Gary Peacock and Marilyn Crispell in undated and unattributed publicity photo from Rubin Museum website.
The new album Azure (ECM 2013), pairing bassist Gary Peacock and pianist Marilyn Crispell, was launched tonight by a performance at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan.
Peacock and Crispell both of course have impeccable jazz pedigrees. Peacock goes back to the golden era of the jazz avant-garde. He played in one of the great incarnations of the Bill Evans trio along side Paul Motian and earned his free jazz bona fides by recording with Albert Ayler on Spiritual Unity (on the nonpareil but short-lived label ESP in 1964). He was then in and out of jazz returning first with Paul Bley than Keith Jarrett. Marilyn Crispell is of a later generation, who entered jazz through an academic door at the New England Conservatory. She nonetheless also earned her stripes working with Anthony Braxton for 10 years.
Peacock and Crispell have a history that goes back for several years. They recorded as a trio with Paul Motian (on ECM), including an album of the music of Peacock’s then wife, Annette Peacock (Nothing Ever Was). Since Motian’s tragic death in 2011, they have worked as a duo, although this is the first album that resulted from that collaboration.
The album itself was recorded in 2011 (in Saugerties, New York). That it is only now seeing the light of day is a testament to the decrepit condition of jazz labels in the age of Youtube and streamed or self-produced albums.
Jazz labels may feel that they do not need to take advantage of more current production and distribution systems under the believe that the days of jazz are passing with the aging of its last generation of fans. Some maintain that jazz is suffering a twin death: part of it (the younger musicians) are being absorbed into an amorphous world music genre, the rest of it is becoming more of a museum than a living art form.
The new album by Peacock and Crispell will not disprove that theory. If anything, their collaboration is the perfect summary of a couple of strains of the avant-garde since the early 1960s. Crispell’s piano pieces both in composition and playing technique are reminiscent of the music of the early Cecil Taylor, who she acknowledge was her first influence. Aging jazz fans needn’t worry that the influence went much beyond the mid-1960s. Crispell is far too academically inclined to begin by lying on the floor or engage in the kind of vocalizing that the later Taylor often allowed himself to do. Crispell’s work is much more composed (it is actually through-composed with written music) than Taylor’s ever was. The constraint on improvisation might be due to her long stint with Braxton.
Crispell’s academic orientation doesn’t end with Taylor. She has absorbed the chromaticism of Bill Evans and Don Pullen (although not the propulsive drive). Peacock is of course one of a kind, whose individual voice and plucking attack reflects his immersion in the beginnings of free jazz.
The Rubin makes its jazz performers pick a piece currently on exhibit and “create music: around it. This being an album release, the exercise was somewhat academic. Nevertheless, Crispell was game and picked two “Buddhas” as she called them (one was a bodhisattva) and claimed that they reflected the “compassion” that the album was about. It struck me as odd that Peacock, who actually studied Zen, wasn’t the one who picked the art. But perhaps it was his comment on how unhelpful the Rubin’s exercise is.
In any event, the performance was warmly received. It was a nostalgic tour of the kind of music that can result from unmooring jazz from the song-format and beebop’s harmonic framework. The angular harmonies of post-60s free jazz were all on display, but in the tempered kind of way that ECM likes to package its music. Crispell’s compositions (particularly “Waltz After David M”) show that the free jazz vocabulary can include a tonal, and even sentimental, center. This piece itself is worth the price of the album, especially for those of us who mourn the passing of the genre (and so many other things). Jazz has been dying for a long time. In fact, Roy Eldridge said that jazz was the music of those desperately trying to be happy, despite the circumstances. But that might not be said of all art.