Going with the flow

Jazz pianist Marilyn Crispell breezes into Tel Aviv for a refreshing gig at Levontin 7.

Marilyn Crispell 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Marilyn Crispell 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 go-with-the-flow ethos.
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 by chance.
“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