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Julie Sassoon: Dancing in the Shadows

Duncan Heining By

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It's been seven years since British pianist and composer Julie Sassoon released her first solo CD, New Life (Babel). Since then, she and her family have moved to Berlin and Sassoon has quietly established herself in Germany as an unusual and unique talent. It's been a long wait for fans but her new live album, Land of Shadows (jazzwerkstatt) offers both a confirmation of and even a deepening of her approach to composition and improvisation.

It's also been a time for reflection, as she and her partner, saxophonist, Lothar Ohlmeier, have built their own new life for themselves and their daughter, Mia. New Life was coloured by the experience of pregnancy, of womanhood and motherhood. As she said at the time, "I'd just found out I was pregnant. I said to Oliver Weindling (Babel Records boss), 'Jesus, I've got to do it before six months or I won't be able to reach the keyboard.' It's called New Life because it was born during that time. In the second trimester, I had this fantastic energy.... I felt great and I was writing this music. It was like Mia's energy coming through."

Land of Shadows is shaped by a different set of experiences, no less powerful and no less profound. Perhaps the difference between the two records is best heard by comparing the new version of "New Life" presented here with its original version. The energy is just as charged but now it reflects a more sombre mood. This is something of which Sassoon is very aware.

"My solo playing has changed and developed a lot since recording New Life. It is much more open and free now. Land of Shadows is also a live album, which is what I wanted, to capture that energy that you can't get from a studio recording. Land of Shadows is also a darker album than New Life, as it is actually dealing with the theme of my returning to live in Germany, after my mother's family—who were German-Jewish—were forced to leave in 1939. My maternal grandparents stayed behind and were killed in Auschwitz."

An accomplished painter, Sassoon studied both Art and Classical piano and composition Music at Lancaster University. A multiple prize winner at university, her family hoped she'd go on to post-grad studies and become a Classical performer but Sassoon had other ideas. "I love all this repertoire but when I go home I listen to Miles Davis or Weather Report. I love playing Classical piano but I don't listen to it. I thought I'm not dedicated enough to be a Classical pianist. I want to emulate the people, the musicians I listen to. And I thought that must be Jazz."

The exacting discipline of Classical piano was, nevertheless, one thing. The different but just as challenging demands of jazz improvisation were yet another. "I was at this high level of performance and suddenly you take the music away and I didn't know what to play." For a time after graduation, Sassoon played with the six piano ensemble, Piano Circus. It proved a decidedly mixed experience. She then spent a period in Leeds, studying jazz piano with the fine pianist Nikki Iles and Indian violin with sitarist, Dharambir Singh. "Most jazz or improvising pianists know all the standards and The Real Book with their eyes shut. I can't join in that world. When I studied with Nikki, she'd give me jazz standards or Kenny Wheeler, John Taylor or Bill Evans tunes and I'd take the chords and harmonies and almost transform them into Classical pieces. But she couldn't get me to do jazz standards in the conventional way."

There is a real sense that Sassoon needed to find a way of marrying these two worlds and, in another sense, marriage would prove to be the answer. Sassoon met her life-partner, Lothar Ohlmeier, whilst exhibiting her paintings in Berlin. They began to make music together, making an excellent CD Inside Colours for the Jazz Moves label and toured throughout Europe. Then, with the addition of Dutch drummer Bart Van Helsingen around 1999, things really came together. That trio was Azilut and, within it, Julie finally found her improvising voice. "From about twenty, I'd wanted to escape my Classical roots and be able to improvise." From the 'little areas of openness' on Inside Colours, playing with Ohlmeier and Van Helsingen drew Julie into that world of improvisation. "With my new compositions, there were huge amounts of improvisation in there. I wanted it to go more Lothar's way—he's the most amazing free improviser, while I'm this uptight Classical musician." Sadly, the group only made one album, Power Of Three (Babel), imploding due to the presence within it of three such intense personalities.

That is really the place from which both New Life and Land of Shadows find their well-spring—a music that would draw equally on Classical and Jazz, composition and improvisation, but create a totally valid synthesis of the two. So, how does each of these elements inform the other?

