FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004


Caroline Mähl


Women's intuition

"I hit the piano so loud and hard,
they all turned to look at me"
Lil Hardin Armstrong

Cecil Taylor with Friedrich Gulda or Mary Lou Williams, Keith Tippett with Stan Tracey or Howard Riley, Alex Schlippenbach with Martin Theurer or Aki Takase, Bernd Köppen and Karoly Binder ... the list of (documented) improvised piano duos is not yet very long. Partly because, as Paul Bley says, it's hard enough for a jazz musician to find one good piano, let alone two. And then again, the piano is the most self-contained of instruments. With accompaniment available in his/her left hand, the pianist doesn't necessarily need any outside help, doesn't have to be a group player, or one of the gang. The piano's independent character is perhaps is one of the reasons why so many women have been drawn to it through jazz history. You can play it alone if you must, with or without the endorsement of male colleagues, where the female tuba player, say, would obviously have a tougher time on the solo circuit.

Women's important contributions to the male-dominated jazz world, have usually been downplayed, although jazz scholarship is beginning to balance the picture, Linda Dahl's book Stormy Weather being a step in the right direction. Nor is it merely feminists who now consider pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong the architectural intelligence behind "Satchmo's" Hot Five. Think about that for a while and the origins of jazz start to take on a different hue. In male jazz journalism, meanwhile, one still finds far too many examples of downright stupidity (to call it sexist would be to ennoble it, almost.) In their highly-praised book The Hip (1986), authors Roy Carr, Brian Case, and Fred Dellar call their chapter on female keyboardists "Kittens On The Keys" and account for the plethora of great women pianists thusly: "Maybe the idea of a high-class gal high-powering it in some booze-cruise of a nightspot turned the men on."

More recently, a Jazzthetik journalist marvelled that pianist Marilyn Crispell could play this tough free music and remain "very feminine." This makes a few presumptions about the nature of the new jazz that are at least worth questioning. The usual journalistic line is that Crispell and Irène Schweizer are influenced by Cecil Taylor (they will readily agree) and are therefore female exponents of a "masculine" aesthetic. But masculinity, not an absolute quality, has no single definition, and Taylor, imitating the leaps of dancers in space, a sound-poet "singing furiously in delicate tongues" (as Marilyn Crispell describes him in a poem), is not a beer-and-skittles man of the old jazz school. And though ascribing gender characteristics to music strikes me as a faintly lunatic occupation, if we have to, for the sake of argument, couldn't one as easily conclude that of all the forms of jazz, free jazz with its succession of climaxes, its emotions unpredictable and near-the-surface, is actually the most female form? Or if you prefer the variety of improvisation that's discursive rather than intuitive/ecstatic, isn't its chattiness, its having-that-much-to-talk-about, also fundamentally female?

Improvising singer Maggie Nichols, who has worked often with Schweizer, says "I'm fascinated by the different moods, the lightning mercurial changes that women are capable of making. Women on the whole tend to be more multi-dimensional in that they can live on more contradictory levels at once ... "Good credentials for an improviser - if she can play. And those we get to hear always can, because the rites of initiation and acceptance are that much harder for a woman. She has to prove herself more than competent, more than equal to the challenge. This Irène Schweizer and Marilyn Crispell have done, over and over. And there's still some credit owed.

It was at least heartening to hear of the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra paying tribute to Schweizer on the occasion of her 50th birthday, since she has been too frequently overlooked in accounts of European jazz history. As a woman and a staunch individualist she has never fitted too neatly into any of the existing clubs . . .

In retrospect, wasn't much of the polemical talk about the "emancipation" of European jazz just a territorial boys' game? While many, though not all, of her male colleagues strutted about, claiming to have severed the ties that bound them to America (the evidence of our ears almost invariably proving the contrary Irène Schweizer was always forthright in acknowledging the Afro-American sources of her inspiration. Monk, McCoy, Cecil, Dollar Brand - these were the four corners of her style's foundation. She is a resolute rhythm player first of all, and her grip on the rhythm is a force felt constantly when she plays. "Free" for her is never a synonym for "abstract" or "bloodless."

Marilyn Crispell told The Wire's Graham Lock "I love to play against rhythms, to play strong rhythms of my own against a strong rhythm." In Irène Schweizer, she certainly found an appropriate partner. This recording often takes on the aspect of a drum duet, so pronounced is the rhythmic interaction. It's a joyous music, constantly in motion, full of pulsing, snaking sensual body rhythms and wild syncopations, a dance.

Which doesn't mean to say that it lacks an intellectual component. There's a great deal of wit and cunning at work here. The players weave and dodge around each other, unite in seemingly impossible unisons, invent marvellous counterpoint, move together into pointillistic sound-painting. Note particularly the resourceful work inside the piano, an area Crispell rarely gets to with Anthony Braxton, "because there's always a ton of music sitting on top." Schweizer delights in scattering references to the entire Jazz tradition through the improvisations. There's more than a touch of ragtime and boogie-woogie here, sometimes adding~ a surreal flavour to Crispell's chromaticism. The clarity of the duo's music is among its most commendable characteristics.

Generally, piano duos - and particularly those concerned with energy rather than lyricism - throw up a fair amount of murkiness as a matter of course, the near-inevitabIe consequence of four hands pumping feverishly. But the articulation here is uncannily precise, the degree to which each player can anticipate the other's line when moving at top speeds extraordinary.

Women's intuition? It's a useful tool to bring to improvisation. Only one of many employed here, but definitely part of the story.

Translation: Steve Lake

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