Jane Ira Bloom
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Innovative instrumentalist and composer Jane Ira Bloom recently released the album Chasing Paint: Jane Ira Bloom Meets Jackson Pollock. Working with Fred Hersch on piano, Mark Dresser on bass, and Bobby Previte on drums, Bloom composed a nine movement suite inspired by her longtime interest in abstract expressionism and Pollock specifically.
It was my distinct privilege to speak with Jane Ira Bloom about the development of this project, a conversation which led us into fascinating theoretical territory. The conversation took place on July 17, 2003.
All About Jazz: When did you first begin playing the sax?
Jane Ira Bloom: Young. I think I was about nine years old. It was in public school.
AAJ: Were you required to choose an instrument for class?
JB: We weren’t required to per se, but I remember they handed out a list of about six or seven instruments and you could pick one.
AAJ: Do you know why you chose sax?
JB: Shiny! (Laughing)
JB: It looked great in the case.
AAJ: Did you ever play on anything else?
JB: I had studied piano prior to that, and a little later on I studied drums a little bit.
AAJ: That’s really interesting. I’m a particular fan of the drums...I noticed you have a very keen sense of rhythmic development. I’m wondering if that has anything to do with the drumming background?
JB: Yes, I’ve always wondered about that too. In the ensembles I’ve played with—you always have strong connections to the different instruments—but I’ve always had a very unique connection to the drummers I’ve worked with...I think there are drums at the heart of me, someplace.
AAJ: When did you move on to soprano?
JB: Well, I was studying saxophone with a rather well known teacher in Boston by the name of Joe Viola, and like most students I had begun on the alto. But I got exposed to soprano very early on because Joe was playing the soprano a lot. So I got to hear it. We’d play duet, and I just loved the way he sounded. So I really credit hearing that sound with him. And I began studying with him when I was about 12 or 13, so I was exposed to it pretty early on.
AAJ: I love the soprano timber. Is there a specific challenge to playing on the soprano?
JB: As Joe used to say, it’s got a smaller window of accuracy. You know how saxophonists are always talking about intonation on the soprano? It’s not that it’s any harder per se than the other saxophones—they all have their idiosyncrasies—but the soprano is less forgiving, so you have to be a little more subtle with your embouchure. You have to spend a little more time working at getting your sound to come through the instrument, as opposed to the instrument dictating what’s easiest to do on it. And that just takes a little time. The word I always use is—you kind of have to finesse the instrument.
AAJ: It’s probably mostly a myth, but there’s always that image of wrestling with the tenor versus the light touch on the soprano.
JB: Well, I think those are mostly facile metaphors. Basically all saxophones and other instruments are all about getting your sound through the instrument; and that is as unique and as subtle, as varied as all the individuals who play on them... there’s a wonderful book “Free Play” by Stephen Nachmanovitch, have you read it?
AAJ: No, I haven’t.
JB: It’s a great book. He writes about improvisation, and he happens to be a string player. He describes the violin bow and how sensitive it is to pressure. How you move it, which makes great artistry on the violin. Well, he descried the bow as ‘the perfect barometer of the human heart’ You know, because all your expression is in your technique. In a sense, for a saxophone, it would be embouchure, and wind, and the sound that you shape through a reed. That’s our barometer.
AAJ: When did you shift to jazz, or was it jazz from the beginning?
JB: You know, very fortunately I grew up with musical teachers, and a musical environment within which there weren’t clear definitions of what was contemporary, or popular, and what was classical. I was learning about harmony and changes from the very beginning. Learning the classical repertoire and at the same time on the saxophone I was learning classical woodwind technique and reading...and at the same time I was improvising. And nobody told me you couldn’t do that.
AAJ: Right. When you’re a kid, as long as they don’t tell you that you can’t, it doesn’t matter.
JB: It was all music to me. Whether I was improvising it or reading it. It was all just part of my education. It was all going on simultaneously.
JB: Do you continue to perform both classical and jazz now?
AAJ: I don’t have quite as many opportunities to perform in classical settings anymore, but I have enjoyed the few opportunities where that has happened. I just wrote a string quintet that I was commissioned to do by the St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble for my Self with String Quintet. That’s a string quartet with bass. And just being with really fine classical players is really exciting to me. Just great music wherever you go.
AAJ: I guess I should have asked how you came to pursue jazz performance as opposed to something else, you know, becoming a doctor or a classical composer?
