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Marilyn Crispell: Uncompromising Power and Grace

Lloyd N. Peterson Jr. By

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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?

MC: I use to be a composition major at the New England Conservatory, so I think there is a sense of form in what I do. But I think playing with Anthony Braxton had a big effect on me as far as his sense of sound and silence and also just learning from his compositional methods. I became much more aware of the importance of space and silence after playing with him. The presence of space is important in order to be able to define phrases. If you listen to Cecil Taylor for instance, you hear a lot of space between those phrases and notes. Prior to playing with Anthony, I played lots of notes, all of the time. Continuously, without much of a break. It was about total energy and kind of revving up and flying off the planet. When I first started playing, I wanted to impress everybody, which is a common feeling, kind of immature. That has changed over the years. Previously, you were talking about the importance of sound. I would also say feeling and not just sound, but I think it's about melody and feeling and very much about energy and intensity. A lot of the stuff I have been doing with ECM is more about an inner intensity rather than an outer one. I feel there is a connection between the two states—wild energy and extreme introversion—two sides of the same coin. I do both and feel like there is an organic connection between them— an integration between them. With the ECM recordings, I like the idea of playing things so slowly that you are almost suspended in time.

LP: I like music with the use of spacing that creates tension, it invites anticipation.

MC: I agree. I'm a very intense person. I am all about intensity. (Laughs.)

LP: How do you create tension in your music?

MC: I think tension is created with unusual harmonies, melodies hanging in space, rhythmic complexities, the tension and release of melodic lines.

LP: How much of your compositional approach would you say comes from musical intellect versus intuition or instinct?

MC: I think separating the two is a very Western concept. It's not like we have one body that has a mind and the other one that has intuition. It's all together in one brain. (Laughs.) There is a description of a state of mind, which is compared to the tuning of a string. It shouldn't be too loose nor too tight. It should be just right and in perfect balance. This concept is used to describe a state of mind when you are doing meditation. With all the music I've played, heard, and studied, there is a sense of composition and form. There is an intellect at work, guiding the direction, although the direction seems to be mostly dictated by intuition and then guided by intellect but not too tightly. Sometimes I'll start out with an idea to play some-thing and it just doesn't seem to be happening, and what I usually do is just let the music go where it wants to go. But before, when I was talking about time, and I used the word "intention," I think that that's a really important word. Really, really important. Carlos Castendos talks about it. Anything you do and anything you are trying to focus on requires intention and that makes all the difference between something working or not working. I think, first of all, you need to have the intention to focus your mind in a way, which is very aware, very pointed, and very relaxed. It's almost like you are standing back and letting something happen but at the same time that sense of form, which is internalized, is guiding things. It's very difficult to describe.

LP: Is it possible to put into words what you are trying to do with your music today?

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