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Joelle Leandre: On Freedom and Responsibility

Eyal Hareuveni By

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Joelle Leandre"You're playing like Jimi Hendrix." That was the nicest compliment that French bassist Joelle Leandre received in her first tour of Israel and the Palestinian Authority in late November, 2007. Leandre's last solo concert was in Ramallah before an attentive audience that was mostly unfamiliar with her resume as one of the most creative musicians of the last forty years. "I was on fire that concert," she tells. "Maybe like Hendrix."

Leandre is one of those rare musicians that, for many years, you know you love intuitively. For years you closely follow their careers—collecting every item in their rich discographies; reading every review about their releases; and studying their musical and artistic collaborators' resumes in order to get a better sense of their world. You spend hours on the internet trying to figure out how to lay your hands on one of their recordings for a remote Japanese label, and than you meet them and it all makes sense.

The more you get to know Leandre, the more you love her as an artist and as a human being. She is much more than one of the greatest bass players living today, a musician with amazing technique and a rich vocabulary on her instrument; she's a musician that can weave her extensive knowledge of classical music with the compositional innovations of the last century's most forward-thinking composers, the evolutionary development of free jazz and the non-idiomatic free improvisation into a daring and coherent body of work.

She is so passionate and articulate about her art—idealistic and political outspoken, funny and unpretentious—that you're easily drawn totally into her world. And than all around her seems and sounds obvious—her cellular ring-tone of the Tarzan howl ("the real Johnny Weissmuller," she confirms), the touch of her hands that can malfunction electric gadgets, her gentle bowing of the bass that hypnotized the deaf, old dog of her host, Israeli bass comrade Jean Claude Jones, or the passionate way that she uses to drive shy and careful students during her master classes to the complete musical unknown, just by telling them, "Have fun and love each other."

2008 is going to be an important one for Leandre. She is about to publish an autobiographical book, a documentary film about her will be released in the spring to film festivals around Europe, and some intriguing recordings including a recent duet reunion with Anthony Braxton—twenty years after she first played in his ensemble—and a first recorded collaboration with trumpeter Roy Campbell are also due to be released.

Leandre played four concerts in Israel—a first-time duet with oudist Sameer Makhoul at the Oud Festival of Jerusalem; a trio with bassist Jean Claude Jones and reedman Steve Horenstein; a sextet with saxophonists Assif Tsahar, Albert Beger and Ariel Shibolet, pianist Daniel Sarid and drummer Haggai Freshtman; and a solo bass recital. All were recorded for future release. The interview with Leandre was conducted in Jerusalem, with the kind help of Jean Claude Jones, who assisted in translating from French into English.

Chapter Index

  1. The Subversive Leandre
  2. The Beginning: Liberating the Bass
  3. The Great Teachers: John Cage, Derek Bailey and Giacinto Scelci
  4. Free Improvisation and Feminism

The Subversive Leandre

"All my life is meetings and experiences, chaos, pure accidental connections, archeology of sounds, loves," says Leandre. "And you have to be open to all these meetings and experiences, to say yes to them. And I try to mix all of these meetings and experiences and put it in my music. For twenty-five years I learned the classical music, the new music and the free jazz, this is my trilogy. Black jazz gave me a lot, the political thing to play your music, it liberates you. Jazz is so important, it gives the impression, expression and humanity of freedom, and we don't have it in white music. The graphic scores of the new music composers are also important. They open possibilities for you as a musician. Humans, too, live in a kind of trilogy, and music too. There is the brain, the thinking; then the heart, the soul, the feelings and beat; and than the sex, the jubilation of the body, the way music goes through all your body, a vibration, life is vibration. This is my trilogy.

"I learned quite a lot, and you never finish learning, and than you have to unlearn for another twenty-five years, and nobody is giving you the key how to do it. You have to be in the street, meet different people, learn arts, go to galleries, read books, read a lot, to know politics. We are politically involved in this life, just by being human beings, being responsible. For me it's impossible not to know the news of the world, and in the music all is included.

align=center>Joelle Leandre

Joelle Leandre, Steve Horenstein and Jean Claude Jones at HaZira, Jerusalem

"I'm an angry, angry person, about the politics, the society, the culture, where the money goes. Artists have to be subversive; we want to change the world in our egoistic profession, and in our profession a lot is wrong. We see a lot of shit in the composed music. They want a kind of stupid repetitive culture. They want to keep the power, not to develop who you are as a human being, an individual. I like Tosca, but I want a little more balanced world. All these concert halls receive money for the 856th concert of the Fifth of Beethoven by some Chinese pianist. I don't care [about]. We don't care. Let the dead sleep. Give the money [to] the live people, a little bit, to the schools. Why don't you listen to the sounds of this century, to creative jazz? People on the street could have a better perspective


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