Recorded April 2007 Auditorio Radio Svizzera, Lugano
All Music Guide
After three exceptional trio albums - "Nothing ever was, anyway", "Amaryllis", and "Storyteller" -, a poetic, powerful, luminous solo album from pianist Marilyn Crispell. Increasingly Crispell is proving that tenderness and strength can be compatible characteristics, rather than opposites, in improvisation. Cecil Taylor long ago predicted that Marilyn would "spearhead a new kind of lyricism in jazz", and she is defining it here, on the modestly- titled "Vignettes".
"I wanted this to be a recording that was thoroughly authentic in feeling," Crispell says. "Very pared down, with nothing superfluous in it, and at the same time music that was from the heart. And that's easily said but not so easily done: even in improvisation a lot of activity in the music can simply happen out of fast, nervous energy. I wanted instead focussed energy, where every note and sound and silence has some purpose. Well, here's an analogy: I was recently reading a book about Chinese five-element acupuncture theory, which suggested that in times of chaos and transition you shouldn't try and force change, but rather get to a quiet place where you can allow transformation to manifest itself. A lot of my experience with ECM has been like that, allowing a musical direction to emerge rather than artificially forcing it."
The directions that emerge on "Vignettes" bring Crispell to many different places and by several means. Free improvisation here has the rigour of composition, but pre-composed and partly-composed material also has its place. "Valse Triste" for instance is a piece written during a residency at the Centre Du"rrenmatt in Neucha^tel. "Axis" and "Ballade" are themes that have long figured in Crispell's concerts, integrated in improvisation. "Cuida Tu Espi'ritu" (Take Care of Your Spirit), is a piece written by flutist Jayna Nelson a friend and neighbour in Woodstock. Arve Henriksen's composition "Stilleweg" is a piece that Marilyn first encountered in a group led by Danish saxophonist Lotte Anker. She has spoken often in interviews of her temperamental closeness to the Scandinavian musicians. One of her tunes here is titled, after the fact, "Sweden". She spoke about her connections to North European music in the book "Horizons Touched" (Granta 2007).
"In 1992 I went to Scandinavia for the first time, to play in a Stockholm festival called 'Solo 92'. Also there was the bass player Anders Jormin. All along, in the context of my solo music, I'd also been playing various ballads, though the primary focus of my music was energy and intensity. When I heard Anders, his playing touched a chord in me that resonated strongly. It would be two years before I'd have the chance to work with him, but in that moment, the seed of change was sown. Thanks to my friend Lennart Nilsson in Sweden, I was able to hear many recordings of Scandinavian folk and jazz musicians (my favourite singer was Lena Willemark). I loved the way the Scandinavian jazz players used elements of their own folk music in their improvisations, and loved their aesthetic of space, beauty and tenderness. Somehow, this was the missing element in my own music, and by absorbing it, I felt that my music was becoming more whole - not changing so much as expanding, to include more of everything that I felt and wanted to express."
Marilyn Crispell (born 1947 in Philadelphia) graduated from the New England Conservatory and played exclusively classical music and contemporary composition until she was 28, when exposure to John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" changed her musical priorities forever. She quickly became one of the most sought after improvising pianists in new jazz with a strongly physical style influenced on the one hand by the rhythmic propulsion of the music of Cecil Taylor and McCoy Tyner. She was also influenced by the ballad stylings of Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett.
Her 15-year membership of the Anthony Braxton Quartet, 1978-1993, confirmed her international standing, as did a series of leader recordings for a wide variety of labels. By 1990 she was also working regularly with European improvisers and her encounters with Scandinavian players in particular made her aware of other 'jazz' sensibilities. Besides working as a soloist and leader of her own groups, Crispell has performed and recorded extensively with well-known players on the American and international jazz scene. She has worked extensively with Barry Guy (in trio, with the London Jazz Composers Orchestra and with the Barry Guy New Orchestra), with the Reggie Workman Ensemble, as well as the Henry Grimes Trio, the Evan Parker Trio, Fred Anderson, and many others. Crispell has also performed and recorded music by contemporary composers Robert Cogan, Pozzi Escot, John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, Manfred Niehaus and Anthony Davis.
Marilyn Crispell made her ECM label debut in 1996 when she recorded "Nothing ever was, anyway" a double album of Annette Peacock's music which was very well received, collecting an album of the year prize in France, Jazzman's 'Choc de l'anne'e 1997'. It was followed by "Amaryllis" (recorded in 2000), with material by Crispell, Gary Peacock and Paul Motian and ""Storyteller" (2003) which emphasized primarily Motian's songwriting. Crispell also appeared on Anders Jormin's song cycle "In winds, in light" (recorded 2003), alongside singer Lena Willemark.
