A European Proposal
a column by
Joëlle Léandre Paolo Jacob©2009
Gradisca is a small, generally quiet town at the border between Italy and Slovenia, one of the countries born from the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Its grand town plan with a magnificent park is reminiscent of Viennese Imperial elegance, and the deep blue Isonzo river running from the Friuli mountains is the main feature of a beautiful landscape. The aptly named All Frontiers festival has been held there for 20 years, passionately organized by a local group of people who enjoys all kinds of different musics as long as they are on the edge of unknown territories – the November 2008 edition was very impressive, including among others Anthony Braxton and Richard Teitelbaum, Scanner and David Shea, Larry Ochs, Merzbow and Queen Mab Trio. There, I witnessed yet again the magnetic power of a solo performance by Joëlle Léandre. The well-developed drama of the concert kept the audience (which included a significant number of young Slovenians) on the edge of our seats, and prompted us to loudly cheer the exhausted bassist at its conclusion.
Joëlle's music is extremely powerful and extremely difficult to describe, being by its very nature beyond definition. Three aspects of her music – Background, Instrument and Gender – create an extreme synthesis, differentiating it from both the bulk European Free Improvisation and the freer forms of Jazz.
Even though European improvisers relate to various degrees to the European classical music tradition in the wider meaning of the definition, and some had thorough Classical studies, they all were also basically jazzmen (and I am not using the word unaware of gender distinction),. In Jazz, and especially in Free Jazz, they found a breach through which a new mode of music making was becoming available. The nuclei of improvising musicians that were operating in England, Germany and Holland at the end of the Sixties, the "three legs of the stool" as Evan Parker called them, shared an environment, musical context, and modus operandi based on the Jazz tradition as interpreted by Coltrane, Dolphy and Taylor more than on anything else. This is true even for players like Misha Mengelberg, Alexander von Schlippenbach and Barry Guy, who have academical credentials. This is not an absolute rule, and the rich network of connections that developed back then included many musicians coming to improvisation from the classical area, like Vinko Globokar.
France's situation is somwhat peculiar. Since Paris has been one of the hotbeds of jazz in Europe, the “jazz” element was, and is, very strong; its 20th Century composers were more widely influenced by jazz than in other countries, and uniquely improvisation always maintained a status in the academia due to the tradition of improvising sacred music on the organ. Even Olivier Messiaen, such a strong opponent to jazz, recorded and published his own piano improvisations. This prepared the backround for the “crossing over” by a maverick like Michel Portal who found in jazz the freest environment but never renounced to play “classic,” and in the opposite direction, of the “classical” compositions by a leading figure of French jazz like Martial Solal.
All over the Continent in the formative stages of the European Free Improvised music another influence was felt, that of the American composers who came to Europe to study in Darmstadt but found that environment stifling, like Richard Teitelbaum, Frederic Rzewsky and Alvin Curran, founders of the seminal Musica Elettronica Viva. However, generally, there was a common jazz background among the improvisers in the London clubs and in the Berlin meetings, which is one reason why the music was for many years presented at Jazz festivals. I fully share this appreciation of Jazz, and strongly feel a sense of continuity between the more advanced American jazz of the Sixties and the following development in Europe.
Enter Joëlle Léandre, hailing from a workers' family from Aix-en-Provence.in the very South of France – her father was a "cantonnier." Operatic recordings were popular in the house, and later she discovered an Italian branch of the family that included a great-uncle who was a famous clown. She was inexplicably attracted to the bass, which her brother studied , but she first played recorder, quickly moving to piano and, from the age of 9 to 14, studied both piano and double bass in her home town. Her double bass teacher, Pierre Delescluse, encouraged her to apply to the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris; there, she studied under Gaston Logerot and subsequently won first prize for double bass, a very rare, if not unprecedented, achievement for a female.
