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August 2008

Marilyn Crispell
Vignettes
ECM Records

The ECM label is theoretically bicameral, with jazz and classical divisions (the latter called “New Series”). But ECM blurs demarcations between categories. Many of ECM’s jazz artists have backgrounds like Marilyn Crispell’s. She was educated at the New England Conservatory and played classical music and contemporary composition exclusively until she was 28. The intellectual austerity and formality of Vignettes belongs to Crispell’s classical sensibility. But its freedom and openness is jazz—jazz of bare, molecular lyricism.

This is introverted music for very late at night, moving in slow tides of emotional awareness. There are 17 pieces, most of them short. Without looking at the track list, it is not intuitive which are entirely improvised, which are longstanding Crispell originals (“Valse Triste,” “Ballade”) and which were written by others (Arve Henriksen’s “Stilleweg”). All feel like spontaneous creative impulses that cohere into forms as rigorous and complete as notated music.

It is best to listen without expectations. You must be willing to flow with Crispell, to wait her out. The rewards are in pieces like “Time Past” and “Once.” They may have started as forays that could have gone anywhere, but they end as songs that have always been there that you have not heard before.

Vignettes is powerfully achromatic, made only of darkness and light.

Originally published in August 2008
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