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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Marilyn Crispell: Jazz Pianist (Interviewed by Jefferson Hansen)

Marilyn Crispell is widely considered one of the leading contemporary jazz pianists and composers. Her reach is tremendous. She can coax extraordinary beauty out of standards such as "You Don't Know What Love Is" or Coltrane's "Dear Lord" by often locating pockets and eddies in the tune that allow for tremendous elaboration while still staying true to the tune. On her own compositions, Crispell has often been much more explosive, playing pounding rhythmic counterpoint opposite cascades of runs up and down the keyboard. Since 1996, on her recordings for ECM, she has explored a more contemplative side, one that emphasizes space, interiority, and quietness. During the 80's Crispell was a member of Anthony Braxton's quartet. She has also played with such major jazz luminaries as Irene Schweizer, Barry Guy, Evan Parker, Reggie Workman, Noelle Leandre and many, many others. The interview begins with a discussion about her cat. [If you would like to listen to a rather rough-sounding audio version of the interview, click on the title above. The entire interview is transcribed below.]

What is the name of your cat?

My cat's name is Freddy.

How long have you owned him?

I wouldn't say I own him. I would say that he appeared at my door full grown about 8 or 9 years ago.

People can find this out in different spots, but I find it interesting that you spent much of your career making money as a hostess in a restaurant.

That was very short lived. At the time I was living down the street from a French restaurant. And that was only for one season in a town just outside of Woodstock, New York.

What drew you to Woodstock as a place to live?

There used to be a school here called the Creative Music School, and it was run by two German jazz musicians, Carl and Ingrid Berger. It was a very unique kind of place where most of the names you would know in contemporary jazz and world music and even some in contemporary classical music would come to teach, and they would have 6-week sessions in the summer, winter, spring, or whatever. The school was on the grounds of an old hotel up near the Catskills. I came up here one summer to check it out, and I ended up moving here from Boston because it was an opportunity to meet all these musicians and work on their music with them in ensembles. At the end of the week they would do a concert with the students. It was beautiful, the Catskill Mountains, there was health food, a focus on meditation and all that kind of thing. It was a unique place that last until about 1983 or 4, until it went bankrupt.

That's usually what happens with institutions like that. They're too creative to last. I hate to divide your career up into two different periods, because I do not believe it is that simple. There is a lot of overlap. But there was a shift in 1996 when you began developing something of a new aesthetic, at least on the recordings under your own name. However, when you play as a sidewoman with Barry Guy or Noelle Leandre and so on, you often use your more dissonant and physical 'earlier' style. What is it like to move back and forth between these styles?

I was never just a sidewoman, I always had my own thing going on, too. I started recording under my own name in 1981 for Cadence records, and I did a lot of recording for Leo records and some other labels at the same time that I was playing in the Anthony Braxton Quartet. I did that because I wanted to establish something on my own, so that I was not simply associated with someone else. Because like any relationship it can come and go and also because I had a voice that was independent of what I was doing with Braxton.

Here's what I was thinking: the voice that appears, for instance, on Evan Parker's After Appleby, which appeared a couple years ago, is similar to the one that appeared on the pre-96 solo albums. How do you manage to work for several months on a solo project, then work under a different leader where you play a style more closely allied with your early work?

It's all connected. It's all a continuum. It's all recognizable as part of the same voice. There is an emphasis on intensity whether it be outer intensity or inner intensity, which the ECM stuff is for me. I think it would have been stranger if I had begun playing traditional jazz tunes, which I do some of. Even in the early recordings I am often playing ballads by Ellington, Coltrane, Bill Evans, even Monk. I allowed that to take precedence because that was what I was feeling at the moment and what I wanted to develop. I think what I am doing is not mainstream stuff, it's just that I allowed a lyrical aspect of my voice to come forward. I don't see it as a break in any way. I play in a lot of different circumstances and some of them involve what you call my 'early' voice, although I would say that with the emergence of lyricism has affected all of what I play, including the so-called 'energy music'. I find it more grounded in a way. It's something that's very difficult to put into words.

That's why it's music.


Your latest album, Vignettes, is a solo album. You've made a number of solo albums over the years, The Woodstock Concert, Live in San Francisco, both on the Music & Arts label. And there were others. How do you approach a solo album differently than you do a group album?

I guess with a group album there is more planning. With a solo album I tend to leave things more to chance; this isn't totally the case because there is also total improvisation on the group albums. The more people there are the more planning you need, I think, although there are some people who disagree with me. There are some big bands that deal with total improvisation. In general, the more people you have the less definition things will have unless there is some kind of planning to leave space for things you want to happen. The more people you have the more you have people playing all the time and the less transparency there will be.

That dovetails into another issue. I assume that some of the songs on Vignettes are improvised.

Most of it is improvised

If it is improvised, how do you approach such a song? I assume you must have some idea of what you are going to do with an improvised song, or am I wrong about that?

Well, either or. It can be that, or it can be as simple as sitting down and playing the first note and going from there. It's like having a conversation I don't know what you are going to ask me and depending on what you say I say something. And then depending on what I say you say something and then we go from there. You don't necessarily plan what your first sentence is going to be when you meet a person and have a conversation with them. There does tends to be a back log of vocabulary, and a shared vocabulary if you are playing with other people. Many years of listening, studying, playing all provide a foundation for this improvisation. It doesn't come from nowhere. Just like if you are talking, you have a foundation of a language.

One of the two longest songs on the album is right in the middle and entitled 'Sweden'. Is there any significance to this given that ECM is a northern European label?

For one thing I named all the pieces after the music is finished, and I don't like naming things. I am not good at naming things. The reason I named that 'Sweden' is because I love Sweden. I have been going there since 1992 and it is a country that is very dear to my heart. There are people I love very much there. Somehow the music suggested to me something about the atmosphere of Sweden so I named it that.

