Courtesy of Marilyn Crispell
CHAT WITH MARILYN CRISPELL
Anyone who is at home in the complexity of Anthony Braxton, the European
avant-garde of Evan Parker and the sublime lyricism of Annette Peacock,
is one to be exaulted. Marilyn Crispell has done just that. Initially
capturing my attention as a member of Braxton's quartet, Crispell's name
and deeds have surfaced time and again. When I spoke with Leo Records
founder, Leo Feigin, he could not say enough positives about the pianist.
Those positives were brought to light with stunning recordings like For
Coltrane, Nothing Ever Was, Anyway and Red. We spoke over the telephone
about her days with Braxton, her love for Coltrane and her latest release
on the ECM label, unedited and in her own words.
FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
MARILYN CRISPELL: Actually, I started playing this music when I was about
twenty-eight. I played classical music from about seven years old and
when I was twenty-eight, I heard John Coltrane for the first time and
that inspired me to play this music.
FJ: What was it about Coltrane that triggered such emotion?
MARILYN CRISPELL: It was totally an emotional thing. It was an emotional
connection that I felt to the music.
FJ: Learning a language after a certain age becomes arduous, I imagine
it must have been more so to grasp all the nuances that come with improvisational
MARILYN CRISPELL: Yeah, it was difficult. Even though I'm not playing
traditional jazz, I wanted to study traditional jazz because I wanted
some background knowledge of that if I was going to play improvised music,
I thought that it would be arrogant to do that without that, at least
some basic knowledge. So I studied with somebody for two years, a teacher
in Boston named Charlie Banacos and he made me work very hard in a very
concentrated, very methodical way.
FJ: If gaining an understanding of this music later than usual was not
daunting enough, you left the music for a time period.
MARILYN CRISPELL: Well, I was married for six years and during that time,
I more or less put music on the back burner.
FJ: Was it testing to get back into the groove?
MARILYN CRISPELL: No, it was the most natural thing in the world. After
the breakup of my marriage, all I really wanted to do was play music.
FJ: How did attending Karl Berger's Creative Music Studio facilitate your
MARILYN CRISPELL: The school was incredible because it gave you a chance
to work with and get to know people on a very personal basis in a way
that probably would not have been possible in most other situations. People
would come there and for a week or so, you would just be in an ensemble,
playing their music, finding out how they played their music, eating with
them, talking with them, hanging out, and at the end of the week, you
would play a concert with them of their music. So it was a very special
circumstance and actually, they are trying to start it up again. They're
in the process of trying to start it up again after fifteen to eighteen
years of not having it.
FJ: How did collaborating with an archetype of creative improvisation
like Anthony Braxton continue to shape your musical personality? You were
a member of his landmark quartet immortalized by Graham Lock's Forces
MARILYN CRISPELL: I got a sense of space, of composition, listening. Working
with him was wonderful. He respected everything that you did. He saw who
you were. He heard what you were trying to say. He never criticized the
way you played his music. After every concert, he would say, "Thank
you for the music," the whole entire time I played with him. He never
once criticized anything. We didn't rehearse very much. He tended to like
to work with people who had a good sense of what his music was about and
who were good sight readers. He would bring in new compositions a half
an hour before we played a concert and we would sing through them, sing
through our parts backstage. So even though the music was very complex,
we didn't, I don't think it ever got the rehearsal that it deserved. But
he didn't want a perfect performance. That wasn't what he was after. He
would give you a blueprint and then you would play and he said once, he
wrote some books and said that if you played music too perfectly than
you're it wrong.
FJ: Is there such a thing as a perfect performance? Isn't that improvised
music's holy grail?
MARILYN CRISPELL: Well, I think there is a perfect reading of the notes,
but that wasn't what he was after.
FJ: Braxton has been vilified by the establishment as being the anti-christ,
but upon listening to his music, I have always found more subtle similarities
to the traditional jazz than differences.
MARILYN CRISPELL: Well, I mean, his music is definitely informed by traditional
jazz, but it's equally informed by contemporary Western classical music
and world music of various kinds. The longer I played with him, the more
he was actually writing on paper. He didn't write the traditional type
of jazz thing where you write a tune and then you play over the changes
or even just play on the feeling of the tune. He wrote very complicated
compositions and was really kind of after, he didn't want you to be able
to tell where the written music stopped and the improvisation started.
