Marilyn Crispell: Vignettes (ECM 2027)


Marilyn Crispell

Marilyn Crispell piano
Recorded April 2007, Auditorio Radio Svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Assistant engineer: Lara Persia
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In the light of her successful trio albums for ECM, pianist-composer Marilyn Crispell brings jazz to its knees with a solo album of such shadow that descriptors run dry. Nominally, the reduction would seem to be just that: a paring of musicians from three to one, a nakedness of melody, a sparser palette. And yet, when “Vignette I”—the first of seven such improvisations strewn among a field of selectively prewritten material—casts its handful of stars into the night sky, the ripple effect is anything but restricted. Rather, this foray builds a grand emotion as only Crispell’s intersections of personal experience and growth can accommodate. Grounded by the occasional bass note, a floor to every ceiling, her introduction inhales as deeply as possible before draping its breath across the horizon. The six remaining vignettes capture details such as Crispell has never revealed before or since. Whether plucked like harp strings in rhythm with veiled footsteps (“Vignette II”) or tracing a vine’s path up an old stone wall (“Vignette VII”), she attends to every cell, reaching through muddy waters and touching the riverbed with her resolute sunbeams.

Above all, Crispell’s integrity is integral. As she labors between discomfort and resolution through the rubato oscillations of “Valse Triste,” navigates the pedestrian paths of “Sweden,” and places cross-sections of reminiscence under the dual microscope of “Ballade” and “Time Past,” an origin story begins to emerge. In “Gathering Light,” too, her mystical touch reigns. By the eddying currents of her left hand, she guides the school of fish evoked by her right, that its spiritual purpose might break shore and take root on land. Even in her most abstract moments (cf. “Axis”), Crispell’s feel for geometry is so genuine as to be irrefutable, and at her most somber (“Little Song For My Father”) she chains whispers of respect and love, allowing empty spaces to do most of the talking.

Rounding out the set are two artfully placed interpretations of others’ works. “Stilleweg” is by Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen, and is an airy dance with a folkish quality. It is the other, however, to which I would focus your attention, for “Cuida Tu Espíritu” (Take Care of Your Spirit), by flutist Jayna Nelson, is one of the most transcendental piano works ever recorded for ECM. Crispell inhabits its every architectural nook and cranny, the staggered relationship between her fingers serving to magnify the holy vision at their tips.

Vignettes is both pure Crispell and Crispell at her purest. It holds its own alongside any Keith Jarrett album and is just as indicative of genius. An ECM “Top 10” candidate, for sure. Do yourself a favor and find out if you agree.

Marilyn Crispell Trio: Storyteller (ECM 1847)


Marilyn Crispell Trio

Marilyn Crispell piano
Mark Helias double-bass
Paul Motian drums
Recorded February 2003 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Although the distinction of Marilyn Crispell’s free-flowing approach to the keyboard has been evident at least since her 1983 solo album Rhythms Hung in Undrawn Sky, her sporadic ECM tenure has shown an artist coming into her own. For Storyteller, she is joined by bassist Mark Helias (filling the formidable shoes of Gary Peacock) and drummer Paul Motian. One hesitates to call them “bandmates,” for the symbiosis between the three is such that parsing them into any hierarchy of leader and followers would upset the balance of their artistry. Motian and Helias are indeed more than a rhythm section: rather, they section rhythm into its base components, fragmenting and rebuilding in real time, like Crispell herself, to suit the needs of the tune at hand.

On the subject of tunes, the set list affords fair consideration to each musician’s pen, beginning and ending with Crispell’s contributions, and through them loosely framing the trio’s open approach. In the first moments of “Wild Rose,” as Motian’s rasp breezes through Crispell’s transcendence, and they in tandem through Helias’s pockets of air, there is a sense that what we are hearing is available only to the ears. This is, in certain terms, invisible music. Dynamics are constantly flipping and shifting, so that in “Alone” Crispell billows like a curtain in the foreground, while in “So Far, So Near” she becomes now the page across which the texts of bass and drums take form. Despite being over nine minutes long, the album’s closer passes like a windblown leaf among countless others, even so yielding unforgettable color.

Motian offers five tracks, including his classic “Flight of the Bluejay,” which in this rendition flits about with descriptive perfection. Like its namesake, it cycles between lyrical glides and punctuations of caution. “The Storyteller” is notable for its sustained arpeggios and for the archaeological precision of its composer. So, too, “The Sunflower,” a brief yet sparkling ode to photosynthesis. But the two tracks marked “Cosmology” show the trio at its interlocking best, as does “Limbo,” one of two tunes by Helias; the other being “Harmonic Line,” which is the album’s most melodic and contains the first proper solo of the set, accompanied only by drums, painting the ripples of Crispell’s pebble dropping.

