Jessica Lurie: In It For The Long Haul

Paul Rauch By

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Lurie's career as a strong woman instrumentalist over thirty years is also remarkable considering the gender inequity in the form among instrumentalists. A shockingly high percentage of women in jazz are vocalists, an outdated tradition that harkens back to societal norms during prohibition. It not only squelches the movement of social justice, but dispels a potential higher level of creativity. It ignores an audience in the wings awaiting the advent of social change in jazz. Social practices built on and perpetuated in injustice are inhibitors to any creative or for that matter, practical process. Considering the tide of social change we are experiencing in America per this issue, artists such as Lurie provide a can do voice, a gift in terms of directing the music to a stronger ethical place. She has faced the challenge in an exemplary and courageous manner, essentially shrugging off any impediment along the way,

"I've chosen not to feel downtrodden by it, but I do get pissed off when I see 100 jazz musicians and 96 of them are men, especially instrumentalists. I went to this jam with Ivan Neville, this big, cluster jam thing. There were all these men posturing, and physically blocking us. I just don't care enough about this to play this game. The heteronormative narrative is just so boring," says Lurie. It is obvious her intrepid narrative will continue to provide some much needed light on this matter.

"I remember hearing this reporter at a Tiptons concert going around to the audience and saying, 'If you close your eyes, would you know it was a woman band?' What a dumb question. Music is music, that's one of the obstacles, this idea that we're lesser than, or different than men. The funny thing for me is not from fellow players, but from men in the audience when I play aggressive. With Living Daylights, where we play loud, I've been told that I play like a man. They mean it in a positive way, so they're limited in their vocabulary. 'You play like a man and look great up there,' is something I've heard a lot. What's going to make a difference is promoters and bandleaders together striving for that balance. Look for it," she says.

Perhaps being just outside the mainstream of jazz, and thus its more traditional approach has enabled Lurie to play to an audience with less attachment to social improprieties in jazz. Sometimes a minor stylistic shift can tilt the balance to a more just position. "I'm not trying to be a bebop player, or to play in Broadway shows, I've always made my own weird eclectic music, so in the bands I've played in I've been very aware of being a woman, but I'm also kind of one of the guys, I'm just trying to play the best I can. You can definitely feel the old boys thing. I know that if somebody wants a super traditional horn player, they're probably not going to hire me," remarks Lurie.

As an educator, Lurie's message is one of strength. Her thirty years in the trenches as a woman saxophonist provides a powerful position to mentor. Gender assignment of instruments through the years has categorized women to such an extent, that women horn players of her generation are not as common as would be ideal. Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen comes to mind as another strong woman horn player whose career has provided much needed inspiration for young women instrumentalists with such aspirations.

"I really didn't have any women role models. I wrote this grant called 'Play Like a Girl.' When I have girl students, especially on saxophone, I tell them, 'Get a big sound, no wimpy players. You can play really fast, but if it's not a big sound, nobody can hear your ideas.' It's more like big than it is loud. Get a big sound, then you can control it. The term 'play Like a girl,' refers to things like 'run like a girl.' I was thinking it would be cool to do some kind of project where you have girls from elementary school to high school, and have them do some sort of elaborate writing. It could be like a generational women's group that involves something about composition, and can bring in stories and a narrative. Songs are like a big umbrella, where there can be lyrics, there can be a narrative, there can be composition. Bring in players who can actually play their compositions, but somehow dispel this idea that women are wimpy players. That they can't be dynamic. It doesn't have to be an all women band," says Lurie.

Technical facility is in service of one's creative emotions when playing, the connection where practicing technique and facility can further enhance your ability to directly express emotion when improvising. Modern music continues to blur the lines of genre as traditionally interpreted. Lurie's music has grown through the jazz tradition, and has evolved to a very free place that while unleashed from many harmonic ties, still has broad based compositional context streaming from her cultural roots, and classical training. Her unique approach to melodic improvisation on saxophone, flows through a free verse Whitman like narrative.