He sort of wanted this seamless flow between the two. Towards the end
of the time I was playing with him, there were even written out solos
that people would play from time to time.
FJ: You have always amassed an endless well of comparisons to Cecil Taylor.
Are those associations fair?
MARILYN CRISPELL: Oh, he is a huge influence, Fred, a huge influence because
before I started playing this music, I had been very also into contemporary
classical music and both he and McCoy Tyner, there was enough similarity
to what they were doing and what I had been doing to provide a doorway
to get into the music. I'd say the biggest influences were Cecil Taylor
and Coltrane. McCoy Tyner was an influence, Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley,
somewhat, Abdullah Ibrahim.
FJ: As demanding as a solo performance is, it must be liberating in the
sense that you are essentially unhampered.
MARILYN CRISPELL: Yes, you can do and say exactly what you want without
having to consider anything else. In once sense, it is more difficult
because there is no support, but in another sense, it is easier because,
I guess it's like the difference between living alone or living with somebody.
In one sense, it's easier to live with somebody because you have somebody.
You help each other in your daily life. On the other hand, if you live
alone, you don't have to consider the needs of another person. It's a
similar kind of thing, six of one, half dozen of the other. I wouldn't
say it is more difficult to play solo. It is just different.
FJ: Do you have a preference?
MARILYN CRISPELL: No. No, I feel like I need them both.
FJ: Leo Feigin, the proprietor of Leo Records, has long been an avid supporter
of your music, how did you come to record for his label?
MARILYN CRISPELL: He heard me play a festival in Germany in 1978, '79
with Anthony Braxton, I think it was. He just came up and offered me the
chance to record.
FJ: Leo's a genuine enthusiast of the music.
MARILYN CRISPELL: Well, he's very enthusiastic. He's very enthusiastic
and he's been extremely supportive all these years. He basically recorded
any project that I was interested in recording. He never turned me down.
He was very supportive. I'll always be grateful to him.
FJ: Your homage to Coltrane, For Coltrane, came out on Leo.
MARILYN CRISPELL: Sure, that's why so many of his pieces were featured.
Those things were all melodies except for "Coltrane Time," which
was based on a rhythmic sequence.
FJ: Have you refined your approach from your earlier recordings?
MARILYN CRISPELL: I wouldn't say I've changed my style. I'd say that my
mode of expression has been expanded or that I've allowed different facets
of expression to emerge. When I first started, a lot of it was just raw
energy that I wanted to express and that energy is still there, but that's
not the only thing that's driving me now.
FJ: What is driving you now?
MARILYN CRISPELL: A kind of lyricism, a deeper expression. I was very
influenced by Cecil, but I heard and was attracted to some of the surface
qualities of his music, which had to do with energy and speed and brilliance,
but things go a lot deeper than that with his music. As I've played more
and gotten older, I'm also combing the depths of my own psyche.
FJ: That certainly seems clear on your last ECM release, Nothing Ever
MARILYN CRISPELL: Again, I heard a connection to the kind of music that
I'd been playing and composing before I got interested in jazz. There
is a tonality there and a sense of composition that reminded very much
of Webern or Berg or even Schoenberg and yet, it wasn't those things.
So I had been listening to that music twenty years ago when I heard Paul
Bley, some of the early Paul Bley albums. And then when I heard through
the grapevine that Annette had moved to Woodstock, I became very interested
in meeting her and I had transcribed some of her stuff off of records
and I wanted to check and make sure that they were right. I thought it
was a great opportunity to meet her and so that's what happened and we
FJ: Gary Peacock and Paul Motian are on that session.
MARILYN CRISPELL: I think Gary had played her stuff before. They had been
married at one time and he was also someone that I'd always thought of
playing with and I found out that he also lived around this area. He had
the most beautiful, lyrical quality. I don't know. I wanted to try something
new and I had played with Paul before and Paul's very open. It is possible
to do anything with him and I thought that he would fit beautifully into
the music. My first idea was to do it as a solo recording and then it
grew into, "Maybe it would be nice to try with Gary and if I'm going
to try something with Gary, I might as well have Paul too."
FJ: That is the same personnel on your most recent ECM session.
MARILYN CRISPELL: Yeah, I wanted to try something where we're playing
our own music because the previous record had been a very particular project
of Annette's compositions and I wanted to try something. On our tours,
we would play a lot of our own music and I wanted to document that.
