If packing your artistic trousseau with multicultural baggage is a professional prerequisite, then Marilyn Crispell is well equipped for her craft.
The 63-year-old jazz improvisation pianist has traversed expansive personal, ethnic, spiritual and artistic domains in her over three decades on the jazz-oriented side of the musical tracks, with some earlier classical training as an extra stake in her formidable musical foundations.
Next week (October 19 and 20) she will perform at Tel Aviv’s Levontin 7
club alongside long-time cohort drummer Gerry Hemingway in what promises
to be an improvisational tour de force by two free-spirited artists at
the top of their game.
Everywhere you look, Crispell appears to be coming at you from a
multitude of directions. For a start, she was born into what she calls
“a marginally religious Jewish family.” Some of her earliest musical
recollections are singing “Dayeinu” at the Seder table and “Eliyahu
Hanavi,” although she wasn’t exactly a regular at her local synagogue.
Then, around 30 years ago, she discovered Buddhism, facilitated by Karl
Berger who ran the Woodstock, New York-based Creative Music Studio (CMS)
with Ingrid Sertso and free jazz founding father reedman Ornette
Coleman. Here, too, Crispell immersed herself in multifarious artistic
influences, as CMS acted as a conduit for musical energies from all over
the world. Today, Crispell is something of a lapsed Buddhist, but there
is something in her playing that conjures up images of a healthily
breathing meditative pose.
Now, in late middle age, Crispell feels there is something of her early
Jewishness that informs her artistic nous. “I think there is something
in Judaism; there is a tradition of openness and being open to other
cultures,” she says.
That idea may not stand up to empirical testing in the harsh light of
laboratory testing, but Crispell’s long career is shot through with a
She spent 10 highly productive years with avant-garde envelope pusher
Anthony Braxton’s quartet, where she happily teamed up with Hemingway
for the first time. But, of course, this tenure with one of the great
free thinkers of jazz did not come out of the blue. In fact, Crispell
started in at the classical end of the musical spectrum before she
experienced a six-year hiatus during which she cared for her family and
made a living in the medical field.
Rather than consider this time as a void in her musical evolution, Crispell says the break did her good.
“It’s like with weightlifters, when their muscles actually develop in
between training sessions. I came back to the piano with a technical
facility I didn’t have before. So something must have been cooking
inside me while I wasn’t playing. Everything that I have done informs
what I do. When I started improvising, playing jazz, I tried to abandon
any classical influences I had, but I have since realized that is a part
of me, and I can’t not be what I am.”
SPECIFICALLY, IT was saxophonist John Coltrane’s landmark record A Love
Supreme that kick-started her jazz endeavor. A couple of pianists –
avant garde jazz icon Cecil Taylor and long-serving Coltrane sideman
McCoy Tyner also helped Crispell along her unfurling jazz continuum.
“I could make a connection with the harmonies Tyner and Taylor used.
They abandoned a traditional sense of time and harmonies, and I
identified with that. It was sort of what I had been doing when I
studied composing at the New England Conservatory (NEC).”
Crispell has put out a number of albums with prestigious German label
ECM and has a new CD coming out next month, with Hemingway, on
British-based Impact. There are also quite a few synergies with European
artists in the Crispell CV, including Swedish bassist Anders Jormin and
compatriot vocalist- violinist Lena Willemark. There is also a sense of
languid Scandinavian light in her playing which, it seems, is not just
“When I went to Sweden for the first time, around 18 years ago, and I
heard the lyrical way they played there, almost like folk music, I felt
very much at home with it.”
Feeling at home, and comfortable, is something Crispell strives to
achieve wherever she goes, especially in concert halls. “When I became a
Buddhist, at the beginning I worried I would lose my edge by becoming
too calm and peaceful. But we are who we are, and Buddhism has created a
kind of acceptance of who I am and what I am doing regardless of what
other people might think.”
Then again, she wants to convey her artistic and emotional message to
her listeners. “The audience is crucial. The performance is an energy
exchange between me and them. When I come into a room, I am aware of the
ambience, the feeling and the mood.
When I feel people are with me in my music, it can be inspiring. When I
don’t feel that, that can feel uncomfortable, and then I have to get
into my own bubble. I try to just be in a space where I am really
present, not being distracted.”
There’s not much chance of Crispell’s being distracted next week when
she blows into Tel Aviv with Hemingway. For jazz fans who feed off the
more improvisational and spiritually driven side of the genre, the
Crispell-Hemingway gigs promise to be a breath of fresh, invigorating
air. For more information: www.levontin7. or (03) 560-5084