Alone, in Paris, Joelle not only intensely worked on her technique and on the classic repertoire, but also read and listened to anything connected with the bass. While rummaging through the records in the second-hands stalls along the Seine in 1971, she found an LP by Slam Stewart proudly displaying the instrument of the cover (Bowin' Singin' Slam; Savoy; 1945). She didn't know jazz until then. "I was intrigued by the blue of the cover and by the image of the bass. Listening to Slam Stewart: a shock!,” she told me. “I hear the pleasure in the playing, the jubilation, and the technique of bowing with the voice: it's a stroke of genius. Far away from my classical studies forcing me to study all these boring études and these ‘spaghetti’ concertos in order to get technical poise, I discover another music. It plays a simple melody and it sings. So at the same time I start to buy the Mingus, Chambers, Garrison and above all LaFaro. I visit the Riverbop to listen to Jean-François Jenny-Clark and Aldo Romano. In classical music the double bass is not understood in its totality, and it does not have a repertoire; the jazz bassists make the instrument heard in a different way, they push it on the forefront.” After listening to jazz, she said, "I quickly got into the free, improvised realm where, for me, Derek Bailey is extremely important, also George Lewis and Irène Schweizer, and for sure, Anthony Braxton. Meeting Derek in New York had nearly the same impact on me as meeting (John) Cage".
Despite this enthusiam, she keep studying, never playing “jazz,” much less becoming a full time jazz musician, style-wise: her venues only partially overlapped the circuit of jazz clubs and festivals, mostly where “euro-jazz” or free improvisation is the focus.
Much more than in Jazz it seems that bass players had a greater chance to become leaders in European Free Improvisation in the late ‘60s and ‘70s; not in a narrow sense of band-leaders, but in the broader context of being leading musical thinkers. Influenced by Barre Phillips and Kent Carter, Americans based in Europe who were pioneers in improvised solo bass music, and by Francis Rabbath (his attitude of crossing different musical genres and his solo bass recitals had an impact on Barry Guy and Joelle, among others), a whole generation of European bassists grew into leading the musical movement in different European countries: Peter Kowald in Germany, Guy in England; Maarten Altena in Holland, Henry Texier in France, Bruno Tommaso in Italy – a nice cross-continent distribution. Far fewer bassists had similar opportunities in the US at that time; the list trails off after Mingus and Charlie Haden.
The history of women in Jazz is very controversial, now more than ever as the neo-conservatives, in their rewriting of Jazz history, make it even more male dominated than it was already. Figures like Mary Lou Williams are forgotten, or rather left for the “avant-garde” to celebrate, while the more corporate-sponsored jazz institutions concentrate on the charms of the traditionally good-looking singers. With great difficulty, a group of European musicians, with whom Léandre closely cooperated, developed a gender-conscious approach to music. Maggie Nicols, Iréne Schweizer, Lindsay Cooper, Georgie Born, and Annick Nozati were among the leaders of this special scene, spearheaded by the Feminist Improvising Group and showcased at the International Canaille festival; it still inspires Les Diaboliques – the trio of Léandre, Nicols and Schweizer – and was paralleled in the unique journalistic work of Valerie Wilmer. Never subscribing to a separatist ideology, Léandre’s presence however still keeps questioning the logic of musical aggregation and cultural organization on behalf of women musicians, and I have witnessed how she reanimates and enthuses younger female instrumentalists, especially double bass players, regardless of stylistic inclinations.
Joëlle's history as an improvisor begins after graduation and while she's working the sundry jobs of an itinerant double bass player, adding her sound to give body to orchestras when needed, not dissimilarly from what Barry Guy did for a while. In 1975 she's already improvising with dancers, and a contemporary press article by Gilberte Cournand in Le Parisien, 24 September 1975, mentions her improvisations in a show by the Joseph Rusillo Ballet Company spelling her name, with the most revealing mistake, Joël Le Léandre, her name transformed into a male’s.
In 1976 she received a scholarship to the Center for Creative and Performing Arts in Buffalo; this visit facilitated seminal encounters with Morton Feldman, and with the music of Earl Brown, John Cage and Giacinto Scelsi. At the same time, she was able to experience the downtown New York new music scene, furthering her involvement in improvised music. The totality of these experiences is reflected in her first solo record, Urban Bass, remarkably first issued, remarkably, in the USA (it is now available on L'Empreinte Digitale). Léandre never renounced “contemporary” music; on the contrary, she proudly includes it in her sources of inspiration and her recordings of the works of Cage and Scelsi, some of which are dedicated to her; at the prsenters' request, she performed a Scelsi piece in the middle of her improvised performance at All Frontiers.
