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Marilyn Crispell

Tom Greenland By

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Recently, Crispell's artistic proclivities have shifted focus, emphasizing the lyrical aspects of her music and an increasing willingness to embrace silence and space.
Soft-spoken and unassuming in person, pianist Marilyn Crispell's modest mien belies her dynamic musical personality, a key force and central voice in modern jazz piano since the early '80s. A native of Baltimore, MD, Crispell had early training in classical music at the Peabody Music School, followed by tenure at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she studied piano and composition. In the late '60s, however, she married and moved music to rear of the stove, making a living in the medical field. With the ending of her marriage and a return to music after a six-year hiatus, Crispell, now living in Cape Cod, experienced a revelation when, at age 28, fellow pianist George Kahn exposed her to the music of John Coltrane, particularly A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964).

Although she had never played jazz, Crispell was no stranger to improvisation, having used it as a compositional tool in the classical idiom as well as for accompanying dancers. Inspired, she began researches into the music, discovering the artistry of fellow pianists Cecil Taylor, Thelonious Monk, Paul Bley, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett and Abdullah Ibrahim. "I felt that it was a matter of—not only of respect, says Crispell, "but, for me, it was a necessity to get some kind of background in what traditional jazz was about; even though that wasn't what I was ultimately aiming to play, it very, very much influenced what I play, emotionally and just the music itself." She developed her vocabulary under the tutelage of legendary Boston-based teacher Charlie Banacos and attended Karl Berger's Creative Music Studio, where she met saxophonist/composer Anthony Braxton, joining his Creative Music Orchestra, touring with the group in 1978 and eventually recording with Braxton on Composition 96 (Leo, 1981) and Composition 98 (Leo, 1981).

Crispell's association with Braxton culminated in what many consider his quintessential quartet, featuring bassist Mark Dresser, and drummer Gerry Hemingway. Beginning with Six Compositions (Black Saint, 1985), followed by the Coventry Concert series on Leo, and culminating in Willisau (hatArt, 1991), the group evolved uncanny collective empathy, evinced in their through-improvised suites. Ironically, notes Crispell, it may have been that ability to finish each other's musical sentences that ultimately led to the group's demise: "I think that quartet really became like a family, and we were all very close friends and I assume that somehow it affected the music, that we were comfortable with each other—maybe too comfortable; maybe that's why Braxton decided that we had to break up, because everyone knew what the other person was going to say before they said it, in a sense."

The pianist has formed close relationships with a diversity of free jazz and avant-garde artists. She recorded Images: The Reggie Workman Ensemble in Concert (Music & Arts, 1989) and Overlapping Hands (FMP, 1991)—a compelling piano duet with Irène Schweizer. She has also worked with bassist Barry Guy's New Orchestra, bassist Henry Grimes' trio, as well as with drummer Paul Motian, violinist Billy Bang, bassist Gary Peacock, pianist Georg Graewe, drummer Andrew Cyrille and saxophonists Tim Berne and Fred Anderson. Crispell continues to maintain ties with contemporary classical music through the performance of works by composers such as John Cage, Manfred Niehaus, Pauline Oliveros and Anthony Davis.

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