The Renaissance of Marilyn Crispell

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The sound of pianist Marilyn Crispell changed following a trip to a festival in Stockholm: “I heard them playing stuff that really, really touched me.”

(Photo: Claire Stefani)

In 1985, writer Graham Lock joined saxophonist Anthony Braxton and his band on a tour of England, making stops in London, Birmingham and Coventry. The ensemble at that time—and for nearly a decade afterward—included pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Gerry Hemingway. The gigs would yield several live recordings, as well as Lock’s book Forces In Motion, which served up a compulsively readable portrait of all four, not just as brilliant musicians, but as friends on a collective adventure.

“Basically, the quartet was like a family,” Crispell recalled recently from her home in Woodstock, New York. “Both musically and personally, it was really one of the high points of my career.”

Crispell, who was born in Philadelphia and studied classical piano and composition at Boston’s New England Conservatory, first met Braxton in 1978 at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock. The studio’s co-founder, pianist Karl Berger, invited her to study and teach there, and it’s been her home base ever since.

“I think he is one of the great synthesizers of Western classical music and jazz,” Crispell said, discussing Braxton. “Because he has an equally strong background in both, and I think that’s part of the genius of his music. I feel like because of my background, and as a good sight-reader and all that, I was immediately able to relate to his music.”

She felt an equal affinity with the work coming out of the AACM universe, recording and performing with Roscoe Mitchell and Wadada Leo Smith during the late 1970s, and later with Fred Anderson. “As far as I could tell, some of the most important music in the country was coming out of that organization and also the Black Artists Group—people in St. Louis, Detroit and Chicago, that part of the country,” she said. “I was probably pretty naïve when I got into it. I just knew what I liked when I heard it and that I wanted to be part of the music.”

Crispell began performing solo and leading a quartet in 1983 that included violinist Billy Bang and drummer John Betsch. She later formed a quintet with saxophonists Oliver Lake and Peter Buettner, bassist Reggie Workman and Hemingway on drums, and has led several different trios. She’s also a member of bassist Barry Guy’s group and has recorded several dates for the ECM imprint, a few in the company of bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian around the turn of the millennium.

But early on, she established herself as a forceful, even aggressive, player. “[The piano] is a percussion instrument: You have hammers striking strings, and I definitely relate to it in that way. Especially at the beginning when I was doing a lot of pure energy music,” she said. “I relate very much to rhythms, playing different rhythms against the drums. I love doing that.”

Later on, though, her music became more lyrical and melodic as a result of a trip to the 1992 SOLO festival in Stockholm. “There were a lot of Scandinavian musicians at that festival, and I heard them playing stuff that really, really touched me. I feel like it opened up other doors, other avenues, for me that I related to very strongly.”

In 2018, Crispell returned to her roots in modern composition for the album Dream Libretto (Leo). The five-part title piece is performed by Crispell, Tanya Kalmanovitch on violin and Richard Teitelbaum on electronics—a first in her work. “It’s a very simple piece, but I worked on it for five years ... . [E]very note is very transparent, so I would labor over what notes I wanted and I kept changing things,” she said.

It has a minimal, almost haunted, quality. Each note from the piano echoes into space, traced by high-pitched whines and almost imperceptibly low rumbles. The sorrow at its heart is deeply personal for the pianist and composer.

“I thought of it as a suite. And really, during the past four or five years, I lost a lot of people who were very close to me. I would say I was in a period of extended mourning, and this piece came out of that and was written for them, really. I paid for the whole thing myself, and it was just something that was very important for me to put out.”

Last year, percussionist and composer Tyshawn Sorey held a residency at The Kitchen in New York, and one of the performances was a duo with Crispell, which now has been released as The Adornment Of Time (Pi). The 65-minute performance took place in a nearly pitch-dark room; the musicians could barely see each other. “I’m sure that had an effect on the music we played,” the pianist said. “It was very conducive to a dreamlike state.”

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