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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.

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