In the purview of these masters, each the side to a pliant yet unbreakable triangle, the title of Motian’s “Play” is as much a noun as a verb. There is, accordingly, a stark awareness of the stage, of the performance, of the importance of every set piece and backdrop. Every gesture gives off a constellation, each star a seed for countless more. Crispell is that rare pianist who can erase a picture in the same gesture that paints it. With a single wave of her hand across the water’s surface, she resets every reflection before it can pull us in like Narcissus. She is the storyteller, recording her fleeting narratives so that listeners might forever experience of the poetry of their immediacy, if not vice versa.

Crispell/Peacock/Motian: Amaryllis (ECM 1742)



Marilyn Crispell piano
Gary Peacock bass
Paul Motian drums
Recorded February 2000 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With Nothing ever way, anyway, the trio of pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Paul Motian degaussed the sonic landscape. With this, its follow-up, the trio redefines itself. If in that debut Crispell proved the sonority of her craft as an improviser, here she proves the craft of her sonority. Whether evoking river’s flow or faucet’s drip, there is such palpable structure to her playing that one can almost live in it.

“Voice from the Past” gazes back to Gary Peacock’s 1982 album of the same name while also trudging forward in anticipation of what sigils it might inscribe by virtue of its fresh passage. Even the composer seems compelled to drown in his own creation, allowing Crispell’s porpoises to shake their bottlenoses in slow motion to the rhythm of Motian’s tide. Conversely, Peacock stands out in the pianist’s title track, which for all its prettiness cages a lonesome heart. There is a feeling of nature as entity, as if it were somehow able to brush away the veneer of our sadness and flow resolutely into its cause. “Requiem” is another dip into classic Peacock, this off his 1987 effort Guamba, again played here as if for the first time. Peacock takes the foreground as an artist grabs a paintbrush: which is to say, swiftly but respectfully. Yet even when composer and process sync with expectation, as they do also in “December Greenwings” (referencing 1979’s December Poems), Crispell is not to be overshadowed, for she brings a tree’s worth of blossoms into full view. As a melodic first responder, she unpacks Peacock’s compact phrases with obvious delight, and in her own “Rounds”—which connects the dots back to her 1983 album for Cadence, Spirit Music—she blankets our vision with flurries of brilliance. Strong as his drumming is in this track, Motian’s own compositional voice grabs even more attention in the trio’s slippery rendition of “Conception Vessel” (which titles his 1973 album) in conjunction with “Circle Dance.” The latter in particular elicits some of Crispell’s profoundest atmospheres, channeling Keith Jarrett at his most sacred. Motian’s “Morpion” solidifies the triangle by muscling its wide mane down connecting avenues of shine.

During sessions, producer Manfred Eicher further bid the musicians to improvise in the spirit of seeing what might take shape. Striking is how distinct the results are from their surroundings. “Voices” lays out a bed of bass and drums, one resonating and the other in a state of decay, and gives the piano an amorphous tree up which to climb. “Silence” is an album highlight, a real stunner that leaves us hanging from a branch of Zen-like irresolution. “M.E.” naturally pays tribute to Eicher, without whom it would not have taken shape and whose miraculous influence echoes through every touch of finger and brush, here and beyond. Another flask of inspiration drained and refilled to the last drop. “Avatar” is similarly gauze, fecund, and free. Pure magic, but with the bonus of “Prayer” (by clarinetist Mitchell Weiss) providing the final kiss to ensure the spell’s completion.

The most significant revelation of Amaryllis for ECM devotees is Crispell, who underscores the fortuitousness of having “crisp” in her surname with a string of performances that are exactly that. She is an expert at deep listening, and can provoke only the same in we who listen in turn.

Crispell/Peacock/Motian: Nothing ever was, anyway – Music of Annette Peacock (ECM 1626/27)

Nothing ever was, anyway – Music of Annette Peacock

Marilyn Crispell piano
Gary Peacock double-bass
Paul Motian drums
Annette Peacock voice
Recorded September 1996 at Right Track Recording Studios, New York
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It’s astonishing to think that the music of Annette Peacock, given its rare and just dues on this essential 1997 release, has not been buried under more attention. Then again, when listening to it in the hands of pianist Marilyn Crispell (in her ECM debut), bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Paul Motian, we feel it casting itself into a well of reflection so deep that it burrows out the other side of the earth, far beyond our reach. That it remains true to heart is part of its magic.

Annette’s mode of choice is the ballad, through which she forges sweeping landscapes of understatement. Her music is skeletal in the truest sense, using bones not as anchors for flesh, but rather as chambers for marrow and quiet emotional floods. The title track doubles as bookend, clothing us with and stripping us of a sound-world that thrives on the shadows of its language. These utterances are fleeting, imperative smiles that turn cloud into rain, lifting themselves like sentient decals from the sheet of time and turning slowly toward the splash of adhesion introduced by the rhythm section’s entrance. That the latter borders on superfluous is by no fault of the musicians, but by nature of Annette’s music, which is anything but simple. It is, rather, so full that the stony and rounded sighs our guides manage to elicit breathe with the density of a philosophical act.

