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The Something in the Nothing

Mysteries Lurk in the Taut, Tense Jazz of Pianist Marilyn Crispell

The Sound of the City: Erstwhile Baltimorean Marilyn Crispell studied classical piano but has spent most of her career improvising.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 9/15/2004

Marilyn Crispell opens the Points of Departure fall music series at An die Musik Sept. 18. For more information, call (410) 385-2638 or visit

Pianist, improviser, and composer Marilyn Crispell moves over the keys with the athletic poise of a ballet dancer on her latest, Storyteller, a trio recording with drummer Paul Motian and bassist Mark Helias. Notes arrive in elegant, long phrases in “Wild Rose,” or develop slowly into a labyrinthine paragraph of ideas in “Alone.” She patiently sketches a skeletal, mysterious motif in “Harmonic Line” that eventually branches into a knotted counterpoint to the drums and bass. And just as a dancer makes her motions look effortless, Crispell’s lines sound fluidly stated, as if their creation was as involuntary as blinking.

In between her notes, though, or in the adjacent spaces formed when bass lines and percussion patterns add other dimensions to the sound, lurks a taut, tense subtlety. The almost traditional smoky piano line and drum caress that opens Storyteller’s “Play” becomes less conventional and more eccentric as Crispell starts veering away from the central motif. She’s not so much changing it as permitting it to slip between her fingers like sand, until all that’s left are a few scattered notes which she pushes together to create a new central figure to which Motian and Helias respond. Storyteller is a game of tender brinkmanship, where the calming solace of the musical rest is turned into a nervous, enigmatic variable. Silence here is an unknown rather than mere absence.

Storyteller continues the exploration of the something in the nothing, which Crispell has mined since 1995’s Dark Night and Luminous, a duet release with pianist Agustí Fernández. And it’s an idea that almost perfectly combines her two major periods—her early, rhythmic density as part of Anthony Braxton’s formidable 1980s quartet and her spacious, ruminative solo explorations.

“I haven’t abandoned anything, it’s just that I feel I’ve expanded and I’m exploring new areas,” she says over the phone from her home in Woodstock, N.Y. “But I’d say lately some of the feelings I started out with are coming up more strongly.”

It’s a different terrain that pulls from her variegated musical background. She was born in Philadelphia and raised in Baltimore: “When I was 10 years old, my father’s work, Social Security, took us to Baltimore where the main office is, so from the age of 10 until I got out of high school I lived right across from the Reisterstown Road shopping plaza in Pikesville.” But Crispell, a classical pianist who graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, didn’t encounter jazz or jazz improvisation until she was 28.

“I had been improvising since I was 14 basically because I was composing and I would improvise in order to get ideas,” she says in a comfortable, unhurried voice that registers as deceptive as her playing. “It was really through listening to the music of John Coltrane that I got into improvisation. At the time I was living with someone on Cape Cod who had a wonderful contemporary jazz record collection, and I started listening to it and there was a definite connection between that music and the music I had been listening to and writing and improvising for dance classes, which was the work I was doing at the time. But it went to another level, another level of emotion. It just spoke to me. I would have to say it woke me up out of a musical stupor that I had been in ever since I had graduated from the New England Conservatory and six years of being married.”

Crispell soon started taking traditional jazz classes in Boston and in 1978 migrated to German jazz musicians Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso’s Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, where she’s lived ever since. It was here that Crispell first met, played for and with, and was eventually recruited by saxophonist/thinker Anthony Braxton to play in his quartet, alongside bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Gerry Hemingway.

“Braxton had been listening to all kinds of music—[German composer Karlheinz] Stockhausen, jazz, everything—since he was young,” Crispell says. “So there was a connection there with my classical music background and my interest in contemporary classic composition and their music, which went further and involved improvisation.”

Braxton’s music also welcomed Crispell’s interest in the polyrhythmic force of Cecil Taylor, an early influence on her improvisational ideas. “I think that the visceral energy is what first caught me about his music,” Crispell says of Taylor. “And I think that element is a lot of what people imitate in some cases, maybe many cases, without hearing the lyrical underpinning or the ideas in there. I mean, I listen to him now and he sounds positively compositional and lyrical. And the thing about him is no matter how many notes he plays there’s always breadth, there’s always space there. It’s not a solid wall of sound. If you really listen carefully, you hear the phrasing, but you do have to listen a while to hear that.”

That breadth in the sound forest intrigues Crispell most these days, and she’s proven capable of expanding those spaces and filling them with an expressive range. Her 1999 Red duet with Sicilian soprano saxophonist Stefano Maltese witnessed Crispell revealing a deeply emotional and sophisticatedly restrained side of her performing personality.

“I’d say part of it is being more comfortable with what I’m doing, and you are always changing, and different facets of yourself are always emerging,” Crispell says. “But I could also pinpoint the time when it started to happen, which was 1992, the first time I went to Scandinavia. There is a whole style of music there that is very lyrical, that is more cool than hot, more coming from Miles Davis than Cecil Taylor, for instance. And I heard some of these musicians play and, again, it was a kind of awakening. It just woke something up in me. I responded to what they were doing.”

Ever since, she has not only added Scandinavian projects to her numerous collaborative efforts—she plays in a trio with Swedish bassist Anders Jormin and drummer Raymond Strid, and in a duo with Danish saxophonist Lotte Anker—but that lyrical element has seeped into her other projects as well, from the aforementioned Red, the 2001 Maltese duo Blue, and the new Storyteller.

“It’s like a pendulum,” she says. “I started out very much on the wild energy side and then I swung very hard to the intense space side, and I feel like the pendulum is going back toward the middle somewhere.

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