Courtesy of Marilyn Crispell


Leo Records


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 music.

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 progression?

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 in Motion.

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 Was, Anyway.

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 became friends.

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 being over-recorded?

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 you manage?

MARILYN 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.

FJ: In polls, the vast majority of the people in this country favor privately funded arts programs. Is that in error?

MARILYN 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.

FJ: That is what we need, a jazz festival in Detroit sponsored by Pfizer.

MARILYN 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."

Fred Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and knows who is the mole. Email Him.