JB: Well, it’s almost like it chose me. By the time I finished college...after feeling the experience of performance, it was clear to me it was the only thing I could do. It wasn’t like a choice.
AAJ: You know, there are certain questions that I ask almost everybody because it’s so interesting to see the variations, as well as the consistencies...
AAJ: And that’s one of them. And almost everyone says exactly that. ‘It chose me.’
JB: Yes. At least for me, I can remember music being a passion from the minute I was on the planet. You don’t know why or where it comes from. It’s just there.
AAJ: Who were some of the first jazz musicians that your remember hearing, and identifying with. If there were specific people.
JB: Mostly people you’d hear on record. It was the vocalists.
AAJ: Was that as a child?
JB: Yeah, there were some records at home. There were some Ella Fitzgerald records at home, and then when you begin to study your teacher starts exposing you to things.
AAJ: Is there any one in specific?
JB: No, I mean, if I mention one, then I have to go into all of it. It’s just, its all just great music. You’re starting on the path of listening and enjoying it.
AAJ: I wanted to ask a little about your tone, which is always a bit tricky to ask about. But to me it has an immediately identifiable clarity. It’s a very warm, clear sound at almost any register.
AAJ: So what’s the trick?
JB: (Laughter) The trick?
AAJ: Not a trick, what I mean is, it’s very distinct. Not every player chooses to play in that fashion, or maybe they aren’t able to.
JB: Well, its something I just spent a lot of time working on. With this very fine teacher, Joe Viola. I remember he just made the most beautiful sound on that instrument that I’d ever heard. And that same kind of clarity that you can hear from the bottom of the horn all the way to the top. It didn’t matter where it was, just complete fluidity. That was appealing to me. So I worked hard at that characteristic of the instrument. That sound, the nature of the sound, getting the sound that I like.
AAJ: It becomes something so personal. Or at least I’ve always assumed it’s not about playing correctly, not at the level we’re talking about.
JB: No, it’s not about being correct or incorrect, it’s about getting the sound that’s you.
AAJ: Does that have anything to do with a classical background?
JB: I’m not sure. I guess it must. Paying such close attention to your intonation and strength of embouchure. Because again, as we discussed, technically with the soprano the higher you get on it, the easier it is to spread out on you. That’s not a great description. It’s almost like you have to pick those notes out of the air. I think Frenchhorn players will sometimes describe that quality. And trumpet players...
AAJ: A friend of mine who plays in symphony orchestras... often jokes that when the Frenchhorn players have to solo, everyone holds their breadth.
JB: What they’re all telling you is that the music and all the musculature that it takes to play has to be inside you. It’s almost like you pick it out of the air. The instrument just happens to be there. So in a sense you’re singing. You’re singing from the inside...
AAJ: I thought we’d turn now to the Chasing Paint album, which as you know I was immediately fascinated by. I’ve always been intrigued by Pollock’s work, so I was quite amazed by this project. My first question is just how the concept developed, how the album came about?
JB: Well, you know, I was trying to think of when I started getting into Pollock, and you know I recorded that piece, “Jackson Pollock” on I think my second album back in 1981. I’ve always been interested in this guy. I’ve always been interested in modern art, especially Abstract Expressionism, but there’s something visceral about looking into his paintings. Even before I knew what they were, or what it was about, it always interested me. And then as a musician because I’d been so interested in movement and flow—I guess in my sense in terms of melodic line writing—I felt like I could hear it! So its always been there, and it was only recently that I got a grant from the Doris Duke foundation to kind of synthesize this interest and write a whole suite of pieces for my quartet about Pollock. That’s how the music coalesced compositionally. And I was able to have the time to rehearse with the quartet, so the stuff that you are hearing is the result of a good deal of rehearsal and performance. And the culmination of a good period of time.
AAJ: And the grant was to work specifically on the Pollock pieces?
JB: Yes, to work on Pollock....the premiere of that was actually at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. That was so cool.
AAJ: That must have been incredible.
JB: We played in front of—I think it was “Canvas Number Six”. They were the only place that would allow us to do that. They set it up right above the bandstand and we played in front of it. It was great. I was so thrilled.
AAJ: Have you done anything similar to this before?
JB: Yes, I’ve always been interested in cross-disciplinary thinking. Years ago I did music with NASA, then I started playing music in planetariums. For me, improvised music is a way of finding my way into all kinds of things.
AAJ: Do you paint or practice any other kinds of art-forms?
JB: Boy, I wish I could! I really wish I could. I do dabble in photography a bit. Actually, have you seen the album Red Quartets?
