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Artist Profiles

Marilyn Crispell

By Published: October 13, 2006
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.


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