FJ: You sound at home with Evan Parker, Barry Guy, and Paul Lytton on
the Leo record, After Appleby.
MARILYN CRISPELL: It was very natural. It was like being at home. They
are all master musicians. I do a lot of work with Barry. I also have a
trio with Barry Guy and Gerry Hemingway and Barry is a master bass player,
not only of improvised music, but of baroque music and contemporary classical
music, whatever. He can do it all.
FJ: As documented as you have been in the past decade, are you weary of
MARILYN CRISPELL: Not really. Now, I am more interested in, well, it's
not that I'm more interested, I need a certain amount of time in order
to make a statement about something. I'm appearing on a lot of other people's
projects, a lot of other people's recordings. These recordings are my
own projects. I think it's possible if someone records a great deal that
people will become overwhelmed because of the amount of material out there
and after a certain point, say, "Well, I've heard this. I've heard
that," and not take into account the fact that people change. I just
read a good interview with a musician named Ken Vandermark.
FJ: A friend to the Show.
MARILYN CRISPELL: Well, he gets very upset that people criticize the fact
that they think he over-recorded and he said that one recording is not
like the other and there are many different facets of what I do and also
I change, so he thought that it was legitimate to document all of that.
Personally, at the moment, I like some breathing space between recordings
of my own projects.
FJ: Vandermark, with the aid of John Corbett and Fred Anderson and the
various indie labels based in Chicago like Okka Disk and Atavistic, has
managed to turn that city into the hub of improvisation music. How do
CRISPELL: I play in Europe, period, and in New Zealand and Canada and
very occasionally, in the States and Chicago is one of the main places
I play in the States, Chicago and occasionally, New York. Because of what
Ken Vandermark and John Corbett, because of the scene that they've managed
to create in Chicago. It is very similar to the European scene. It is
very all encompassing. I think that to an extent, there is a scene in
San Francisco, there in Oakland and San Francisco, Marguerite Horburg
at Hothouse. There are things that happen. The problem as far as I can
see, Fred, is that there is very little funding because in Europe, there
is much more government funding for the arts than there is here.
In polls, the vast majority of the people in this country favor privately
funded arts programs. Is that in error?
CRISPELL: Well, frankly, if I were going for funding for a project and
I may be in the near future, but I'm not going to talk about that yet
(laughing), I wouldn't even waste my time applying for government funding
for the most part. It is a conservative, people don't seem to know anything
about what's really happening. Maybe for some specific educational project,
you could apply for government funding and fill out ten million forms
and all this kind of thing. As far as I'm concerned, it would just be
easier to go to some private source that knows what is going on and has
an interest in what's going on and needs a tax break or something and
wants to help support the arts. In Canada, for years, the cigarette companies
supported the festivals, the jazz festivals all across Canada and now
there is a law up there saying that you can't do that anymore. They have
been phasing it out and so the festivals are scrambling around looking
for other funding. Meanwhile, these people aren't putting their money
where their mouths are. If they don't want the cigarette companies to
fund the jazz festivals, then cough up some cash. I don't see the health
food industry or the alternative medicine industry or anyone else for
that matter delving into their pockets willing to support the arts.
That is what we need, a jazz festival in Detroit sponsored by Pfizer.
CRISPELL: (Laughing) Right. Oh, and one important thing that I was going
to say, as far as I can see is the problem I can see is not only funding,
but the fact that there are no promoters with the imagination or the courage
to bring the musicians and the audiences together because the audiences
are there. When we play for people, they are always incredibly enthusiastic
and want to know why they haven't heard this music before and where can
they find the CDs. We need some people out there acting as agents and
promoting the music, middlemen, I guess, if you will. The American audiences
are fantastic. They just haven't had the opportunity. They've basically
only had the opportunity to hear what they've been fed by the mass market,
much more so than in Europe where radio stations are privately owned and
people pay radio taxes. They are taking music and other arts programs
out of the schools because they are considered frivolous. Anything that
feeds the soul is considered frivolous. It's a very fragmented kind of
thing. It just reflects what's going on in the larger society. All I can
say is, "Thank God for Europe, ECM, Music & Arts, Victo Records
in Canada and the European record labels like FMP and European festivals
and promoters who believe in the music."
is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and knows who is the mole. Email