AAJ: Yes, I’ve seen the cover.
JB: That’s a blow-up of a section of one of my photographs. In a sense, I wish I could paint like that.
AAJ: I guess it’s a truism, but it seems that there are basically two types of artists, the ones who think across mediums, and those who choose to focus more on one mode, or method, and really seal themselves inside that. It seems you like to explore a lot of different areas.
JB: That’s right. It keeps things interesting. It provides inspiration. You get inspiration from the world of ideas wherever it appears.
AAJ: I’d also like to talk specifically about a few of the compositions on Chasing Paint.
AAJ: You said you had already written “Jackson Pollock”. Then there was the suite. Which paintings did you actually use?
JB: Well, I think all of them were really food for the process, but I remember writing “Jackson Pollock” after first seeing “Autumn Winter”. “White Light” and “Alchemy” are kind of clear. And I was also using “Number One”, which is one of my favorite canvases.
AAJ: Can you describe the process of how you responded to the paintings?
JB: Well, when I was composing the music I had reproductions on the piano with me. I also made reproductions of many of the pieces for the musicians to put on their music stands when they were playing. It’s about getting in touch with a different part of your brain that just feels the visual impulse. It’s not something that you can talk about... Each musician is just allowing the information in to express what they think about it in whatever way they wish. In much the same way, as you mentioned in your review, that Pollock listened to Dixieland and Billie Holiday, but now does his music look like that? It’s what it makes you feel. Artistic thought transforms and mutates; merges and grows into whatever it does.
AAJ: There’s often a pitfall of literalism in this kind of work.
JB: You know, like yourself, to me Pollock has just been a tremendous source of inspiration. He’s like a clarion call to freedom. What form that freedom takes must be in your own language. You can’t imitate what he is, its just the spirit of what he does that motivated me. I was able to do things with this music, and with this ensemble, that I was never able to do before.
AAJ: It’s really interesting that you use the word freedom. That’s always what I’ve felt about jazz itself. That seems to be such an integral part of jazz’s history and nature.
JB: Absolutely. At the same time—have you read any of the articles on Pollock and fractal theories, Richard Taylor’s work?
AAJ: Yes, a little.
JB: I actually communicated with Taylor about that. As a counterpoint to the very thing I’m saying about freedom, even in Pollock’s own description of his process, it was something that was so deeply natural. And the studies that show how the contour of the arcs of paint are so rhythmically routed in a structure, whether conscious or not, as compared to those who tried to make imitations of a drip or action painting. And they found that technically it’s not the same.
AAJ: Right. It seems like it was almost a meditative process that he was going through, and you can’t imitate another person’s meditative process.
JB: Yeah, it’s incredible. It’s like the branches of a tree. It’s a beautiful thing to look at and inspiring. I think people get hung up on the mental problems he had in life, and linking them to what he produced as an artist. I think what he produced was the greatest beauty that was in him.
AAJ: I think that sort of biographical analysis is always a type of short-cut.
JB: Yeah, yeah, I sense that you were kind of thinking about that.
AAJ: I also wanted to ask about your work with Fred Hersch. You’ve worked with him before.
JB: My goodness, I’ve worked almost exclusively with Fred since 1980!
AAJ: He’s just a tremendous improviser.
JB: He’s just extraordinary. And we share a lot. Someone you can truly call a soul-mate like that, on a musical level, is a very, very special relationship to me. I feel very honored.
AAJ: The interplay between you two is so incredible. That’s another aspect of this album that really stands out, the idea of not just one person responding interpretatively to Pollock’s work, but people responding collectively. Would you mind explaining a little how you structured that?
JB: There was a little bit of discussion that went on about the qualities of each piece. You have to understand the history that I have with these four people goes way back. There’s a lot of shared musical vocabulary, and history that we share. Those things don’t happen overnight. In terms of applying ourselves to the compositions and the music, I have to credit the musicians because in a sense they are as equally gifted composers as they are improvisers, they’re spontaneous composers in a sense. So putting this material in their hands is like sharing the paint brush, if you know what I mean. Collaboratively you get in a zone where you are reflecting and reacting without thinking. It’s not a thinking process. And again I credit the musicians in that they have very sophisticated ideas about how they improvise and the choices they make. Not only the sounds, but the silences. The instrumental vocabulary they have at their command. My god, Mark Dresser can make the bass really sing, and I can say equally of Bobby Previte, there’s such a beauty in the sense of mercurial flow in his rhythmic ideas that I find very exciting...
