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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.

AAJ: Is it also breathing new life into the music by pushing audiences back to live performance? After all, you can't download that kind of experience.

JIB: Maybe so. Maybe that is part of the thought process.

AAJ: If they also get a really unique experience through these multimedia type projects, maybe that is a really healthy thing for the music.

JIB: I don't think there is a recording alive that gives you the same chill of feeling as the vibrations you experience from pushing air molecules in a room. It's physical. It's visceral. We try to capture it when we record, but there's really no comparison.

Diversity in Jazz

AAJ: Let's switch gears a little. The last time we spoke was after the Thelonious Monk competition at which you were a judge. It was also the first time a female was awarded first prize in the instrumental competition. At the time you mentioned that you were quite pleased to pass the saxophone torch on to a younger woman. Do you see that moment as particularly significant for women and the saxophone?

JIB: I don't particularly sanction competition as the height of artistry, but it is a wonderful organization and a very visible place for a woman to succeed in. In addition to going through the competition itself, the publicity and the opportunities that come your way from that whole experience are wonderful—for any artist.

AAJ: There have to be these moments to advance the cycle, right? Other young female players seeing a woman receiving those awards and capturing accolades is inspiring.

JIB: It's visibility. It certainly can't hurt. A lot of people, when you ask about their daughters playing saxophone, they cite Lisa Simpson as their kid's role model. Hey, animation! And a baritone sax at that (laughs).

AAJ: I've never thought about that. That is probably pretty important considering how pervasive the show is.

JIB: For a young girl, it is.

AAJ: Have things changed significantly for women in jazz over the course of your career?

JIB: Of course. I've been teaching at the New School for sixteen years and a number of very talented women have passed my way. I think the exciting thing to see is that it's a generation of women who are very comfortable with themselves. Confident in being instrumentalists and in being women. That is absolutely where they are at. It's marvelous to see. Things are not exactly where they should be, that's for sure. It's still pretty Neanderthal out there, but at least it's progressing.

AAJ: There is far more diversity now in jazz, with more women but also more women playing a greater variety of instruments...

JIB: That is absolutely right.

AAJ: There are now several festivals dedicated to women in jazz. There have been major articles. There seems to be a real focus on women in jazz. Perhaps because we are approaching a shifting point. What always nags at me, though, is at what point does that very focus become problematic in the sense that it's reinforcing a sense of difference where there shouldn't be?

JIB: There is one part of the equation that people miss which I'm starting to pick up from being around my students. They are redefining self. Including even whether to use jazz as an identifying label. They are using the skills learned from having trained in the jazz tradition, but are integrating them into lots of different musical areas. They are choosing to make their jazz influence become part of a greater hybrid musical vision that doesn't live and breathe in the same place as it did in the 1940s, 50s, 60s. It's morphing. As it should.

AAJ: That raises another element to me. If finding your voice in jazz is about sounding like yourself, defining your individual voice, how does gender play into that? Because even now at club's sometimes I hear people say—as a compliment to a female player—you can't even tell she's a woman.

JIB: I heard that stuff so many years ago.

AAJ: So can you gender sound?

JIB: I don't know. I don't know the answer to that question. I just know how great it is to be a woman playing the music. If I'm in the same lineage as a Billie Holiday, I'll take some of that! (laughs). There are plenty of male musicians who would love to have some of what she had. (Laughs).

There is no answer to this question. Just be comfortable with yourself, whatever your identity is.

On the Horizon

AAJ: Before we finish up, what is on the horizon for you?

JIB: I don't record as frequently as most. It usually takes me a couple years to get a good idea! However, I can tell you about some projects I have coming up.

I plan to bring the ballads quartet back to Kitano in New York in May 2014.

I also continue to do these very interesting projects, usually two a year, with either Mark Dresser or conductor/composer Sarah Weaver having to do with telematic performance. Improvisers from all over the globe play live in real time... using this wonderful technology that comes pretty close to playing simultaneously. I've been pursing this for the last few years and really enjoy it very much.

When you think about the concept of playing live with people that are all the way across the globe—listening to them through speakers and seeing them on a video screen—it's uncanny.

AAJ: The only word I can come up with is futuristic.

JIB: It is. At first I thought I wouldn't like it because I'm used to physical proximity. The interesting thing I learned having done a few of these projects...is that once the improvisers get the electronic gear hooked up right so we are really playing in real time with one another, you find that you [extend] out to the other musicians even stronger than if they were standing next to you because you are trying so hard to reach them—even when they are half way across the globe. It's a very interesting phenomena.

Photo Credit
Johnny Moreno
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