"Vignettes" was recorded in April 2007 at the Auditorio RSI - the performance space at Lugano's Radio Svizzera (which has been the location for ECM recordings ranging from Anouar Brahem's "Voyage de Sahar" to Enrico Rava and Stefano Bollani's recent "The Third Man").
Pianist and composer Marilyn Crispell made her debut with ECM Records in 1997 with the stellar Nothing Ever Was, Anyway: The Music of Annette Peacock. Recorded with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian, with a guest appearance by the subject herself on one track, it was the first of three trio recordings she made for the label. Amaryllis followed in 2001, with the same lineup, which was in turn followed by Storyteller, where Mark Helias replaced Peacock, and the program centered on tunes by Motian with a couple of her own compositions included as well. Vignettes marks Crispell's solo piano debut with the label and, after listening through a couple of times, one wonders what took her so long. The pianist on this recording barely resembles the fiery player and improviser who accompanied Anthony Braxton for many years, or the musician who led her own intense ensembles or played hourlong improvised solos that had their roots in the physical approaches of Cecil Taylor and McCoy Tyner. Yet, there is a direct line in Crispell's development beginning with Nothing Ever Was, Anyway, where she showed her debt to other players - Paul Bley in particular. That line flowers in a pair of duet recordings she did with Sicilian reed master Stefano Maltese for Black Saint called, respectively, Red in 1999 and Blue in 2001. Maltese's own approach was as lyrical as Steve Lacy's on the soprano horn, and further inspired the new lyricism in her harmonic invention and compositions.
That said, Vignettes reflects another path of the simply startling development and change in Crispell's recent approach. Crispell has spent a great deal of time in Scandinavia listening to other artists who also record for ECM and other labels. This was first noted apparently when she heard bassist Anders Jormin, whose "less is more" approach also involved the use of folk music from the region in his playing. Crispell claims she was deeply moved by him and others from that scene, including the tremendous vocalist Lena Willemark. These 17 pieces, ranging from just over a minute to over six with most falling in the two- to four-minute range, reflect not only everything above, but a particular way of extrapolating her investigation of different harmonic architectures. Many of these pieces are songlike, such as "Gathering Light," where middle-register chords dictate the right hand's additions and flourishes along a line where drone notes and even octaves are placed one on top of another in languid stacks. The inherent lyricism in the piece is balanced by the tension of Crispell's great physicality as she plays the keyboard. Hence, while the songlike stature of the tune remains, there is nothing florid or unnecessary in it. The passion inherent in the expression is projectile but void of any dissonance. Other works, like "Vignette II," are more typically along Crispell's more fiery line, but even here there is some restraint and the way she uses her own forms of counterpoint and release creates a recognizable sense of center. This is followed in different registers on the following three "Vignettes" (III-V), where emotional immediacy is pulled from one set of improvisations to another looking at all aspects of silence, space, and density. It's remarkable they can be explored so thoroughly in pieces so brief.
While it's true that this entire work feels like its own recital, out there alone on a wire with no net, there are aspects of the program of such stunning clarity and warmth that the listener is stirred by them, such as her reading of Arve Henricksen's "Stellweg," which is breathtaking and worth the price of the album all by itself, weaving together movement, drift, silence, and song as an expression of the heart. Crispell literally sings through her fingers on the piano. The mystery in her pastoral yet expansive "Once" is stretched in the more percussive and staccato-like presence of "Axis" that follows it, which is in turn underscored by "Vignette VI" and then all but erased by the elliptical flavor of "Vignette VII." Her "Ballade" is constructed of melancholy minors, long pauses, and right-hand melodic invention that are so moving and poetic that the piece would have been a fitting ending to the entire album, yet she finds still more to project this sense of inner feeling out to the listener. When the set does close with the sparse, tender "Little Song for My Father," what is immediately apparent is that Marilyn Crispell has accomplished a mighty feat: she has completely reinvented her playing style while retaining her voice. She approaches lyric composition and improvising with the same immediacy she always has, yet comes at them with a sense of economy and space, allowing room for the two sides of her playing - the assonant and dissonant - to not sit side by side as much as inform and further one another. Vignettes is a remarkable and moving recording - one that is timeless and honest, and communicates directly, literally, and poetically to the listener in a manner that is gentle yet pronounces its emotional weight without hesitation or self-consciousness.