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Jessica Lurie: In It For The Long Haul

Paul Rauch By

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Lurie is currently riding the wave of her new release, Long Haul (Chant Records, 2017), a title expressing her collective career of 30 years that has moved forward fearlessly and creatively. In some ways it alludes in terms of texture and sonic resonance to her ensemble record, Shop of Wild Dreams (Zipa!Music, 2009), but there is notable forward progress in compositional form and diversity, and in her arrangements.

"What's different on this record is I'm not singing. My last few records, I've been singing half the tunes. Four of the tunes were older works that hadn't been recorded yet, that I reworked. I think it's an evolution of my harmonic approach. The newer tunes were written in the last year, year and a half. I think I'm better at arranging, you're always learning, every single time," says Lurie with a refreshing sense of pride and humility.

There is a notable personnel change, being in the person of brilliant pianist Brian Marsella. There is a very open and cerebral connection between his playing and that of Lurie, through a myriad of rhythmic and stylistic changes throughout the recording.

"He's amazing. He's from New York, I play with him in Zion80, which is this African Jewish band where I play baritone. We play the music of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. He's just a genius, he's one of those classical virtuosos that had a major meltdown for real, and came back as a jazz virtuoso," states Lurie about the mercurial pianist.

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 A shockingly high percentage of women in jazz are vocalists, an outdated tradition that harkens back to societal norms during prohibition.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.


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