Marilyn Crispell: Finding a path through the labyrinth

With her flatmate off playing a gig, she had the apartment to herself for the night. She’d spent her childhood studying classical piano, culminating in four years at the New England Conservatory, before she married and disengaged from music entirely for six years. Now here she was in 1975, with time on her hands, and a sudden curiosity about her flatmate’s huge jazz collection. Not knowing who the artists were, it may have been the title or just chance that made her play arguably the most potent jazz album of all: John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.

From the moment the stylus kissed the vinyl, Marilyn Crispell’s life changed forever. In 2008 she told me that the music’s emotional and spiritual force was “like a bolt of lightning” and “the most overpowering experience of my life”. As she listened to the album over and over, she knew she had to return to the piano. This time as an improviser.

Marilyn Crispell. Photo: Jane March. Top photo: Bart Babinski.

She studied with some of the greats of her new passion, including cyclonic pianist Cecil Taylor and multi-instrumentalist and pioneering composer Anthony Braxton. The latter soon asked her to join his band. Crispell could read his difficult music with ease, and improvise with such torrential force as to be likened to Taylor. In fact her intensity was such that at their first gig together Braxton gave her a beer and suggested she relax a little; play fewer notes. She did, and stayed for a decade.

But another epiphany had to come before Crispell found her own clear path through the musical labyrinth. On a 1992 Scandinavian trip she heard Swedish bassist Anders Jormin, her second “life-changing, music-changing experience”. Jormin’s work, she said, “touched a chord in me. I think I was at a point where I wanted to allow a more lyrical quality in my playing, and it happened to coincide with being there and hearing him.”

The lyricism that now came to infuse Crispell’s music sounded like no one else, however, her exquisite melodic lines seeming to loom out of silence, and dissolve back into that same void. The portentousness of these rests were so pivotal to the way she sculpted melody it was as if her piano were studded with silent keys. And rather than having a honeyed centre, her lyricism contained a more ascetic beauty, as one finds in some Japanese pottery.

In the mid-’90s Crispell decided to make an album of her friend Annette Peacock’s music, recruiting the great bassist Gary Peacock (Annette’s ex-husband) and master-drummer Paul Motian. The gorgeous Nothing ever was, anyway (ECM) resulted in ’96, and four years later the same trio made a second masterpiece: Amaryllis, an aural mural of time and space, and a second exploration of the emotional impact of silence. Two of the compositions arched back across ECM’s history. Peacock’s Voice from the Past was the title track on his most visceral album, and Conception Vessel was originally a duet with Keith Jarrett on Motian’s first album as leader. Compared with Jarrett, Crispell slides the scale from tenderness towards austerity, without losing the piece’s mystery, while Peacock and Motian initially dance around her as if social distancing existed in 2000 as an audible phenomenon.

While the trio members’ eight compositions give the album its skeleton, at its heart lie four free improvisations suggested by producer Manfred Eicher. Amaryllis has the transparency of a watercolour to which they all add brushstrokes, whether in flurries or more sparsely. Voices begins as a bass/drums dialogue that sounds as ancient as the stone heads on Easter Island, and when Crispell enters she adds minimalist flecks colour within the improvisation’s existing shape. The more sinuous M.E. (for Eicher) again begins with bass and drums, but this time Crispell develops an architecture akin to a composed ballad, the pianist and bassist leading each other through the harmonies with the innocence of two children finding their way through a field of sunflowers. On Avatar they again improvise something like a song-form, only now with the clarity of polished glass.

Amaryllis streams on Apple Music and Spotify.