In the case of this album how did you determine whether a song was going to be entitled Vignette 1, 2, 3 or something else?

The Vignettes were like small flashes of color interspersed among the longer pieces.

Given this relationship between part and whole, can this album be thought of as a suite?

Yeah. All of my recordings, I look at them in terms of the total picture, how the pieces fit together and how they segue one to the other. And Manfred Eicher at ECM records always chooses the order of the pieces. I think he does this very effectively. Sometimes he thinks one the pieces won't work, and then he figures out if he puts it in this place rather than that one, it works. If it were not an ECM recording I would definitely pay attention to the order and how things fit together. So, yeah, all of my recordings could be looked at as suites.

From what I have read about your recording sessions, you seem pretty ego-less, given that you had the composer, Annette Peacock, in the studio during the recording of Nothing Ever Was, Anyway: The Music of Annette Peacock. And now you say that the owner of ECM picks the song order.

That was not a matter of ego-lessness at all because she was the composer and knew very much about her compostions. She was very particular about how she wanted things played; very, very particular. I had her there conducting, basically, so that the phrasing and timing were just how she wanted it, or at least as close as possible. I could not have done that without her being there, to do that.

I just imagine that there would be a lot of jazz musicians who would balk at having the composer in the studio during a recording.

I grew up in classical music, so it's not that unusual.

I was curious about your naming the album Vignettes given that the word refers to a very slight narrative rather than a full-fledged one.

I had this image of a hallway and opening doors on either side as you walk down, and getting glimpses. I was looking at the word 'vignettes' to mean something like pictures or glimpses.

From your first album on Cadence Records I sense a strong percussive counterpoint between your left and right hands. My sense on Vignettes is that this counterpoint continues but is more melodic and harmonic than percussive.

Yeah, if I told you that Bach is my favorite composer, that might make sense. Counterpoint is a very, very important element in my music, I think. I would say that working with harmony was the last thing to happen. It started out more with rhythm and counterpoint being a linear thing than focusing on harmony. I mean, the piano is a percussive instrument. I am very into drums and overlapping rhythms, so I think it's pretty accurate, what you said. I think the counterpoint is often there, not always. It is a really crucial aspect of what I do, it's very important to me. So whatever form it takes, it's pretty much there.

On a few songs, particularly 'Vignette 2' and 'Vignette 5', it sounded to me as if you were plucking the strings inside the piano. Was this true?

Yeah, I think I was.

Have you done that before?


Then I am a dummy because I've listened to almost all your recordings, and I never noticed it.

Maybe it was more evident on the Vignettes album because it was more transparent. It's solo; there's a lot of space. I've done it on some ensemble recordings, so you can't hear it as well.
I don't remember if I ever did it on a solo album before.

It seemed that the strings you were plucking tended to be on the high end.

Yeah, that's true. The lower end strings are harder to pluck, because they are thicker.

Listener response is something that can be extremely tricky, but I want to let you know about my response to the album, and see what you think about it. First, I think this is a beautiful album, terribly moving. As far as the mood goes, I find that most of the album feels elegant and melancholy.

I think I was very much in that spot. I recorded this two weeks before my father died. I did not know when he was going to die but I knew that he was really not well. I think that was very much present there.

I am sorry about your father.


It's approach to death is nothing like Dylan Thomas' lines "Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light." There is a quiet and elegant acceptance of death's inevitability. At least that's how it makes me feel.

Yeah, maybe it was a kind of unnamed melancholy. I can be fairly melancholic. Maybe that's why I relate to Scandinavians so well. There is something that I love about those northern expanses of snow, darkness, northern lights, very mystical. I can relate to all that.

On my blog right now I am exploring how women horn players have been treated by the jazz world. I will be interviewing some people on this in the future. I would like to get your feelings about the issue of gender in jazz. Have you felt that your being a woman has affected your acceptance in the jazz world?

No, I haven't. Of course the music I was playing, I was not in the mainstream. The people who were playing the kind of music I was playing tended, I think, not to pay a lot of attention to race and gender, at least in the days when I first got into it. I think now they pay more attention to certain aspects, like race it seems to me. I am the kind of person who if I want to do something I just do it, and the fact that I am a woman does not figure into it. It doesn't hinder me. If there were difficulties of that kind I was not aware of them. I could guess that if I was not a woman I may have more work or be treated in a different way by some of the promoters and festivals and things like that. Then again, that's total conjecture because I have dealt with so many people who have been really respectful and treated me like any other musician they wanted to hire. It hasn't been a problem for me.

I thought you were going to say that because of your comments on the topic in the Braxton book about the tour in the 80's —

Oh, Forces in Motion.

Yeah, by Graham Locke. The last thing I have to say is that you have been such an inspiration to me as an artist because of the integrity you have in relation to your artistic vision. I admire any artist on the cutting edge who stays there because it is such a difficult place to inhabit.

Thank you for that, but if that's where you spirit lies, you don't have a choice. It is not an act of courage so much as merely following the path of least resistance. It's kind of like what you do, what comes easily to you, your natural path. It would be more difficult not to do it. I often think that people who fall by the wayside or people who decide to do something else because they are not going to make much money doing this, they didn't want to do this that badly to begin with. I would say that if you are not that driven to do it, don't waste your time. Enjoy it and everything, but if you are seriously thinking of doing it for your life's path, I think you've got to be very driven to do it.

That's what I admire about you. It was not duty. It was coming out of such a deep level, almost as natural as breathing, and you stuck with it. At least that what it seems to me.

You could also look at that as laziness.

With that modest quip, the substantial portion of the interview ended. Stay tuned for more interviews of literary and musical figures.

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