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Joelle Leandre: On Freedom and Responsibility

By Published: January 21, 2008
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Free Improvisation and Feminism

"Improvisation is a natural gesture," says Leandre. "You have to be yourself; it's more than just improvisation. When you love your tool, when you approach it, when you exercise your instrument, you give your perception and your sense. But it's not developed because the Maestro wants to be the Maestro, and he and the society do not want to destroy this hierarchy. The society does not want you [to] be an individual. That's why they call the music school conservatories. Pauline Oliveros told me once that we should change the name to improvisatory.

Joelle Leandre

"Improvisation for me is equal to composition. I begin improvisation with no goal, complete emptiness; totally empty, but you always come with your culture and knowledge of your tool, and you have to be you, that is the minimum. You begin with love, music is a love story, with my feeling, with my body, and one piece pushes to the [next] one. Every musician can do it, free improvisation, but they have to change something in their heads.

"The moment we improvise our memory is dead—we remember only the first gesture. The character of the piece is built on the first gesture, it gives a sense, an order, repetition, and than you select. I include melody, but it is not an obligation. It's a process, very fragile, a work in progress, built on character. For me, playing for the sake of playing, totally free, I can do it for a short while, but than it's boring for me. I know some radical people that don't want any melody, tonality or a-tonality. Not me. We don't have to forget everything because we improvise.

"Improvised music is the fastest on the planet. It's like life and death, and you have to trust the other players with your life. If I play with someone for ten or fifteen years we play differently, there is a fidelity. The more we know the person, more meaning arrives. For me it's imperative to trust the other.

"Sound is not feminine or masculine. You don't have the shit roles and rules. You play your sounds, your music, with your culture, your loves and hates, you play who you are, and you [no longer] have the hierarchy, roles and rules. Improvisation is the only music in this world where everything can go inside—gender, skin, education, culture. It's like Peter Kowald said, it's a global village, all can enter. It is very important. The only music we can meet with hierarchy, if I'm black, I'm yellow or I'm strong . The only music that comes with gallantry comes from man's story.

"The free improvisation music is open—even dangerous—with a little bit of ego because we go on stage, but it's all for the moment, because each moment is unique, even if you are playing like shit, every moment is rare, something happens, for you, for the collective. I don't like perfection; we are human beings, with a lot of contradictions, we are fragile. The more that you become an individual, the more you can open your mouth, in a way. It's about life, and life is action, all the time.

Joelle Leandre></a><strong>All About Jazz</strong>: So why are there not more women musicians playing this kind of music?<br /><br /><P><strong>Joelle Leandre</strong>: There is still a lack of women to make the revolution, I don't where they are. Women believe that they can take their time, slowly, until they know how to make the soup. Men just go for it, they don't care. Men have fraternity, like going to the army. The mentality of men is different than that of women. We don't have that. It will be anti-feminist to say that women don't work enough. In this kind of music you need to work intensively, like crazy.<br /><br /><P><br /><br />You know, in the classical music, the roles were and still are well-distributed—the strong composers, usually the male composers, and the performers. Women were forgotten, pushed aside. And even in the typical jazz it is still very macho-like, and slowly, slowly it is changing. Only now the younger generation, and I can see it now on the road in France, begins to open the doors more for women, not that they are feminist. While I was doing improvisation classes at Mills College, I understood that in the American universities there is an obligation to have a certain number of women teachers, but we're not that advanced in Europe. And you have to add that the decisions of what you are as a women performer or composer continues to be in the hands of men—critics, reviewers, festivals, magazine, radio—you have to pass through this masculine filter to be accepted.<br /><br /><P> I was playing many years ago in Saalfalden in Austria, and Cecil Taylor was sitting in the bar, listening to the whole concert. I came to him after the concert and he kissed me.

Joelle Leandre

Irène Schweizer was a very important example for me in her life, in her individuality. She is like a sister to me. She is a Maestra. I remember seeing her for the first time in Paris, in an all-woman ensemble with Maggie Nichols and six or seven musicians. It was wild. A year later I called her and we began to play together. I was playing at that time with a French singer, Annick Nozatti, and than we began to play as a trio with Irene, and later it turned to Les Diaboliques, with Maggie.

Irene is a strong feminist, and she comes from jazz, an extraordinary musician, she can play whatever she wants. She was the only woman playing in the sixties with black musicians, with strong guys like Brotzmann [and] Kowald, playing on the piano with her elbows, and she plays the drums, too. For ten or fifteen years she was the only woman in the free music scene in Europe and, slowly, Maggie, me and few others arrived. We fight sometimes because I speak too much about music, and she's like Derek, always saying, "We don't care, we play what's good."

AAJ: You called your trio Les Diaboliques as a joke on the way men perceive you, as independent, opinionated and creative women?

JL: It was a conscious joke. We used to burn the women witches. Maybe we continue to be the witches.

Selected Discography

Francois Houle/Joelle Leandre/Raymond Strid, 9 Moment (Red Toucan, 2007)
Joelle Leandre & Kevin Norton, Winter in New York—2006 (Leo, 2007)
Joelle Leandre/Pascal Contet, Freeway (Clean Feed, 2007)
Joelle Leandre/Masahiko Satoh, Voyages (BAJ Records, 2006)
Joelle Leandre, At the Le Mans Jazz Festival (Leo, 2006)
Lauren Newton/Joelle Leandre, Face It! (Leo, 2006)
Quartet Noir, Lugano (Victo, 2005)
Steve Lacy/Joelle Leandre, One More Time (Leo, 2005)
Barre Phillips/Joolle Leandre/William Parker/Tetsu Saitoh, After You Gone (Victo, 2005)
Joelle Leandre, Concerto Grosso (Jazz Halo, 2005)
Ramon Lopez Flowers Trio, Flowers for Peace (Leo, 2004)
Joelle Leandre/India Cooke, Firedance (Red Toucan, 2004)
Ramon Lopez Flowers Trio, Flowers for Peace (Leo, 2004)
Joelle Leandre/Akosh S., Györ (Reqords, 2003)
Sylvie Courvoisier/Joelle Leandre/Susie Ibarra, Passagio (Intakt, 2002)
Joelle Leandre/Kumi Wakao, John Cage #4 (Mesostics, 2000)
Daunik Lazro/Joelle Leandre/Carlos Zingaro/Paul Lovens, Madly You (Potlatch, 2001)
Les Diaboliques, Live at the Rhinefalls (Intakt, 2000)
Joelle Leandre/William Parker, Contrabasses (Leo, 1998)
Derek Bailey/Joelle Leandre, No Waiting (Potlatch, 1998)
Lauren Newton/Joelle Leandre, 18 Colors (Leo, 1998)
Joelle Leandre, No Comment (Red Toucan, 1997)
Vinny Golia/Joelle Leandre/Ken Filiano, Haunting the Spirits Inside Them... (Music & Arts, 1995)
Joelle Leandre/Rüdiger Carl, Blue Goo Park (FMP, 1993)
Giacinto Scelci/Joelle Leandre, Okanagon (Hat Hut, 1993)
Joelle Leandre/Carlos Zingaro, Écritures (In Situ, 1990)

For a more comprehensive discography please visit Leandre's European Free Improvisation Pages or consult Francesco Martinelli's book Joelle Leandre: Discography (Bandecchi & Vivaldi Editore, Italy, 2002; ISBN: 88-8341-015-7).

Photo Credit
Top Photo: Courtesy of Vision Festival
All Other Photos: Eyal Hareuveni

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