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Joëlle Léandre Rocks On, Freely

The composer and contrabass player has no intention of slowing down.

You ask, ‘Why’?” says Joëlle Léandre, 71, when asked about recording somewhere between 140 and 200 albums since 1981, with three times as many gigs under her belt. “I say, ‘Why not?’ I always say, ‘Why not?’ I never say, ‘No.’” 

With one foot out the door from her home in Paris — en route to Switzerland and a series of live shows — the improvisational composer and contrabass player has no intention of ever slowing, ever. Along with releasing J. LÉANDRE – C. TABORN – M. MANERI with pianist Craig Taborn and violinist Mat Maneri this month on the Rogue Art label, she’s headed to New York for the 2023 Arts for Art Vision Festival, where she will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award on June 13. 

“Being able to talk about myself and all the things that I have done in my 48 years of being on the road and in the studio is a thrill — and the throughline is that it is all free,” says Léandre. “My freedom, my ability to select, to choose only what I want to do in terms of invention — that is what has always been when it comes to my creation. Selection is important to me. Some mornings you want to wear red socks, sometimes yellow.” 

Born in Aix-en-Provence, a “young, so young” Léandre started off in classical music but forever felt the lure of the freest of free jazz, a music she instantly associates with the United States. “At 19, I was at the American Center in Paris, seeing Rashied Ali, Steve Lacy, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago,” she says. “That sound was America for me. It was a beautiful shock.” 

Léandre famously won so many honors for her piano, bass fingerings, and compositional skills in France in her youth that she was awarded a scholarship in Buffalo, New York, where she met and befriended composers such as John Cage, Giacinto Scelsi, and Morton Feldman. “I was in Buffalo to study with Feldman… I am a curious person with a classical music background, but everything that attracted me was about being different,” she says of recording works by Cage and Scelsi, as well as her eventual connections to — and recording with — legendary free guitarist Derek Bailey, saxophonist Anthony Braxton, bassist William Parker, and Maneri and Taborn. Their sense of freedom was Léandre’s freedom. Their shared sense of “life and jubilation” was available to her with every thrum and saw of her bass. 


“I am always called to whatever it is I do as a bass player,” Léandre says before teasing about still having to tote her instrument and her kit bag along on a heavy cart with four wheels to this day. “My bass is my expression.” 

Recalling a Greyhound bus trip from Buffalo to downtown New York in 1972, she laughed about who it was she first ran into when the bus doors opened. “It was Leroy Jenkins and Fred Hopkins,” she enthuses. “I was this young French lady having coffee with these men, and Hopkins was a bass player like me… the free jazz people enthralled me. Half of my culture — my time playing in New York, my time as visiting professor at Mills College in Oakland teaching improvisation — is in America and is free jazz. I was always attracted to jazz people.” 

Then again, lest you stick too closely to a conversation on free jazz or linger too long on the work of someone like Cage (“Why ask me about Cage? Why? That dates my instrument, my vocabulary”), Léandre is quick to remind you that she played contemporary music for over a decade. This includes her time performing with Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble InterContemporain. 


“Yes, I had my classical studies, blah-blah-blah, and yes, jazz–non-traditional jazz — but I was, and am, different too. So I immediately wanted to talk with these artists, be it composers, musicians, choreographers, and poets. It is a pure adventure. All of my life, I believed that I am a gypsy person, a nomade… I am subversive, a rebel.” 

Whether thinking about the heights of her Lifetime Achievement Award at Vision Fest (“I am so appreciative”) or the squeaking, squawking, sawing Rogue Art trio recording with Maneri and Taborn, Léandre is simply the most pleased when creating music with those she can “vibe” with and be free. 

“As many CDs as I have made, however many that actually is, it is not to make a little plastic disc, but rather the music,” says Léandre. “If the music is good, if I can make it with friends and protagonists, in trios, quartets, or quintets which work best with my level of improvisation… this music, this life, becomes so important. That which is not ‘musique savant’ or composed music — I hate that hierarchy — is what I want to play. I want to play sounds. I love to play sounds. 


“Music is more than just playing well. It is more highly valued in Europe to be a composer than an improviser. That for me is boring. I am going to be 72, and I want to play important, creative, improvisational music forever.”