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Jane Ira Bloom: Ballad Vistas

Franz A. Matzner By

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Jane Ira Bloom's career has been defined by experiment, whether exploring the outer reaches of space with NASA, the inner world of Jackson Pollock, or the technological cutting edge of telematics and surround sound. Her recent release Sixteen Sunsets combined the subtle artistry of ballad performance with the latest in surround sound techniques, resulting in a critically acclaimed, sumptuous collection.

All About Jazz: Your latest album Sixteen Sunsets has received a lot of attention. How did you decide to do an album of ballads?

Jane Ira Bloom: It had been percolating for awhile. On just about all the albums I've produced over the years I've always put one or two American song book standards that I connect with. Even as far out as some of the other music is, I've always found ways to integrate them in each project...I kept noticing people telling me 'O I love those ballads.' It is a very strong part of my playing and I suppose it came to a point where I wanted to say something just about that.

AAJ: I don't see as many slow tempo albums these days—or even really as many slow tempo tunes. Some people add one or two to an album or add one or two to a live set to change up the pace. But I feel like whole albums delving into the ballad form are fairly rare. I'm wondering if part of the impetus for this album is because of that changing trend.

JIB: You know I didn't think about that. [However,] playing a lot of slow tempos is a hard thing to do—no doubt about it. I tested out the all-ballads idea in concerts over the last few years. I tried to integrate the material in performance in a way that was interesting to people. There's a lot to it. The sequencing, the tempos, the key centers, the kinds of melodies you choose, the content of the lyrics, all those things factor into the flow of a set in different ways than programming other music. I spent some time thinking about it especially from the listener's perspective.

AAJ: What makes performing ballads such a challenge?

JIB: It's just you and your sound. You are completely yourself. A voice. It's all about making a sound and saying something in the simplest way. When you think about it, the simplest things are sometime the most complicated.

I've spent a lot of time learning from vocalists about the detail and nuance that you can put into singing a song. How you start a phrase, how you end a phrase. Take Billie Holiday, for example. If you looked at the way she ends a phrase on an oscilloscope you'd see a whole symphony of complexity to the sound—what she does just to end a note. So the question becomes what is simple?

AAJ: Though there are certainly younger people who can deliver a powerful ballad, there has been a tradition of more experienced players delving into the ballad form or doing collections of ballads. Do you feel it's...

JIB: A function of age? (laughs) Sure. I don't think it would be wrong to say that you spend a lot of time in your career playing a certain amount of notes. As time goes on you pick which ones you like. It's only at a point —after you've played a while—that you feel comfortable with what is your voice. You feel comfortable with who you are and sing your song.

AAJ: You referenced the American Song book and I'm curious what it means to you.

JIB: Songs that I heard before I knew what they were. Gershwin, Richard Rogers, they are all great masters of melody. I think of them as pearl stringers. People who put notes together in a melody with a very special feeling for how important each note is, how it moves, and what it feels like.

That is why those song books have provided a blueprint for so many improvisers to express themselves through. They offer something so strong in the melodic and harmonic realm. It's an attractive place for an improviser to find a way into the music and also to say something about oneself through.

AAJ: Ballad collecting has a venerable history. The act itself has been used as a cultural statement or an assertion of identity by helping distinguish an individual regional, ethnic, or political characteristic. Do you see any parallel to that in jazz ballad albums or the periodic return to the American Song book? Is it a way to assert a particular jazz or American lineage?

JIB: For sure American. I think about what DNA comes through a bunch of song writers who may have been cantors from the Jewish tradition and wound up writing American popular music. Also every culture has a way of expressing blues, deep feeling in song. And sometimes when I listen to musics of the world—whether Gershwin...or North Indian serod or Japanese shakahachi—th[at] type of depth in song feels the same to me. It's just that different cultures have different ways of expressing that feeling.

And that can be found in the American Song book and the deep feeling many songwriters tried to express through those simple melodies...Many of them lived during the Depression. A lot of great music was written after the Depression. That deep feeling has a way of expressing itself throughout all cultures in a way that I think is connected.

AAJ: So in some way the ballad collections help define the distinctions between the cultures and how the common human feelings manifest. Does that fit into the cycle of musicians always coming back to the standards—as a way to ground themselves even as they absorb more and more different types of music through what has always been an inherently syncretic style?

