar and finally drums, repeated motifs suggest sounds of chaos which are in stark contrast to the steady pulse from the spacecraft. In response, Human Spaceflight begins with the clarion call from President Kennedy urging USA scientists to be the first to put a man on the Moon - musical improvisations overlay recordings of conversations between astronauts and mission control.



Flames relates to the tragic accident when three astronauts lost their lives in a fire, and freely improvised music gives way to a short reflective saxophone melody, and then Neil tells the story of the successful Apollo 11 mission during which Neil Armstrong was the first human to walk on the Moon. Famous extracts from conversations between astronauts and mission control are accompanied by a big, semi-improvised sound emphasising the huge achievement of everyone concerned with themission.


Magnificent Desolation begins with the most famous quotes from both Armstrong and Aldrin and the music reflects the awesome spectacle which the astronauts must have witnessed.


Listen to Magnificant Desolation.





Finally, One Hell Of A Ride includes reflections about the Apollo project as it came to an end in 1972 and that are increasingly drowned out by the improvised music as the whole band enjoy themselves. The final part of the piece is a recording of Apollo 17 astronauts Harrison Schmitt and Eugene Cernan singing "I was strolling on the Moon one day..." adapting a song sung by Bing Crosby "While Strolling Through the Park One Day" written by Ed Haley.


Listen to One Hell Of A Ride.




It is perhaps revealing that the jazz musician, Rob Cope, is more interested in the sounds of space exploration, the crackling radio, the beeping satellite, the radio transmissions from the astronauts and Mission Control than the science and engineering.  Additionally, it is surely paradoxical that he is celebrating the huge achievement of the Apollo project that was planned to the last detail, checked, tested and planned again over several years with jazz music that is freely improvised in the moment.

Certainly, Rob the bandleader has gathered together a group of very fine young jazz musicians who give an excellent account of themselves within the wide boundaries that Rob the composer has set, and together with the iconic recordings the album has much of interest.  For those that like their Moon music sung by Ella Fitzgerald (How High the Moon, 1947),  Billie Holliday (Blue Moon, 1952) or like Buzz Aldrin Fly Me To The Moon by Frank Sinatra, then Gods of Apollo will indeed be a giant leap but where would jazz music be otherwise?


Rob Cope

Rob Cope


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Other pages you might find of interest :

Philip Larkin's Jazz
Free Improvisation - Pyne and Grew
Video Juke Box
Jazz As Art

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