Marilyn Crispell: Uncompromising Power and Grace

Lloyd N. Peterson Jr. By

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I have wished for a long time that somebody would do a film called the "The Lost Decade." About the lost scene in the '60s and all the incredible creative music that happened at that time. A lot of these people are not paid attention to by the mass market, but as far as I'm concerned, it was one of the most brilliant periods of the music. I can't mention everyone's name, but people in particular who come to my mind with whom I've had personal contact are Cecil Taylor, Oliver Lake, Anthony Braxton, the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, George Lewis, Sun Ra, Wadada Leo Smith, Billy Bang, Abdullah Ibrahim, Reggie Workman, Anthony Davis. There are just so many and I don't know where to start or end. I also don't want to leave the impression that these people are overlooked or ignored, but in other cultures, they would be considered national treasures and I don't feel they have received the support and place they deserve.

LP: Does the global situation today affect you artistically?

MC: Things can get so bad that you can sometimes feel as if you are butting your head against a wall. Have you ever seen the film My Dinner with Andre? It's a great film and the guy who made that film, Louis Malle, talks about times like these, where it feels impossible to do anything. And rather than waste energy fighting it, he retreats to underground pockets of light. Things do tend to turn around, but I think that because we live in a technological age with so much information available; people are overwhelmed. It's not like the old days where you'd go to the concert and were able to hear this music. Now, people can just put on a CD. And everyone is putting out CDs and you can burn them at home. People are overwhelmed by a glut of information, which I think can have an effect not only on me but also on many other performers. I feel like being an artist is a political statement in a certain sense. Just by the very fact that you are being an individual and you are doing what you do and not bowing to big market corporate influences and are being true to your soul. You are trying to put something real out to the world and people do hear it and I know it affects them because people tell me that it does.

LP: For many, music is a way to get away from all the garbage that surrounds us.

MC: I think the arts feed the soul. They are a very important part of our society equal to technology and science. There is a great book called "Care of the Soul" by Thomas Moore. It's wonderful and he talks about the place of art in everyday life, not just by going out to galleries and to museums, etc. There are aesthetics and beauty in everyday life.

LP: Do you connect to any of your music spiritually, politically, or socially?

MC: Spiritually. It's interesting because these are all just words and music is something that happens on a very instinctive level. And though I don't necessarily work within those contexts, I do feel that it does come from a spiritual place and is very connected with that for me. If music doesn't reach me emotionally, then I'm totally not interested in it. And there are techno wizards on their instruments who just don't get to me at all. As a friend of mine recently said after a concert, "It was brilliantly forgettable. There was nothing in it that curled around my heart and stayed there." And I thought that was a very beautiful way to put it.

LP: Cecil Taylor said that "Music has to do with a lot of areas which are magical rather than logical; the great artists rather than just getting involved with discipline, get to understand love and allow the love to take shape." How much of your music is from logic and how much from this other place that Cecil Taylor describes?

MC: You do music as a whole person, with your intellect and your heart. Everything. And I also totally relate to what Cecil says about love. And I agree with him about magic. For me, performing is like a ceremonial ritual, almost akin to a kind of Shamanism.

LP: Do improvisers have a unique ability or awareness of what's all around them?

MC: I think everybody has that awareness.

LP: Is it on a different level perhaps?

MC: Perhaps different levels of being connected to it. Cecil Taylor gives another great quote when asked about practicing. He said that he practices when he's walking down the street or going shopping. In other words, his whole life is his art. He doesn't separate them. To perceive life as art and everything in life as the teacher. People tend to make a separation between those in the arts and other people, and I feel that's a mistake. In many non-Western cultures, music is very much a part of everyday life and it relates to every aspect of life. There is music for work, healing, celebrations; there is music for everything. I guess what I'm trying to say is that anybody can have an awareness to look at life as art in whatever it is they do, even if it is something that is not traditionally thought of as artistic. Anything that you do can be art if it's done with a particular kind of awareness.

LP: Do women and men create differently or does it have more to do with individuality?

MC: I think it has more to do with individuality. I have said for years that I don't believe in men's music and women's music, but I think if you are a woman, you are obviously playing women's music. If you are a man, you are playing men's music. We all have masculine and feminine elements and people like Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett play some very feminine lyrical stuff and there are woman who play some very hard-ass stuff. Women have babies and that takes incredible strength. There is this tendency to think of women as weak and frail little flowers and men are these big strong I mean you can fill in the words here. I don't know if we create differently but I wouldn't think so but there are people who believe that.

LP: When you compose, are you envisioning what you want the music to do for the listener?

MC: I'm trying to figure out what concept is trying to formulate itself and I try to find a way to express it and this is on an intuitive/intellectual level. I'm thinking in terms of what I hear and what I want to put out and not how it's going to affect somebody or what they are going to think of it. I think you do something that is intrinsically yours and that's your gift that you have to give. If you are trying to modify it in some way to impress or please someone, then it's not going to be a pure expression.

LP: What do you look for from drummers and bass players and how much of it has to do with their rhythmic approach with each other?

MC: I'm looking for people who are very versatile and have a background in traditional jazz but can also cross lots of borders. People who are aware of more contemporary developments in improvised music and can relate to it and not just say, "Oh, I'll play free," but can really relate to it from the heart. People who are sensitive and know how to listen. People who can relate to what I'm doing and respond in a way that makes sense and with respect.

LP: Can you explain your relationship with time in the musical sense?

MC: First of all, time is a very complex thing. Anthony Braxton talks a lot about pulse feels, which is kind of like a heartbeat. You have your own rhythm and if you are playing a phrase that has a pulse feel of its own and if you are playing with "intention" within that pulse feel, for me, that has a sense of time. In fact, one of my favorite things is to play simultaneous but different things, like say the bassist and the drummer are playing the feel of a certain time. 4/4 time. I like to be able to fly on top of that and go in and out of it and come back to it. It's like they are laying down a carpet of time that I can weave complex patterns over. I think African drumming is also a concept that has very complex time. I am not a free jazzer who abhors playing in a time, 4/4 time or whatever (laughs)—contrary to what some people think.

LP: Don't you just hate the term "Free Jazz"?

MC: I really do, and avant-garde, I hate even worse. Because most of the stuff that is happening now is not avant-garde; it's been happening since the '50s. There is very little new stuff that I'm aware of.

LP: I was just having this discussion with a friend who owns a music store and we were talking about how to categorize the section within avant-garde. Where does it start and end? Like he said, "Do I start with Charles Mingus who was avant-garde when he originally hit the scene?

MC: Charlie Parker was avant-garde during his time and people didn't know what to do. They couldn't dance to it, or at least they didn't think they could. It wasn't the big-band stuff they were used to. He was an intellectual, an explorer, and was way out there. Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) wrote a book called Blues People and talks about how jazz is a process of change and how it's traditionally been a revolutionary music which always comes up from underneath and upsets the status quo. He talks about African music and music from other countries and the differences they have with the Western world, and that's really about process. He says that here, you do something and then you put it in a museum and look at it like an icon. So it becomes like archeology and becomes an archive rather than a living, changing process.

LP: How has your musical thinking evolved from your earliest compositions up until now?
About Marilyn Crispell
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