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Overdue Ovation: Marilyn Crispell

Now more than 40 years into her jazz career, the “hard-edged” pianist has learned to value lyricism

Marilyn Crispell. (photo by: Bart Babinski/ECM Records)

On one of her most recent visits to Philadelphia, Marilyn Crispell visited the house where she’d grown up for the first time since she’d moved away at age 10. She was shocked to discover how small the brick rowhome seemed in comparison to her memories, the vast lawn where she’d played as a child revealed as a meager strip of grass.

“It makes you wonder about the world that we’re in now,” she mused over the phone from her home in Woodstock, N.Y. “Is that just going to seem like the little bits of lawn on Farnsworth Street at some point?”

For Crispell, it’s very likely that the world she currently occupies will seem small by tomorrow’s standards. Throughout her career, the pianist has thrived on expanding her circles, of collaborators, influences, or approaches. In 2018 alone, she was featured on five distinct recordings that cross stylistic, geographical, and generational borders.

Grenseland (Drollehålå), with Norwegian trumpeter Gunhild Seim and clarinetist David Rothenberg, features a vast and wildly abstract sonic palette, with Crispell singing wordlessly into her resonant piano and conjuring percussive textures from preparations in the strings while her trio mates mutate their respective sounds via electronics. Dreamstruck (Not Two) is a vivid example of her lyrical volatility and exquisite control on a largely free session with fellow veteran improvisers Harvey Sorgen and Joe Fonda.

Songs Along the Way (Babel) is a stunning duo date with Scottish saxophonist and academic Raymond MacDonald that ranges from tender beauty and traditional song forms to explosive bursts of torrential abstraction. Dream Libretto (Leo) is built around “Memoria / For Pessa Malka,” a stark and haunting composition for piano, violin, and electronics featuring Tanya Kalmanovitch and Richard Teitelbaum in tribute to several lost loved ones. Finally, Joe Lovano’s ECM debut Trio Tapestry unveils a new trio with Crispell and drummer Carmen Castaldi that finds the robust, adventurous saxophonist traversing more serene and meditative terrain.

That last release is the most surprising—not for the music, but for the fact that Crispell has signed on as a sideperson in someone else’s working band for the first time in nearly 25 years, since she played regularly with both Anthony Braxton and Reggie Workman. Finding travel in recent years to have become “atrocious,” she’d largely decided to forswear touring in favor of a focus on composing and recording.

“Suddenly this opportunity came up and it just felt right,” she explains. “I feel like I’m able to play a lot of what I want to play within the context of Joe’s compositions, and I still continue to do my solo playing, so it’s very good to have the balance between the two. None of us quite expected what happened in the recording session.”

Lovano uses the word “magic” a lot when describing how Trio Tapestry came together. He and Crispell have known each other since the mid-1980s but have only rarely played together. Lovano sat in with Crispell’s trio with Mark Helias and Paul Motian for a night at the Village Vanguard in 2006, leading to a quartet concert at New York’s Miller Theater; later, Crispell subbed for a gig in Lovano’s Us Five quintet.

“Things just unraveled into this moment,” Lovano says about finally collaborating fully with Crispell. “Marilyn is a pure improviser. She listens and follows the sound. She’s not playing any kind of style at all; every tone, every interval, every rhythmic nuance, she reacts to it. She has a beautiful sense of music and plays with a real concept about who she is and how she can play within whatever setting. It’s intimate, and each time through is a new exploration of the same piece.”

It’s surely no coincidence that Crispell came into Lovano’s mind as he embarked on a new beginning at ECM after 26 years with Blue Note. The pianist has recorded periodically with the German label since 1996, when she recorded an album of Annette Peacock’s music with Motian and Gary Peacock. Given Manfred Eicher’s love of airiness and space, the relationship represented a significant evolution from her fiery beginnings, when Crispell often found herself referred to as “the female Cecil Taylor.”

“I had always been pretty hard-edged,” she recalls. “I related to Cecil Taylor and late Coltrane; that was where my energy was. Of course, I don’t think I really understood Cecil at that time, because if you really listen to him you hear all kinds of space in his phrasing. But when I first started improvising, someone said to me, ‘Just start playing and don’t stop.’ So that’s what I did.”

Crispell had plunged into jazz via the deep end. A classically trained pianist, she’d been immersed in music from the time she started playing at the age of seven until she graduated from New England Conservatory in 1968: “I was always interested in avant-garde classical music and baroque music, but for most of that period I wasn’t interested in a lot of what happened in between.”

Living on Cape Cod a few years later with a jazz and blues pianist, she decided to peruse his record collection one night while he was out on a gig. One of the titles she picked out was A Love Supreme, and the direction of her life immediately shifted. “The emotional and spiritual quality of it overpowered me,” she says. “I can honestly say it’s possibly the most overpowering experience I’ve ever had in my life. That one night of listening to A Love Supreme over and over and over just completely changed my life.”

She returned to Boston and signed on to the seven-month waiting list to study with Charlie Banacos, the storied pianist and educator whose students have included Michael Brecker, Mike Stern, Wayne Krantz, and Danilo Perez. While there she was introduced to saxophonist Charlie Mariano, who told her, “I know a place where they do your kind of music”—the Creative Music Studio, the innovative musical laboratory founded in 1971 by Karl Berger, Ingrid Sertso, and Ornette Coleman in Woodstock. Crispell visited for a summer, during which she first crossed paths with such monumental voices as Anthony Braxton, Anthony Davis, Oliver Lake, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Wadada Leo Smith, and Cecil Taylor; nearly 42 years later, she’s essentially never left.

“It was and is a unique place in the world for the kind of music that we do,” she says. “If it had taken place in New York City I don’t think the feeling would have been the same. Here you were living and eating and hanging out with the guiding artists in this country motel setting. People would be up all night making bonfires and playing outside on the lawn with were musicians from all over the world. It was a very important human experience and I met many of the people I ended up playing with.”

That included Braxton, who invited Crispell to recorded with his Creative Music Orchestra in 1978 and provided her first important lesson in adding space to her fiery approach. She’s often told the story of a rehearsal where the saxophonist strolled over to the piano and placed a beer in her hand. “It was very funny. He said something to the effect of, ‘Marilyn, why don’t you have a beer and take a breath?’ That was very important to me.”

Her playing remained tumultuous throughout the ’80s, however, until another key moment leading to a seismic shift in her thinking. On her first visit to Scandinavia in 1992, she attended a festival in Stockholm where she saw a Swedish group that included bassist Anders Jormin, a future collaborator and ECM mainstay. “I heard these musicians playing this very beautiful, lyrical music and it spoke to something inside me,” she says. “It was one of those door-opening moments.”

There have been many introductions and explorations since, but that sudden revelation of lyricism added a crucial element to Crispell’s sound, which is often marked by transcendent moments of breathtaking beauty. Listening to her can often feel like watching a distant storm on the horizon: dark-tinged but shot through with rich and multi-hued colors, streaks of unpredictable light, always threatening to erupt into a violent downpour.

Now 72, Crispell credits the inevitable maturation that comes with age and experience for the dense layers, tonal variety, and fragile beauty of her sound. “It’s been 40 years. I think people have more of that kind of energy when they’re younger; I know I did. I wanted people to hear me. I wanted people to get me. I felt like I was involved in this very male world, and that I couldn’t afford to show any insecurity or softness. Things have changed a lot and as time went on, as I got older and had a lot more experiences, it was natural to do things in service of the music and not my personal ego.”

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.