JIB: It's something to think about. Among old school musicians it's always been that the mark of a player is how they could play a ballad. Many play fast and high but among the older generation what would always distinguish them is what they expressed when they played slow. You can sense this when you talk to them. There's something special about it. Maybe it's because the oral tradition was so important to how musicians learned music then—from voice and from listening to records. There's a lot to it.

Surround Sound

AAJ: The album was nominated for a Grammy for best surround sound. I'll admit I was surprised that considering all of the work you have done with multimedia and spatial sound that you chose surround sound for this work and to such marked success. Can you expand on how that came about?

JIB: It had to do with my collaboration with Jim Anderson, the recording engineer I've worked with for over 25 years. He won the Grammy for best surround sound album last year. He and I have been working closely together for a long time and he's been developing miking techniques that capture a lot of my idiosyncratic performance techniques using movement and working across the soundscape. It's work that's been developing over quite a few years.

I think I was the one who said to Jim that I was ready to do a ballads album. He was the one who said, "how about surround sound?" So it was the combination of two forces.

Once we embraced the idea of capturing the sound of the quartet in this more expansive way, I started to adapt my thinking [regarding] the arrangement and performance of the ballads. I started thinking about the idea of who I am as a 360 degree sonic thinker— something which I usually focused on more in my original compositions. It was a merging, a synchronicity.

AAJ: So it's not as simple as just micing your normal way of playing to make is surround sound?

JIB: No. I was working with a whole satellite system of microphones. I was playing those microphones. Spatially. You can hear the way Jim captured it. I was conscious of adapting the movement techniques into the ballad repertoire...I've always been a spatial thinker and finding a way to express that through the recording process was just a natural for me.

AAJ: Was that a totally unique experience to surround sound or did it feel more like a live performance?

JIB: Have you ever heard a surround sound recording? I never had. And Jim invited me down to the NYU studios to hear the recording after it had been mastered with some very high end speakers. I never heard a sound like that before in my life! It was like sonic heroin.

AAJ: What about when playing the music? Did it have any parallels to playing live or is it a truly unique experience?

JIB: A little of both. The listening experience of hearing the sound swirling around the 360 degree soundscape when you are actually in the center of it, it's what you imagine the sonic portrait is that you are painting when you play. And when you actually hear it back, you are both the player and the listener. That is the freaky thing about it. It's a very unique experience, very visceral.

AAJ: You've done so much with live electronics and now you are exploring this new territory. I'm seeing more and more experimentation in this arena, especially with younger players, and I'm curious how you feel that aspect of jazz is unfolding?

JIB: As long as it is a felt place from the musicians and their musical experience, absolutely. It must be. If that's what's in their listening and their own musical vocabulary then it is just as natural for that to be part of their music as blowing an instrument. It makes complete sense to me.

AAJ: Have you thought about going back and rerecording any of your previous work, that had that spatial aspect, like Chasing Paint?

JIB: Maybe I could. But you know me— always want to write something new. (laughs). Wouldn't be a bad idea, though. Why not?

Finding the Cutting Edge

AAJ: You have done so much groundbreaking, experimental work. Do you ever feel pressure to find the next project, the next cutting edge?

JIB: The only pressure that comes into the creative process for me is in surprising my own ears. I have to prod my own imagination to keep myself interested. It is what compels the creative process at some unconscious level. That's at the heart of it. I don't think that it's a thought process about how the music is perceived outside. I think it's more internal.

AAJ: Is that the impetus to approach all these different formats and forums?

JIB: Yes! I have to keep myself from getting bored (laughs). It's very straightforward, actually. It really is.

AAJ: There seem to be more and more artists in the jazz world today pursuing similar multi-media formats, longer form works. How do you interpret that development?

JIB: I think it may be because more artists are self- producing right now. I think it has always been a strong interest. Those kinds of multimedia directions in recorded projects have never been commercially sanctioned in the past. Because the artists now have more control over what they are putting out and distributing to their listening audience they are letting people see more accurately what they are thinking about. It's not being controlled by forces outside the musicians themselves. That may be why there is a preponderance of it now.
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