On Cage: "He will always be my spiritual father. I had already read For the Birds before meeting him. It is an important book. John made me listen to the world around me: 'Let sound be what it is'. He opened up a field of possibilities; he gave me confidence; he cooked for me (he was a very good cook), with his friend (Merce) Cunningham; he was good. A friend. He was the first to smile when I played my piece “Taxi” in the hall at Columbia University – I can still remember it!"
And on Scelsi: "Another meeting; as important as meeting Cage; he respected the freedom of my actions; there was almost a feminine intimacy between us. His music overwhelmed me; it is one of the truest, because it speaks to us of our conscience, of our human condition. When I listen to this music it affects me most deeply. There isn't a 'geography' to it; there are waves which we make vibrate. I love to play his several pieces for double bass because they provide me with a complete soundworld. This music is paradoxical because it is at once complex and simple. I have known Scelsi since 1978."
Working with Joëlle in Paris on her Discography (an happily outdated but still useful reference source) was like walking down the Williamsburg Bridge with Sonny Rollins, or driving to St. Ives with John Surman. Taking a cab with Joëlle Léandre in Paris leaves landscape, sounds, context permanently etched into memory by the music. Listening to her talking to the cab company on the phone, requesting a vehicle with enough space, and then waiting with her in her small road near the top of Montmartre, celebrated in so many literary works and writers' biographies was deeply connected with her playing and performance: no mechanical connection, however, but a metabolization of everyday life into the highest form of artistic communication, requiring enourmous energy and dedication. She doesn’t tolerate boundaries in music, or between arts, or between art and life; she is a musical nomad, always on the road, practically and metaphorically; she practices what she preaches. The world of music created by Joëlle Léandre is an endless source of enjoyment, amusement, intellectual stimulation, and I found fascinating how her personality translates in so many different situations maintaining her unmistakable originality. Many times, while talking to students of classical music, often mostly string players, I use tracks from Joëlle’s records to stimulate, shock, amuse, inspire and awake them to the unique possibilities opened by improvisation in music, never failing to excite their reactions.
A wealth of recently published materials in different media allows to assess retrospectively the development of Léandre's art, her musical and esthetic conceptions, and the current direction of her music.
For the French reader, a compact but intense small volume titled Joëlle Léandre: à voix basse has been published by Éditions M.F. (Musica Falsa) with a collection of conversations with Joëlle Léandre transcribed and edited by Franck Médioni with an introduction by composer Philippe Fénelon. Léandre – who has a devouring interest in literature and poetry besides music – mixes art and life, biography and inspiration, powerful feelings and ispiration in seven chapters in her imaginative use of language. For example, since the word “sillons” is commonly used for both, in the chapter titled “Sillons/Microsillons” the grooves of the records - musical crops of her daily physical wrestling with the huge instrument with a plough-like metal foot - are compared metaphorically with the furrows in the field.
After a first video which had limited circulation on videotape and TV (Guitare de poche by the Brest director Jean-Charles Huitorel) a major documentary movie about Léandre has been published on DVD: Basse continue, by Christine Baudillon. It is a handsome edition, with a booklet reproducing a series of ink sketches by Léandre, with haiku-like verses by Jean-Noel von der Weid (my archivist's soul cannot stand the DVD scratching against cardboard, so I immediately ruined the design taping a plastic envelope inside for the disc). The documentary is a lovingly crafted document whose 140 minutes duration might require repeated viewings to best absorb the wealth of musical and visual material. Emphasizing the nomadic nature of her music and lifestyle, the documentary follows her travels over two years, between her French houses in Paris and in the South of France – where she walks in the country visually referencing the “furrows” metaphor – her teaching at Mills College in California, various concerts in Europe climaxing with a tour in Israel.
