Where Paris meets the Middle East

Double bass player Joelle Leandre revels in new musical endeavors.

joelle leandre 88 224 (photo credit: )
joelle leandre 88 224
(photo credit: )
If Joelle Leandre's zest for experimenting is anything to go by, we are in for a whirlwind experience at her concert tomorrow, when she'll join forces with local oud player Sameer Makhoul. Discussing music with the 56-year-old Paris-based double bass player is an exhilarating experience. But what else would you expect from an artist who veers decidedly towards the avant garde, has over 150 recordings to her credit since she first entered a recording studio in 1981, and maintains a ceaseless search for the innovative, thought-provoking and sometimes downright challenging? "We have bastard instruments," says Leandre, in reference to conventional musical apparatus that have developed and changed drastically over time. "There are rules and roles [in music], but that doesn't mean you can't change things around." Leandre began venturing into potential artistic minefields at an early age, partly out of a sense of frustration. "When I was 19, I changed everything. I thought: 'Why has no one written anything for the double bass?' I really suffered, and there was no one around to help me, but now I have the key to the door of everything." It has been a long road to get to where Leandre is today. She has been through the mill and paid her dues several times over. She spent 12 years playing in classical ensembles under such legendary conductors as Zubin Mehta, Daniel Barenboim and Leonard Bernstein. But she eventually tired of being a bit player in a large, tightly devised plot. "Maybe I am too much of anarchist, I don't know," she muses. "But you must be yourself. I feel that classical music puts up barriers between who you are and the audience. You have to put yourself on the line. You have to be adventurous. Classical music is necrophile music. It is dead." Playing with Makhoul will presumably satisfy Leandre's penchant for exploring unchartered waters. While she has played with all manner of musicians, she has not done too much in the way of ethnic Middle Eastern projects. However, considering improvisation is at the very root of Arabic music, it is not surprising to learn that she and Makhoul hit it off at once. "I intuitively found a common language with Sameer. Improvisation means being open and listening. You have to be so fast. You have to anticipate and you don't play what you know. We have to learn something new everyday. Perception equals creation. Sameer and I will share what we do, and meet in the middle." Apart from the constructing confines of structured musical compositions, Leandre has also struggled with gender barriers. "Look at jazz, for example. There are so few women jazz players. But when you get into free improvisation, there is no hierarchy, no gender and no color. It is only a meeting of the collective. You can improvise with anyone, regardless of color or gender. Just listen and take the risk." Leandre may not be getting any younger, but she doesn't show any signs of slowing down. "I am always on the road. One day I am in New York, and the next somewhere in Europe." But with her credo, there is no chance of settling for the soft life. "It is very hard to be so creative. You have to resist popular trends, and I don't go with the consensus. At my age, you have to know who you are." Ultimately, the bass player feels, the sky is the limit. "If you are really open and sensitive anything is possible - not just in music, but in all of life." Joelle Leandre will appear with Sameer Makhoul at Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem on November 23 at noon. For more information, go to: www.confederationhouse.org