Marilyn Crispell


Incredible as it may sound, eighteen years have already passed since the original release of Live In San Francisco, the nice solo piano album that Marilyn Crispell recorded one night in October, 1989. But it was not thanks to its beauty that I thought about that album again while listening to Vignettes, Crispell's new solo work that for some will maybe signal a "new lyricism" phase in the artistic voyage of the US pianist. The reason that album came to my mind was for its liner notes, written by Graham Lock (the critic who, if I remember correctly, was one of the first, and one of the most enthusiastic, champions of Marilyn Crispell's music): at that time, Crispell already had a substantial discography under her own name, and also some fame of some sort, thanks to her being a part of the then-somewhat-famous quartet led by Anthony Braxton. Cecil Taylor being the pianist she was said to resemble the most, with John Coltrane (not the saxophone player anybody would mention as being the perfect example of economy of means) as the musician who most had inspired her, all seemed to indicate a strong, fluvial flow as her favourite means of expression. So it was with a certain amount of surprise that I read that Taylor had defined Crispell's music as spearheading "a new lyricism": "an epithet", wrote Lock, "she accepts with a degree of reservation". "It's an aspect of my work, but I don't think of it as a primary aspect."

At this point in time, we could say that Taylor was indeed right, but that Crispell wasn't wrong, either. (One could also speculate about the possible reasons why one has to adopt a certain degree of caution when it comes to labels and definitions, first of all for the quite real possibility for a musician who's still not universally perceived as a recognizable entity to be labeled as "the new Cecil Taylor" or "the Coltrane of the piano" (or "the new McCoy Tyner", perhaps?), then as "the new Bill Evans", or Paul Bley, or Keith Jarrett.)

It's stimulating, at this point in time, to revisit Monk's shadow appearing in the standard When I Fall In Love; or the jerky, Taylorian approach Crispell adopts in her interpretation of  Monk's Ruby, My Dear: two performances that I listened to side-by-side with the "lyric" approach Crispell adopted for her performance of the highly-celebrated Coltrane ballad After The Rain, on the album titled For Coltrane; a comparison that was available to me only ex post, since I had no way of knowing the latter track: though it had been recorded two years earlier than Live In San Francisco, For Coltrane was released only three years later.

I think it's absolutely appropriate to trace a line of development that has the album where Marilyn Crispell, Gary Peacock and Paul Motian performed music written by Annette Peacock as its starting point (Nothing Ever Was, Anyway, 1997), then the later album by the same line-up (Amaryllis, 2001), then the one recorded by the  trio made of Crispell, Motian and Mark Helias (Storyteller, 2004), and which arrives now at Vignettes. And I'd be the last to say that the potential influence that some "folk"-flavoured themes written Motian had in making the abovementioned "lyricism" come to the surface could ever be overestimated. But it's at our own peril that we forget that this is just one of the things Crispell has done. And that, though Taylor was right, Crispell was right, too.

At almost seventy minutes, Vignettes is a quite varied album - though there are many "ballads" here, Ballads would not definitely be an appropriate title. I found a bit strange that the chosen title had to be Vignettes, though, since the seven tracks bearing that title, being for the most part on the brief side, are the ones that "weigh" less in the whole. Here I have to confess that among the many possible different paths available to me for my exploration of the album the one I travelled the most was by extrapolating the seven Vignettes, and then listening to them on their own. And though I don't think that this is by any means a definitive conclusion, I'll say that, though the seven "vignettes" are stylistically quite diverse, it's the full use of both hands on them (an aspect those who are familiar with Crispell's music know well) that's the single factor that most differentiates these tracks from the rest. While her use of the piano pedals is absolutely masterful everywhere.

The album is for the most part quite accessible, but when taking its length into consideration, in order to avoid the possibility that those more lyric and melodic moments (there's also a composition that would sound quite plausible when played by Lars Hollmer's accordion) could risk becoming a kind of background, I decided to split the whole in two "sides" of about the same length, separating the first nine tracks from the remaining eight.

A clear and "cold" sound is used for the first track, Vignette I, where the mike placement couples a close-up of the right hand playing on the upper part of the keyboard to an ambient panorama, with strange results. Valse Triste has a nice, composed theme, presenting us with an atmosphere that is the most "unusual" part of the album, and reminding us of both Bleys (Paul and Carla); from here, it's the right hand that for the most part becomes the main character, playing melodies, while the left hand is given a supporting role. This is also true of the track that follows, Cuida Tu Espíritu, composed by Jayna Nelson. This new melodicism also appears on Gathering Light, whose (to me) Bach-like mood would be perfect for a harpsichord performance. Vignette II has the piano strings plucked, and though it's quite brief, like the tracks that follow, Vignette III, IV and V, reveals its considerable depth with repeated listening sessions. At times melodious, at times knotty, the (relatively) long track titled Sweden ends this "first part" quite well.

A sentimental, but definitely not syrupy, ballad, Once opens the "second part", immediately followed by a quite Taylor-like piece, Axis; then, two Vignettes, VI and VII, presenting highly dramatic moods. The album "opens up" again with Ballade, moves along similar lines with Time Past, and the quite "folk-like" Stilleweg - the track composed by Arve Henriksen that (loosely speaking) reminded me of Lars Hollmer; these are all tracks that are to be explored by the listener, without any further comments. In closing, Little Song For My Father has astounding technical means at the service of an expression that on the surface could almost appear as being "elementary".

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2008 | May 26, 2008