Many of the themes are touched upon in a more focused, concentrated form during the conversations with Médioni return in warm, sometimes feverishly intense interviews and conversations with musicians, friends and occasional acquaintances. Léandre is shown during master classes, rehearsals and recording sessions, but also in everyday life situations like supermarket shopping and the classic taxi ride. I wonder if the occasional occurrences of her pet “Qu'est-ce que c'est votre truc” melody from “Taxi” (which can be heard Live in Israel, a 2-CD set issued by Kadima Collective) serves a narrative purpose or is simply a frequent stage of her chain of free associations. Among the film’s highlights are the extracts from musical sessions, including solos, duets with Anthony Braxton, guitarist Fred Frith, violinist India Cooke, saxophonist Daunik Lazro, fellow bassist Barre Phillips, vocalist Lauren Newton and trombonist George Lewis. There are also excerpts from performances of "A flower" by John Cage. From the folkish, warm sounds of Akosh S.’s shepherd's flutes or the oud of Palestinian musician Sameer Makhoul to the rigorous architectures of her quintet compositions and the primeval cry of “Maknongan” by Giacinto Scelsi, the documentary shows the astounding variety of her musical appetites and at the same time the underlying coherence of her sound world.
And the video also serves as a reminder of the trascendental role of technique, a point she makes clear in her lecture. The perfect control of pitches and timbres, the beautifully shaped tones side by side with the percussive effects are always at the service of spontaneous, unbridled invention, so sometimes we tend to forget the amount of practice and study behind them. Her bass can buzz like a Jew's harp and slide like an Indian instrument, combining all these effects seamlessly with classically executed passages and with energetic plucking, slapping and bending which often give her music an eerie bluesy tone.
Léandre, with her flair for drama, is well served by the images, mostly shot at close range by François Lagarde – even though I do not think that the occasional “special effects” add much. A quick identification of the players and of the pieces would have been very useful for easy reference, since it's not easy to locate and relate the information available in the long final credits after 140 minutes; for example it should be nuch clearer that the composer of the beautiful piece for voice, double bass and tape coming after the duo with Barre Phillips and titled in the menu “Solo Cri” is Léandre herself, a piece from 1986.
These small quibbles aside, the conversational content is carried remarkably well thanks to the addition of full English subtitles and this should allow a wider international circulation of this extraordinary work – no Conservatory or University Music Department library should be without it.
2008 was a good year for CDs by Léandre. Among them are several duos: one with Barre Phillips (A l'improviste, Kadima Collective), one with reed player Akosh S. (KOR, Leo), another with French pianist Quentin Sirjacq (Out of Nowhere, Ambiances Magnetiques); there was also the debut of the American Stone Quartet (DMG@The Stone, vol.1) and several collaborations included onJoelle Léandre in Israel.
Each album has its own voice and will appeal to listeners in a different way. Her intimate dialogues with Barre Phillips are based on a long shared history of sound explorations, in which they develop ideas with extreme delicacy, yet are capable of sudden peaks in intensity. The duets with Sirjacq, an ex-student from Mills, are open-ended, requiring attention and listening capacity; the younger player contributes some melodic material as well as some more exploratory sounds, and Léandre picks them all up for gentle examination. All over her career Léandre has been one of the European players with more collaborations overseas, and the Stone Quartet documents a meeting of three like-minded musicians: pianist Marilyn Crispell, trumpeter Roy Campbell and violist Mat Maneri. The instrumentation is chamber-like, especially when Campbell plays flute, but the opening and closing quartet tracks (the two remaining tracks are duets) build up tension and energy, with Léandre getting as close as in any other recordings in her career to a kind of “jazzy” rhythmic feel. The second duo with Hungarian winds player Akosh S. (Szelevényi) on Leo Records is extremely different from the music that Léandre could make in a similar configuration with Daunik Lazro; here the very effective usage of different reeds and percussion opens the acoustic space, allowing for the inclusion of the extreme ranges of the instruments and a wide range of spontaneous melodies grown organically from a storm of wailing. The selection of recordings from her Israel tour are published in a CD of solos and another with three very different groups: a sextet with Ariel Shibolet on soprano, Albert Beger on tenor, Assif Tsahar on bass clarinet, Daniel Sarid on piano, Haggai Fershtman on drums, a trio with Steve Horenstein on winds and JC Jones on bass, and a duo with oudist Sameer Makhoul. The sextet piece grows from an initial frenzy. In the subsequnet tracks allotted to breakdown groups, the winds seem to find each its spectral position rotating on top of the dialogue between bass, piano and drums. The bass-heavy trio makes for some fascinating listening and gets very funny with the vocal part. The bass-oud duo has some static moments, but sometimes she hits just the right pitch to enter her partner's musical world. All in all, Joelle Léandre in Israel has a lot of absorbing music and is a good overall representation of a musical adventure.