Covering every bass

French bass player Joelle Leandre belongs to the new generation of musicians who are not restrained by questions of style.

Joelle Leandre 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
Joelle Leandre 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
Joelle Leandre lives, breathes and talks as she plays and, naturally, the opposite is true too. The ideas pour out in torrents as the 59-year-old French bass player ploughs her way through another thought, before yet another fleeting image materializes in her mind and that, too, transmogrifies into something else.
The notion of Leandre losing her marbles, if she didn’t have her art, her own special avenue of artistic discovery, does not appear too far-fetched. But she does, and has been using music and, more to the point, sound to convey her images and ideas to the world for close on four decades. We will have an opportunity to get a better handle on what makes Leandre tick, artistically and personally, this evening at the Romain Gary Cultural Center in Jerusalem (8 p.m.).
Leandre has been here a couple of times before, sharing a stage with oud player Samir Makhoul at the 2007 Oud Festival and, on another visit, appearing at various locations around the country, solo and together with Jerusalemites bass player Jean Claude Jones and saxophonist/ composer Stephen Horenstein.
On stage, the bass player takes no prisoners as she attacks, caresses, taps, slaps and plucks her bass, often singing and dancing in the process. But, far from being cast into a world of chaos, you get a strong sense of an unfolding story, or a picture being created on a very expansive canvas.
“You know you sow seeds in different places, different kinds of seeds. That, for me, is the poetry of life,” she says.
“Just open your window and look at, and hear, the life.”
That is a notion which resonates strongly with the approach of one of Leandre’s past mentors, late American composer John Cage. Leandre first met Cage in New York in 1976, and was initially in awe of the groundbreaking composer.
“I went to his home and I was shaking when I knocked at his door,” Leandre recalls.
“He talked about traffic, and the sounds of life, and not so much about the music.”
Cage’s influence, along with that of others and lessons Leandre has picked up along her adventurous life passage thus far, come out clearly in her work, both on stage and in the recording studio.
Sound is the key for Leandre.
“Sound is movement, sound is gesture, it is dancing, it is body, music is body,” she exclaims, adding that as an artist, she has a duty to grow and develop herself and her ideas over time. It is, she says, very much a matter of being receptive and feeding off others “When you are 18 or 19, and later when you are 40, you grow with poets and with theatrical people, and you compose with them, and you grow with the gigs and projects and recordings you do.”
There is no holding Leandre. In her 38 years as a professional musician, she has led or contributed to over 150 albums and maintains a whirlwind performance globetrotting schedule. She attributes part of her relentless drive to her humble origins.
“We lived in the south of France and we were poor. My father was a road worker, that’s maybe just one level above a garbage collector. We didn’t sit around waiting for things to happen, we got on with life. Also, my mother came from an Italian family, that gives me some of my fire.”
Much of the latter also comes from a near-death incident when Leandre was involved in a serious road accident, at the age of 25.
“I was completely burned and I think that fire still burns inside me,” she muses.
It is a tough road to follow.
“You need to be physically and mentally strong to be always creating. And the double bass is a big piece of furniture to carry everywhere, but it is mainly a matter of attitude in life.”
Leandre relocated to Paris at the age of 18, to study classical music at the Paris Conservatoire. Her life and career path was changed irrevocably when she came across an LP featuring jazz bass player Slam Stewart, who was the first to combine singing with bass playing.
“That really shook me up,” recalls Leandre.
“I still remember the blue cover. Listening to Slam Stewart’s ‘Blowin’, Singin’, Slam’,’ which recorded on the Savor label, was a shock to the system! Lots of things spoke to me: the sheer fun, the incredible jubilation of his playing.”
Any idea that Leandre is all work and no play would be misleading in the extreme. Yes, she works very hard at her craft and, yes, she invests an awful lot of herself, and not just her finely honed and powerful technical skills, in her recording and performing work. But there is always a pervading sense of pleasure and humor, often of a self-deprecating manner at her concerts.
“You mustn’t take yourself too seriously, otherwise you get lost in your own ego,” says the bassist.
“That won’t do anyone any good.”
For more info about the show: www.ccfgary- For more info about Joelle Leandre’s book, CD and DVD package: