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Artist Profiles

Marilyn Crispell

By Published: October 13, 2006

Recently, Crispell's artistic proclivities have shifted focus, emphasizing the lyrical aspects of her music and an increasing willingness to embrace silence and space.

Soft-spoken and unassuming in person, pianist Marilyn Crispell's modest mien belies her dynamic musical personality, a key force and central voice in modern jazz piano since the early '80s. A native of Baltimore, MD, Crispell had early training in classical music at the Peabody Music School, followed by tenure at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she studied piano and composition. In the late '60s, however, she married and moved music to rear of the stove, making a living in the medical field. With the ending of her marriage and a return to music after a six-year hiatus, Crispell, now living in Cape Cod, experienced a revelation when, at age 28, fellow pianist George Kahn exposed her to the music of John Coltrane, particularly A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964).

Although she had never played jazz, Crispell was no stranger to improvisation, having used it as a compositional tool in the classical idiom as well as for accompanying dancers. Inspired, she began researches into the music, discovering the artistry of fellow pianists Cecil Taylor, Thelonious Monk, Paul Bley, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett and Abdullah Ibrahim. "I felt that it was a matter of—not only of respect, says Crispell, "but, for me, it was a necessity to get some kind of background in what traditional jazz was about; even though that wasn't what I was ultimately aiming to play, it very, very much influenced what I play, emotionally and just the music itself." She developed her vocabulary under the tutelage of legendary Boston-based teacher Charlie Banacos and attended Karl Berger's Creative Music Studio, where she met saxophonist/composer Anthony Braxton, joining his Creative Music Orchestra, touring with the group in 1978 and eventually recording with Braxton on Composition 96 (Leo, 1981) and Composition 98 (Leo, 1981).

Crispell's association with Braxton culminated in what many consider his quintessential quartet, featuring bassist Mark Dresser, and drummer Gerry Hemingway. Beginning with Six Compositions (Black Saint, 1985), followed by the Coventry Concert series on Leo, and culminating in Willisau (hatArt, 1991), the group evolved uncanny collective empathy, evinced in their through-improvised suites. Ironically, notes Crispell, it may have been that ability to finish each other's musical sentences that ultimately led to the group's demise: "I think that quartet really became like a family, and we were all very close friends and I assume that somehow it affected the music, that we were comfortable with each other—maybe too comfortable; maybe that's why Braxton decided that we had to break up, because everyone knew what the other person was going to say before they said it, in a sense."

The pianist has formed close relationships with a diversity of free jazz and avant-garde artists. She recorded Images: The Reggie Workman Ensemble in Concert (Music & Arts, 1989) and Overlapping Hands (FMP, 1991)—a compelling piano duet with Irène Schweizer. She has also worked with bassist Barry Guy's New Orchestra, bassist Henry Grimes' trio, as well as with drummer Paul Motian, violinist Billy Bang, bassist Gary Peacock, pianist Georg Graewe, drummer Andrew Cyrille and saxophonists Tim Berne and Fred Anderson. Crispell continues to maintain ties with contemporary classical music through the performance of works by composers such as John Cage, Manfred Niehaus, Pauline Oliveros and Anthony Davis.

Drawing inspiration from bassists Barry Guy and Anders Jormin, saxophonists Evan Parker and Lotte Anker and pianists Bobo Stenson and Joachim Kühn, Crispell has sustained an active presence concerttizing in Western and Eastern Europe, New Zealand and Canada. Debunking the myth that jazz fans in the United States are less sophisticated than their foreign counterparts, she finds American audiences to be "tremendously receptive," if underexposed, to creative music. She attributes this lack of home-field support for improvisatory arts to three factors: insufficient government assistance, the perception that the arts are frivolous and unwillingness on the part of promoters to take financial risks. Outside the US, she argues, the cultural climate is more amenable, citing the proliferation of small, independent record labels in Europe, owned by music lovers who are willing to take a risk: "Some of them are losing money, some of them aren't, but the fact is they're trying to do what they love." In jazz's native land, however, the forces of mass market media are especially strong and Crispell remains skeptical of what she sees as an overly pragmatic view of the arts in our society, revealed by minimal public funding and a dearth of arts education in schools. "I think the arts are the soul of the society, Crispell explains. "They're not more or less important than anything else. They're certainly not less important than anything else. In a way, it's what makes us human. We're so out of touch, we so don't communicate with each other—it's just indicative of lots of things about this culture, this society and the lack of understanding of deep human issues in this country."

Recently, Crispell's artistic proclivities have shifted focus, emphasizing the lyrical aspects of her music and an increasing willingness to embrace silence and space. "There have been some changes in my own aesthetic, explains Crispell, "[not] changes so much as peeling away layers to allow certain aspects of my personality—musical and otherwise—to show themselves; things which I more or less kept in check at the beginning of my career, for various reasons." She was initially attracted to the energy music of people like Cecil Taylor—not mindless energy; she is quick to qualify, because the music was suffused with intellect and compositional feeling—confessing she was "somewhat of a purist about it." However, in 1992, when visiting Scandinavia for the first time, she was struck by the sensitive beauty of [Swedish bassist] Anders Jormin's playing: "It just touched a nerve in me, Crispell says, "it unlocked the door to the lyrical things that I would have liked to be doing and wasn't doing." Since that time, Crispell has allowed that aesthetic to become more a part of her music, alongside the other things she has done. The flowering of this lyricism may be heard on her tribute to Annette Peacock, Nothing Ever Was, Anyway (ECM, 1997), a haunting haiku featuring Paul Motian and Peacock's ex-husband Gary on bass; the trio's follow-up album, Amaryllis (ECM, 2001), and most recently on Storyteller (ECM, 2004), a collaboration with Motian and her current bassist, Mark Helias.

The continued vitality of the creative music community, Crispell maintains, is bolstered by the passionate commitment of a few notable individuals. In particular, she acknowledges and underscores the exemplary efforts of: Lennart Nilsson, who single-handedly founded and fostered the New Perspectives festival in Vasteras, Sweden; Bernard Lyons, a British expatriate who sparked an active avant scene in Crispell's hometown of Baltimore; Chicagoans such as Marguerite Horburg (hostess of the Hot House), John Corbett (a jazz jack-of-all-trades), and multi-reedist Ken Vandermark, the latter two co-curators of a long-running Wednesday night free jazz series at the Empty Bottle; Pauline Oliveros of Kingston, New York; trombonist Dave Dove, director of the Pauline Oliveros Foundation in Houston, Texas; Ken Pickering, organizer of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival; and musician-friendly Manhattan venues such as The Stone and Tonic (run by John Zorn and John and Melissa (Caruso-)Scott, respectively). Although relatively unknown to the record-buying public, and less likely to appear in print than the artists they support, Crispell acclaims the yeoman contributions these individuals, all cornerstones of the improvisational arts community.

Following Dreamhouse, a major multi-media project with painter/sculptor Cy Twombly, a week residency at the Banff Centre International Workshop in Jazz, a co-directorship of the Vancouver Creative Music Institute and a recent duo concert with violinist Michelle Makarsky in Woodstock, NY, Crispell is excited about her upcoming activities. This month she teaches a master class and performs solo at the University of Wisconsin, followed by a Miller Theater gig in Manhattan, where her trio joins forces for the first time with tenor titan Joe Lovano; in November she'll reunite with Makarsky for England's Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, followed by solo recitals in Europe. With two new ECM recordings, solo and trio, on the horizon, Crispell is on the move, with plenty to look back on, and forward to.


Selected Discography

Guy/Crispell/Lyton, Ithaca (Intakt, 2003)
Marilyn Crispell, Nothing Ever Was, Anyway: The Music of Annette Peacock (ECM, 1997)

Anthony Braxton, Quartet (Santa Cruz) 1993 (hatART, 1993)

Marilyn Crispell, Live in Zurich (Leo, 1989)

Marilyn Crispell, For Coltrane (Leo, 1987)

Marilyn Crispell, Spirit Music (Cadence, 1981)



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