Pianist and composer Marilyn Crispell made her debut with ECM Records in 1997 with the stellar Nothing Ever Was, Anyway: The Music of Annette Peacock. Recorded with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian, with a guest appearance by the subject herself on one track, it was the first of three trio recordings she made for the label. Amaryllis followed in 2001, with the same lineup, which was in turn followed by Storyteller, where Mark Helias replaced Peacock, and the program centered on tunes by Motian with a couple of her own compositions included as well. Vignettes marks Crispell’s solo piano debut with the label and, after listening through a couple of times, one wonders what took her so long. The pianist on this recording barely resembles the fiery player and improviser who accompanied Anthony Braxton for many years, or the musician who led her own intense ensembles or played hourlong improvised solos that had their roots in the physical approaches of Cecil Taylor and McCoy Tyner. Yet, there is a direct line in Crispell’s development beginning with Nothing Ever Was, Anyway, where she showed her debt to other players — Paul Bley in particular. That line flowers in a pair of duet recordings she did with Sicilian reed master Stefano Maltese for Black Saint called, respectively, Red in 1999 and Blue in 2001. Maltese’s own approach was as lyrical as Steve Lacy’s on the soprano horn, and further inspired the new lyricism in her harmonic invention and compositions.
That said, Vignettes reflects another path of the simply startling development and change in Crispell’s recent approach. Crispell has spent a great deal of time in Scandinavia listening to other artists who also record for ECM and other labels. This was first noted apparently when she heard bassist Anders Jormin, whose “less is more” approach also involved the use of folk music from the region in his playing. Crispell claims she was deeply moved by him and others from that scene, including the tremendous vocalist Lena Willemark. These 17 pieces, ranging from just over a minute to over six with most falling in the two- to four-minute range, reflect not only everything above, but a particular way of extrapolating her investigation of different harmonic architectures. Many of these pieces are songlike, such as “Gathering Light,” where middle-register chords dictate the right hand’s additions and flourishes along a line where drone notes and even octaves are placed one on top of another in languid stacks. The inherent lyricism in the piece is balanced by the tension of Crispell’s great physicality as she plays the keyboard. Hence, while the songlike stature of the tune remains, there is nothing florid or unnecessary in it. The passion inherent in the expression is projectile but void of any dissonance. Other works, like “Vignette II,” are more typically along Crispell’s more fiery line, but even here there is some restraint and the way she uses her own forms of counterpoint and release creates a recognizable sense of center. This is followed in different registers on the following three “Vignettes” (III-V), where emotional immediacy is pulled from one set of improvisations to another looking at all aspects of silence, space, and density. It’s remarkable they can be explored so thoroughly in pieces so brief.
While it’s true that this entire work feels like its own recital, out there alone on a wire with no net, there are aspects of the program of such stunning clarity and warmth that the listener is stirred by them, such as her reading of Arve Henricksen’s “Stellweg,” which is breathtaking and worth the price of the album all by itself, weaving together movement, drift, silence, and song as an expression of the heart. Crispell literally sings through her fingers on the piano. The mystery in her pastoral yet expansive “Once” is stretched in the more percussive and staccato-like presence of “Axis” that follows it, which is in turn underscored by “Vignette VI” and then all but erased by the elliptical flavor of “Vignette VII.” Her “Ballade” is constructed of melancholy minors, long pauses, and right-hand melodic invention that are so moving and poetic that the piece would have been a fitting ending to the entire album, yet she finds still more to project this sense of inner feeling out to the listener. When the set does close with the sparse, tender “Little Song for My Father,” what is immediately apparent is that Marilyn Crispell has accomplished a mighty feat: she has completely reinvented her playing style while retaining her voice. She approaches lyric composition and improvising with the same immediacy she always has, yet comes at them with a sense of economy and space, allowing room for the two sides of her playing — the assonant and dissonant — to not sit side by side as much as inform and further one another. Vignettes is a remarkable and moving recording — one that is timeless and honest, and communicates directly, literally, and poetically to the listener in a manner that is gentle yet pronounces its emotional weight without hesitation or self-consciousness. – Thom Jurek
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Little Song For My Father