Crispell tours a gallery of traveling installations, reflections of experiences served on two CDs for the nourishment of the sonically hungry. “Butterflies that I feel inside me” finds bassist Peacock in motion, redefining space with the humble genius he has brought to so many ECM sessions before and since. Here there is something more than the sum of his strings, as each player brings out the best in the other. Listen to the fissures of pure bliss in “open, to love” or “Albert’s Love Theme” and be moved as the trio opens intuitively, cutting a relenting and cinematic cloth into silhouettes of reason. An unexpected cameo from the composer herself draws a frayed thread through “Dreams (If time weren’t).” Annette’s vocals, raw to the core, embrace words like children of sentiment in a tale of fate and circumstance. This opens a path for Gary to indulge his apportioned commentaries, and for Crispell to voice every whisper of the heart that moves her. Following this is “touching,” which might as well be the ethos of the entire set. Touching is the focus of its attention. Touching is the embodiedness of the mood, which selects points of contact so carefully that it can only be spontaneous.

Let us not gloss over Motian, who is a wonder. His banter is forever sincere and offsets monologues with unerring intimacy. From the Carl Stalling-inspired “cartoon” and on through a string of brilliant vignettes that includes “Miracles” and “Ending,” we arrive at the arrayed sensitivity of “Blood.” It is the taste of an album that, by its end, has become a mirror within a mirror, at once reflector and reflected. Needling its compass toward the stillest horizon, it stands out like a name in a culture of anonymity.

Marilyn Crispell/David Rothenberg: One Dark Night I Left My Silent House (ECM 2089)


One Dark Night I Left My Silent House

Marilyn Crispell piano, soundboard, percussion
David Rothenberg bass clarinet, clarinet
Recorded March 2008 by Chris Andersen at Nevessa Production, Woodstock
Produced by Marilyn Crispell and David Rothenberg

In the dark I the bird can pretend, in light I am overdoing it,
pretending to be what I’m not, like art, like imagination.
–David Rothenberg, Always the Mountains

Having only been familiar with David Rothenberg through my own interest in animal studies, which had already led me to his unique book Why Birds Sing, imagine my delight when his name showed up on the latest release from my favorite label—and alongside one of its most singular talents, no less. His meditative improvisations with Marilyn Crispell have produced one of the most delightful surprises of 2010.

This album is fluid yet abstract, often devoid of melodic traction, but is bound by a certain poignancy that I find utterly engaging. Take, for example, “Stay, Stray,” which begins with airy chords but quickly turns introspective, even regretful, but is nevertheless boldly committed to its indeterminate purpose. Goal-oriented is what this music most certainly is not. Rather, it surrenders to the dynamics of the moment, to the gravity of performance, and to the possibilities of material interaction. In the latter vein, a number of tracks feature Crispell playing an old upright piano soundboard, from which she elicits a playful metallic accompaniment. It is part of her attempt, in Rothenberg’s words, to “get away from the keyboard, more into the realm of pure sound.” In tracks like “Still Life With Woodpeckers,” these sounds are blatantly foregrounded, while in others they linger like ghosts. “The Way Of The Pure Sound (for Joe Maneri)” begins with low-blown notes, sounding almost like a didgeridoo, and walks its line faithfully over Crispell’s exploratory ruminations on the very innards of her chosen instrument. “Tsering” lies somewhere between the two, featuring strings plucked with the fingertips and a few carefully placed notes on the keyboard proper. The unspoken communication between the two musicians is always clear, especially in “What Birds Sing,” “Companion: Silence,” and “Owl Moon.” Even in the more adventurous moments found in “The Hawk And The Mouse,” “Motmot,” “Grosbeak,” and “Snow Suddenly Stopping Without Notice” maintain a mutual delicacy that binds them as a whole. And it’s hard not to be won over by the frailty of “Evocation,” which sets the album adrift on a most dreamlike reverie.

Despite the nocturnal imagery implied by its title and cover art, One Dark Night fills my imagination with summer. The opening “Invocation” in particular drips like molasses in sunlight, evoking a hot and humid environment, somewhere rich in agriculture. The piano is like a planted seed, resting quietly in the soil, and the clarinet its first shoots, caressed by the wind, fed by the rain, and pulled from silence by the unblinking eye of the sun. Rothenberg always seems to be putting on a severe frown, like that of a tragedy mask—which is to say his sound is carefully sculpted and symbolic of a long dramatic history. His approach is rooted in nature and survival and rests comfortably on the organic foundation Crispell so lovingly provides. Both of them seem to grasp every ribbon of sound and to blindly follow wherever it might lead. If anywhere, this is where the darkness comes in, forging through that blindness a light of one’s own making, a certain sense of being that is internally of the night, even as it basks in the nourishing glare of its harvest. This may not be the most versatile music, but I think for the right mood and occasion it captures something that cannot be expressed any other way.