AAJ: What you just said about the use of space is something I want to go back to because it was a very unexpected element to me. Particularly considering the specific works you were responding to. Pollock’s often described in terms of endless motion and layers, and so forth. There’s certainly not a lot of empty space on his canvases, yet some of your pieces employed quite a bit of...
JB: Negative space.
AAJ: That brings up an interesting theoretical question. I would have thought there would have been a temptation to play...
JB: To layer and layer and layer.
AAJ: Exactly. How did you come to that?
JB: I can’t say I remember being conscious of that. Again, I think it just got translated in what I intuited. Sometimes I feel—and I don’t know how you feel about this—the whole process of being stimulated by the artwork coming up with musical ideas, and thinking about the fact that his ideas came from musical ideas, this big circle, its almost like it opened an unanswered question...it’s the imagination rolling on. It’s not the end of a process or a definitive anything. It’s just thought provoking and emotion provoking.
AAJ: What about texture? Texture was such an important element to Pollock’s work. I was curious how you captured that element.
JB: Orchestration. Timber is probably the word we’d use. The timber, the quality of the sound. I was very keen—particularly when I was setting up this project—about these particular instrumentalists, and how unique their sounds are. The quality of Fred Hersch’s touch on the piano. Have you ever gotten ten pianists in a row and asked them to play the same note with the same finger? You’d be very surprised how the quality of touch on piano can change sound. Likewise...Mark...on the bass. Just the sound. Not only the fantastic array of extended techniques he uses, but just the quality of the sound. And likewise Bobby.
AAJ: And that’s something that can’t be notated.
JB: No, that’s sound. That’s their voices. That’s the paintbrushes, the timbers, the colors. And what they do with them. And the infinite possibilities to combine them.
AAJ: I was just about to ask about that in terms of the Pollock.
JB: Well, one of the things we haven’t gotten around to talking about, which intrigues me most—because you have to remember I’m a melodic player. I’m interested in melody and the melodic line, the linearity of melodic writing and the way the instruments handle that and toss that around with one another. That had a very specific relationship to what I felt when looking at the paintings. The great beauty of lines curving and arching all over.
AAJ: You talked about the movement of Pollock’s painting being so important. Is that how you interpreted the sense of movement, through melodic development?
JB: On many levels. On a micro level. If we’re talking about technical music ideas. If you look at some of the melodic lines that are in some of the compositions, they’re not written in sixteenth notes and eighth notes or carefully measured and metered forms. They accelerate and retard. They clump in groups of five, and sevens and nines. They roller coaster up down and around. That kind of motion and flow is something I’m very interested in melodic line writing. You hear a lot of unison playing between me and Fred, and then arching around one another...On the micro level, that’s going on in the writing. On the macro level, the technique that I use of trying to create Doppler like effects by actually physically moving the bell of the horn. Like 180 degrees at different velocities past the microphone is key to many of the movements in the pieces.
AAJ: I had another question about the recording process itself. Next to soprano saxophone under your name it also says live electronic devices. Could you explain what that means?
JB: It’s a system of live effects processing that I’ve been using for years along with the saxophone. Basically, I use a couple of boxes that I’ve invented all the programs on myself, and I trigger them with foot pedals. The important thing to know about them is that they are just sounds that I blend with the acoustic sound became I’m still very much interested in being a saxophonist and not a synthesist. So, these have expanded the color pallet I can use as a wind-player. I try to make the sounds as personal as possible. I mean, they’re almost antiquated effects peddles, they’re analog.
AAJ: They seem to be coming back in, though.
JB: Yeah! Analog’s coming back in. I’ve been using these boxes for quite a long time. In a sense it’s part of my sound. Triggering these sound, and being able to use them spontaneously—I can turn them on and off as quickly as I can push a button on my saxophone—and having them linked to the breadth and phrasing, having them compelled by my body is incredibly important. They have to be connected to my impulse. Again, as opposed to a black box that does whatever it wants.
AAJ: They’re not preprogrammed at all?
JB: No, not all. It’s all spontaneous, in the moment....Here’s a good example. In that piece “Alchemy”. In the written portion—if you can ascertain where the written portion is—it comes in at the end of the piece, and in that moment, I hadn’t intended to, but I had left one of the harmonizations on and in the moment it sounded so good that I just let it. And it became part of the piece.
Visit Jane Ira Bloom on the web at www.janeirabloom.com .