"In a concert, I often start not knowing which composition I'm about to play....from anywhere....whatever I feel at that time. And eventually I will 'land' in a composition. I love arriving from a new place each time—because I'm then discovering something new in that piece as I'm playing. There are always elements in my compositions that are fixed. But how I join these elements together is mostly different each time, according to the mood or moment. "What the Church Bells Saw" starts with the sound of church bells or how I imagine them to sound. The story image is the same inside me. However, I play it differently each time. The second part of the piece has sections, which can be in a different order every time or I leave whole sections out, according to the story I'm telling in the performance."


It's a remarkable story and one that begin to achieve clarity at a concert in Newcastle, England. Sassoon was doing a tour alongside a trio led by trumpeter Tom Arthurs and was playing "New Life." Somehow it became more and more meditative and trance-like and then it hit Sassoon. "I suddenly saw this image and knew where all my shit comes from—all this angst that I have. I saw images of the holocaust. It's coming from my mother. It's coming from her mother. It's been passed down from my grandparents, who lost their parents, to my mother and to me. This person in the audience then asked me if I was Jewish. I said, 'Well, yeah.' I must've played certain melodies that were in my unconscious somewhere and I was accessing it as I was playing "New Life." I had never thought of myself as a Jewish musician before. I am Jewish but I didn't see it as having anything to do with my music."

Her husband, Lothar Ohlmeier, was quick to encourage her to explore this new development, a thing that was, as she puts it, "somehow connected to the feelings or the shadows of what was in my family and happening 70 years ago in Germany." Without pre-planning in any way, new ideas began to spring forth. "I started to use this semi-tone interval—singing in one tone and playing a semi-tone lower and making these Jewish-sounding melodies echoing something with a strong dissonance because it is such a terrible story. Composing and playing for me is a means of personal reflection, meditation and expression. Land of Shadows includes new compositions that use a lot of minor 6th, major 7th and semitone intervals. These intervals create harmonies that, for me, convey the atmosphere of shadows....or ghosts.... from the past, which is what I often felt when first arriving in Berlin."

It was at a gig in Berlin that Sassoon first spoke about how her move to the city had affected her, about how the tragedy of the Jewish people in Germany had begun to inform her music. The gig was a cathartic experience and one audience member contacted jazzwerkstatt boss Ulli Blobel, who invited her to perform at his club the following month. "It was a really nice gig," Sassoon says. "Then he approached me a couple of years ago and said he wanted to do a CD with me and for me to choose the project." Blobel loved Sassoon's idea that the record should tell her story and that of her family and Land of Shadows is the fine result.

Recorded both at the Loft in Cologne and the Bauhaus in Dessau in 2012, the package adds an even more moving DVD performance of "What the Church Bells Saw..." at the Neue Synagogue in Berlin. The music throughout is certainly sombre, at times dignified and stately, at others wild and free-flowing but at times there is a calm there too. Not a passive surrender but a sense that all things must not just pass but be remembered and transcended. "New Life" is taken from the Bauhaus set, as Sassoon explains.

"This theatre was where Schönberg and Webern, Kandinsky and Klee and all these incredible artists congregated or performed before the Nazis came to power and closed the Bauhaus down. I felt so inspired by the history of the place, of who had been there. It was as if I had this incredible licence to go wherever I could with that piece."

If in its original incarnation, "New Life" was about first motherhood, here it acquires the impression of a mother looking at her daughter and pondering what it would have been like to have a child in such different, darker times. Land of Shadows grows in power with each hearing. There's something of Egberto Gismonti—Sassoon is a fan—here but also of minimalist composer Steve Reich, that feeling of a music spiralling down into its heart, becoming ever more intense. It's a remarkable record and a fitting tribute to those who suffered and died.

The move to Berlin has clearly been significant on so many levels but how does she find the jazz and improvisation scene in the city, as opposed to London?

"My experience has been very positive in Berlin. Ulli Blobel, obviously, has taken an interest in my work and has fully supported it ever since, as has RBB Kulturradio over here. They've broadcast several of my concerts. The main thing I notice about Berlin—as opposed to London—is the possibility to experiment and work on different concepts of improvisation or music in general with exceptionally good, like-minded musicians. At the moment, I play every week with a group of musicians, Kalle Mews on drums, Klaus Kuervers on bass with Lothar on reeds. Together we are improvising and exploring new ways of making music and discovering new sound worlds, which I find very exciting and interesting.
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