"I think if you hear something you can do it. You're connected to your idea. You can get stuck in changes, you have to work on knowing them so you can get beyond them. I think technique helps a lot, it's easier to connect to your music and to your instrument. It's many things coming into play, I think that's when you really feel that you have your ideas flow, you can actually play what your ideas are. I hear it when my fingers want to go in a certain pattern, I think of what I can do to break up that pattern. To approach it differently and not get stuck. One thing about classical players is you learn a technique where you slow it down, and play it really well slow, and then you can play it fast, or you can just make it sound beautiful. Put emotion into it, don't let it be boring. For me, the more I practice things where I can slow things down and really try to work on facility and also being able to have a narrative, it enables me to be able to articulate that narrative. To be able to articulate things the way you want to," explains Lurie, her ideas flowing much like her playing-with emotion, strength, and strong articulation.

The proliferation of jazz in the twenty first century offers its community more music, more musical access, and more talented instrumentalists than perhaps anytime in the past one hundred years. Why then, do so many modern compositions sound as if the notes are scattered on a tabletop like Scrabble tiles? While Lurie's music is often referred to as being avant-garde, or "outside," her compositions include a strong melodic sense, classical dynamics, and a harmonic structure that expresses the many moods of her musical personality. Her melodies, and her approach to composition are expressed through movement, through energy, and like her improvisational prowess, possess a strong sense of tension and release. Her methodology is unique and very much grounded in modern urban movement, inspired by ambient sounds.

"God bless the iphone for instantaneously recording ideas. Often when I'm moving, like if I'm on my bicycle, or I'm walking, or running, I'll get melodic ideas and I'll record them. I sing into my phone. Sometimes when I'm riding my bike I'll have a recording device stuck in my bra strap! On my CD there's this whole section before "Rare Flares," where at Union Square there were like three things going on spontaneously and I recorded it, and sent it to Todd and we mixed it. You can hear my bicycle horn go off. I like found sounds, they inspire me, I have some incredible recordings of frogs from New Orleans where they are seriously going clave, it's hard core clave, and I thought that I had to do something with that. I sort of let the tangents happen and acknowledge that there's influences coming from different places. I asked Brian who plays on a lot of John Zorn projects, 'Does this sound too much like John Zorn?' I love John Zorn's stuff. When you compose you don't want to sound too much like someone else. Am I plagiarizing, or inspired and influenced by? I think in my composing process I ask myself if I'm quoting myself from my other songs, or did I quote someone else. Lately I've been listening to a lot of Cajun music, and I'm working on a song that sounds alot like a Cajun tune, and that's OK. If it moves you in some way, if there's a narrative, if there's emotion that's connected to it, it's perfect," expresses Lurie, connecting strongly her musical persona with her everyday discipline of artistic being.

We are living in a time when the principles of compassionate living are under constant attack by the power brokers seated in congress, the White House, and on Wall Street. Music has always played a major part in providing a narrative for social responsibility in times like these. Jazz artists have historically been a vibrant voice for social and creative justice, with today's activists in the jazz community fully engaged.

"In New York a lot of musicians are hitting the streets and marching. I think as an artist it is very important to not be silent, it's very important to be vocal. Some people will complain that they don't want to hear about politics, that they just came for a concert, but it's too late for that. It's not to preach, I'm not here as an educator, but as a reminder of what you already knew, and what somebody is trying to make you forget. I believe in Laurie Anderson's quote, 'History is like an angel being driven backwards into the future.' Music is galvanizing, it's a catalyst," remarks Lurie, citing a prominent sentiment in the international jazz community.

The music of Jessica Lurie is disciplined, yet carefree, intense, yet passionate and adventurous. Her musical voice is strong and determined. It is a direct connection to these same traits that possess Lurie's humanity, her personage. Her personal "long haul" defies the passing of time. It expresses emotion that calls to attention what you are feeling in the now, and what is the truth of the moment.
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