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Artist Profiles

Julie Sassoon: Dancing in the Shadows

By Published: November 5, 2013
That is really the place from which both New Life and Land of Shadows find their well-spring—a music that would draw equally on Classical and Jazz, composition and improvisation, but create a totally valid synthesis of the two. So, how does each of these elements inform the other?

"In a concert, I often start not knowing which composition I'm about to play....from anywhere....whatever I feel at that time. And eventually I will 'land' in a composition. I love arriving from a new place each time—because I'm then discovering something new in that piece as I'm playing. There are always elements in my compositions that are fixed. But how I join these elements together is mostly different each time, according to the mood or moment. "What the Church Bells Saw" starts with the sound of church bells or how I imagine them to sound. The story image is the same inside me. However, I play it differently each time. The second part of the piece has sections, which can be in a different order every time or I leave whole sections out, according to the story I'm telling in the performance."

It's a remarkable story and one that begin to achieve clarity at a concert in Newcastle, England. Sassoon was doing a tour alongside a trio led by trumpeter Tom Arthurs
Tom Arthurs
Tom Arthurs

and was playing "New Life." Somehow it became more and more meditative and trance-like and then it hit Sassoon. "I suddenly saw this image and knew where all my shit comes from—all this angst that I have. I saw images of the holocaust. It's coming from my mother. It's coming from her mother. It's been passed down from my grandparents, who lost their parents, to my mother and to me. This person in the audience then asked me if I was Jewish. I said, 'Well, yeah.' I must've played certain melodies that were in my unconscious somewhere and I was accessing it as I was playing "New Life." I had never thought of myself as a Jewish musician before. I am Jewish but I didn't see it as having anything to do with my music."

Her husband, Lothar Ohlmeier, was quick to encourage her to explore this new development, a thing that was, as she puts it, "somehow connected to the feelings or the shadows of what was in my family and happening 70 years ago in Germany." Without pre-planning in any way, new ideas began to spring forth. "I started to use this semi-tone interval—singing in one tone and playing a semi-tone lower and making these Jewish-sounding melodies echoing something with a strong dissonance because it is such a terrible story. Composing and playing for me is a means of personal reflection, meditation and expression. Land of Shadows includes new compositions that use a lot of minor 6th, major 7th and semitone intervals. These intervals create harmonies that, for me, convey the atmosphere of shadows....or ghosts.... from the past, which is what I often felt when first arriving in Berlin."

It was at a gig in Berlin that Sassoon first spoke about how her move to the city had affected her, about how the tragedy of the Jewish people in Germany had begun to inform her music. The gig was a cathartic experience and one audience member contacted jazzwerkstatt boss Ulli Blobel, who invited her to perform at his club the following month. "It was a really nice gig," Sassoon says. "Then he approached me a couple of years ago and said he wanted to do a CD with me and for me to choose the project." Blobel loved Sassoon's idea that the record should tell her story and that of her family and Land of Shadows is the fine result.

Recorded both at the Loft in Cologne and the Bauhaus in Dessau in 2012, the package adds an even more moving DVD performance of "What the Church Bells Saw..." at the Neue Synagogue in Berlin. The music throughout is certainly sombre, at times dignified and stately, at others wild and free-flowing but at times there is a calm there too. Not a passive surrender but a sense that all things must not just pass but be remembered and transcended. "New Life" is taken from the Bauhaus set, as Sassoon explains.

"This theatre was where Schönberg and Webern, Kandinsky and Klee and all these incredible artists congregated or performed before the Nazis came to power and closed the Bauhaus down. I felt so inspired by the history of the place, of who had been there. It was as if I had this incredible licence to go wherever I could with that piece."

If in its original incarnation, "New Life" was about first motherhood, here it acquires the impression of a mother looking at her daughter and pondering what it would have been like to have a child in such different, darker times. Land of Shadows grows in power with each hearing. There's something of Egberto Gismonti
Egberto Gismonti
Egberto Gismonti
guitar, acoustic
—Sassoon is a fan—here but also of minimalist composer Steve Reich
Steve Reich
Steve Reich
, that feeling of a music spiralling down into its heart, becoming ever more intense. It's a remarkable record and a fitting tribute to those who suffered and died.

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