Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

Novelist John Gardner once made the distinction between Primary Literature, which deals with life, and Secondary Literature, which concerned with language. To what extent this construct can be applied to music, generally, is ripe for debate. Certainly, the blues is indisputably Primary, and there are equally obvious Secondary examples like Anthony Braxton’s Language Music compositions. Jazz remains the most ambiguous genre in this regard; although its DNA has been Secondary-altered for decades, some of its Primary chromosomes have proven to be immutable. Today’s jazz is most vital when the Primary and Secondary vigorously compete to a draw.

There is an essential competitive gene in jazz, one that goes far beyond the set-up of, say, one trumpeter going head-to-head with another in a cutting session. The more profound competition for the jazz artist to show or place, if not win outright, is with history. Jazz is saturated with its own history, making the choice for an aspiring artist to either ride in history’s wake, as if on a leg of the Tour de France, conserving one’s energies until there is an opening to brilliantly sprint ahead, or to go all Mike Tyson, beating history into a malleable pulp in the first round. Despite gross differences in style, there remains the issue of portioning Primary and Secondary elements into either approach, which, arguably, will prove to be the measure of obvious successes, split decisions, and miserable failures.

Improvised music largely sidesteps the snares of the Primary-Secondary binary and the quicksand that is history. It is one of the better assets of an ephemeral art form.  Unfortunately, what improvisers consciously bring to the moment usually remains unknown, which complicates the forensics of assessing recordings. Not so with Joëlle Léandre. In the extensive overview by Maciej Karłowski included in the booklet accompanying the 8-CD a woman’s work … (NotTwo), Léandre refers to her double-bass as “my tractor. My double-bass is my work-table, my wood-block, my tool …” At an essential level, Léandre compares her instrument with the technology of farm life, reflecting her Provence roots – a noteworthy compression of the Primary and Secondary.

Technology operates within a way of life, which Léandre suggests through an idyllic agrarian construct. “I often use the image of the farmer getting out his machinery,” she continued. “He knows the terrain, the hour of the sun, changes in the weather, he anticipates a greyness in the sky, he knows the natural world … his harvest depends on it.” Subsequently, being an improviser is a way of life for Léandre, albeit a nomadic one, as she regularly emphasizes. This suggests regular seasonal cycles, not anomalous strings of one-offs and first encounters, punctuated by droughts. This also partially explains why Léandre returns to long-standing circuit of collaborators, many of whom are featured on a woman’s work … – and why this box set has something of an almanac-like feel about it.  

However, there is a counter-cyclical aspect to a woman’s work … appearing in the spring like an early volunteer. Delving into a box set of CDs seems intrinsically a winter activity, the cold facilitating hours of listening, combing through the booklet, and retrieving relevant media – feeding on the harvest. Léandre must have a silo of recordings; it is therefore noteworthy that only two performances in the collection were recorded before 2015 – a 2005 solo concert and a 2011 encounter with violinist Mat Maneri.

That most of the work is new gives a woman’s work … much more the feel of a recent works survey than a career retrospective. (Let’s stipulate that Improvisations only become Works when they are commercially issued, with each copy being one in a series, like prints.) Despite its extensive documentation, Lèandre’s music has remained a momentary art, successfully evading the historicizing and theorizing imperatives currently plaguing improvised music. An improvisation has always been just that for the bassist. The achievement of this collection is that renders improvisation in its comes-and-goes essence.

This latter quality is particularly impressive when Léandre is working those she has known longest, like singer Maggie Nicols and pianist Irène Schweizer – Les Diaboliques – a trio whose inner most workings remain refreshingly elusive after nearly a quarter-century. Their 2015 Moscow performance has a crackling, on-the-fly feel from beginning to end. Perhaps because she also sings, Léandre always seems to have an especially telepathic rapport with singers, which is not only borne out by her work with Nicols here and elsewhere, but also her scintillating 2016 concert with Lauren Newton, one of the more criminally underheralded improvisers of the past 30+ years.

Despite her voluminous discography, generalizations that stick even for a moment about Léandre’s methodology are few. One really cannot be more specific than observing how she sways between emphasizing texture and line – with many gradations in between the two – and between complementing and confronting her collaborators. To a significant degree, what she does is dependent upon what her partners choose at any given moment, so the inclusion of disc-long duo concerts with trumpeter Jean-Luc Cappozzo and guitarist Fred Frith, both of whom have deep kit bags and who use the contents with swagger, vividly represent Léandre’s resourcefulness.

Since so much of Léandre’s work is done in duo and trio settings that it is easy to overlook her magneto-like presence in even slightly larger groups like the quartet with Evan Parker (on tenor), pianist Augustí Fernández and percussionist Zlatko Kaučič, whose 2015 performance brings the collection to a close. Had this disc been released separately, it would be widely hailed as one of the better free jazz records of the year. It is noteworthy that is was recorded two days after Léandre’s duets with each quartet member – her exchanges with the flinty Kaučič are exhilarating. When you have a bass-drums tandem like this, you really don’t need other instruments; but, when you do, pay attention.

For most improvisers, a box set of the scale and quality of a woman’s work … would be a monumental, if not a culminating achievement. For Léandre, it is yet another cycle of sowing and reaping. Undoubtedly, it won’t be long before she drives her tractor back to market, pulling another cornucopia.

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