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After three exceptional trio albums – “Nothing ever was, anyway”, “Amaryllis”, and “Storyteller” –, a poetic, powerful, luminous solo album from pianist Marilyn Crispell. Increasingly Crispell is proving that tenderness and strength can be compatible characteristics, rather than opposites, in improvisation. Cecil Taylor long ago predicted that Marilyn would “spearhead a new kind of lyricism in jazz”, and she is defining it here, on the modestly- titled “Vignettes”.

“I wanted this to be a recording that was thoroughly authentic in feeling,” Crispell says. “Very pared down, with nothing superfluous in it, and at the same time music that was from the heart. And that’s easily said but not so easily done: even in improvisation a lot of activity in the music can simply happen out of fast, nervous energy. I wanted instead focussed energy, where every note and sound and silence has some purpose. Well, here’s an analogy: I was recently reading a book about Chinese five-element acupuncture theory, which suggested that in times of chaos and transition you shouldn’t try and force change, but rather get to a quiet place where you can allow transformation to manifest itself. A lot of my experience with ECM has been like that, allowing a musical direction to emerge rather than artificially forcing it.”

The directions that emerge on “Vignettes” bring Crispell to many different places and by several means. Free improvisation here has the rigour of composition, but pre-composed and partly-composed material also has its place. “Valse Triste” for instance is a piece written during a residency at the Centre Dürrenmatt in Neuchâtel. “Axis” and “Ballade” are themes that have long figured in Crispell’s concerts, integrated in improvisation. “Cuida Tu Espíritu” (Take Care of Your Spirit), is a piece written by flutist Jayna Nelson a friend and neighbour in Woodstock. Arve Henriksen’s composition “Stilleweg” is a piece that Marilyn first encountered in a group led by Danish saxophonist Lotte Anker. She has spoken often in interviews of her temperamental closeness to the Scandinavian musicians. One of her tunes here is titled, after the fact, “Sweden”. She spoke about her connections to North European music in the book “Horizons Touched” (Granta 2007).

“In 1992 I went to Scandinavia for the first time, to play in a Stockholm festival called ‘Solo 92’. Also there was the bass player Anders Jormin. All along, in the context of my solo music, I’d also been playing various ballads, though the primary focus of my music was energy and intensity. When I heard Anders, his playing touched a chord in me that resonated strongly. It would be two years before I’d have the chance to work with him, but in that moment, the seed of change was sown. Thanks to my friend Lennart Nilsson in Sweden, I was able to hear many recordings of Scandinavian folk and jazz musicians (my favourite singer was Lena Willemark). I loved the way the Scandinavian jazz players used elements of their own folk music in their improvisations, and loved their aesthetic of space, beauty and tenderness. Somehow, this was the missing element in my own music, and by absorbing it, I felt that my music was becoming more whole – not changing so much as expanding, to include more of everything that I felt and wanted to express.”

***

Marilyn Crispell (born 1947 in Philadelphia) graduated from the New England Conservatory and played exclusively classical music and contemporary composition until she was 28, when exposure to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” changed her musical priorities forever. She quickly became one of the most sought after improvising pianists in new jazz with a strongly physical style influenced on the one hand by the rhythmic propulsion of the music of Cecil Taylor and McCoy Tyner. She was also influenced by the ballad stylings of Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett.

Her 15-year membership of the Anthony Braxton Quartet, 1978-1993, confirmed her international standing, as did a series of leader recordings for a wide variety of labels. By 1990 she was also working regularly with European improvisers and her encounters with Scandinavian players in particular made her aware of other ‘jazz’ sensibilities. Besides working as a soloist and leader of her own groups, Crispell has performed and recorded extensively with well-known players on the American and international jazz scene. She has worked extensively with Barry Guy (in trio, with the London Jazz Composers Orchestra and with the Barry Guy New Orchestra), with the Reggie Workman Ensemble, as well as the Henry Grimes Trio, the Evan Parker Trio, Fred Anderson, and many others. Crispell has also performed and recorded music by contemporary composers Robert Cogan, Pozzi Escot, John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, Manfred Niehaus and Anthony Davis.

Marilyn Crispell made her ECM label debut in 1996 when she recorded “Nothing ever was, anyway” a double album of Annette Peacock’s music which was very well received, collecting an album of the year prize in France, Jazzman’s ‘Choc de l’année 1997’. It was followed by “Amaryllis” (recorded in 2000), with material by Crispell, Gary Peacock and Paul Motian and “”Storyteller” (2003) which emphasized primarily Motian’s songwriting. Crispell also appeared on Anders Jormin’s song cycle “In winds, in light” (recorded 2003), alongside singer Lena Willemark.

“Vignettes” was recorded in April 2007 at the Auditorio RSI – the performance space at Lugano’s Radio Svizzera (which has been the location for ECM recordings ranging from Anouar Brahem’s “Voyage de Sahar” to Enrico Rava and Stefano Bollani’s recent “The Third Man”).

Marilyn Crispell, who performed at New York’s Village Vanguard in March with Paul Motian and Mark Helias, is playing a number of solo concerts in the US in connection with the release of “Vignettes”. An official CD release party and solo concert takes place at New York’s Birdland club on April 29. There are also solo concerts in Buffalo, Concord, Baltimore and Woodstock. A number of European dates are also in preparation. Details will be posted soon at www.ecmrecords.com and www.marilyncrispell.com

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