Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
While thinking beyond musical genres is a hallmark of a great many of today’s musical creators, Jane Ira Bloom clearly maneuvers within a genre while at the same time subverting any attempt at making generalizations about her work. The primary mode of music-making she engages in is performing her own instrumental compositions on the soprano saxophone in the company of a small group of like-minded collaborative improvisers, and those compositions are clearly indebted to the jazz tradition. But there are important exceptions to just about every detail of that description that are key to defining who she is as a musician.
She primarily performs her own musical creations, but just about every album she has ever recorded, as well as most of her live performances, also include at least one example of her own extremely personal interpretations of an American standard or a classic jazz composition. But while the American songbook has been an unending fount of inspiration for her improvisations and has even informed the ways she has constructed melodies in her own compositions, she has never featured a singer in any of her projects thus far. And, with the exception of her most recent recording, Wild Lines, which includes recitations of poetry by Emily Dickinson, all her performances are un-texted instrumentals. She performs almost exclusively on the soprano saxophone (there’s been a stray track here and there over the years of her on alto), but she began her musical studies on the piano, and the grand piano she keeps in her living room is the main instrument on which she composes. She has primarily performed with and composes for a small cadre of fellow travelers with whom she has worked for decades (e.g. Fred Hersch, Mark Dresser, Bobby Previte), but she has also written music for orchestra, wind band, dance and film, and has participated in improvisatory world music collaborations with Chinese pipa virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen and South Indian vocalist and vina player Geetha Ramanathan Bennett (who died just a day after we recorded our talk with Jane Ira Bloom). Bloom acknowledges and embraces the jazz tradition, but for more than 30 years her saxophone improvisations have incorporated an electronic music component which she triggers in real time through the use of foot pedals, and sometimes the other musicians in her combos operate electronic devices as well.
“I’m definitely a lateral thinker,” Bloom acknowledged when we visited her to talk about her various musical experiences and how they have shaped her aesthetics as a composer and a performer. “There’s no question in my mind that my strong background as a melodist, as someone who’s loved and studied melody in many forms, takes me wherever I go. I’m a saxophonist who’s very much interested in sound, and I’ve spent a long time working on a particular sound that I really invested a lot of thought in on the instrument I play—the soprano saxophone. And I’m interested in phrasing and breath. All those things travel with me wherever I go, and when I’m using the live electronics, that’s where they’re compelled from. It’s me; it’s not a black box. It’s not an idea. I’ve learned an awful lot from the Afro-American music tradition and the American songbook, as well as exposing myself to world musics and all kinds of contemporary classical music. … I know what’s authentic and real about who I am, and I take that with me wherever my imagination takes me.”
In addition to the aforementioned 2017 Emily Dickinson-inspired album, Bloom’s imagination has led her to create a series of responses to abstract expressionist paintings by Jackson Pollock (“the freedom he was in touch with … is something that, as jazz musicians, we can tap into so easily”) as well as motion-inspired melodic improvisation (“I collaborated with choreographers who were much more cognizant of this quality … you could make sound change by moving”). Her use of real-time live electronic processing in her saxophone playing has been an ongoing component of her musical explorations. Her description of it makes it seem a lot simpler than it actually sounds:
Basically what I do with the electronics is I still play the saxophone, but I play through microphones that access electronic sounds that I blend and combine with my acoustic sound. And I trigger them using foot pedals, live and in the moment. Over the years, I’ve gotten skillful playing on one foot and tapping my toe on some pre-programmed settings that I’ve designed—on basically an old harmonizer and an old digital delay—and combining them in unusual ways. … I’ve spent some time trying to get the way I use them as an improviser as fluid as if it was a key on my saxophone. … It makes sense to me when the sounds appear and when they don’t, when I choose to use them and when I choose not to use them. It’s got to be fast. It’s got to be intuitive, because I’m using them very much in the moment of improvising.
Perhaps the most unusual place Bloom’s imagination has taken her was to work with the American space program, which happened, as she explained to us, as a result of an unsolicited letter to NASA that her friend, actor Brian Dennehy, suggested she should write.
“I thought he was nuts,” she remembered. “But some time went by and I actually sat down and I wrote a letter in the dark—a letter in a bottle, right?—inquiring whether NASA had ever done any research on the future of the arts and space, in zero gravity environments. Something I was always fascinated with. Six months later, I get this envelope back, which has the NASA logo on the front of the envelope from a guy by the name of Robert Schulman, director of the NASA Art Program. … Bob and I corresponded for years. He was interested in jazz musicians—lucky me, you know. Eventually I posed the idea, how about NASA commissioning the first musician for the Art Program? And he loved the idea.”
Dennehy’s “nutty” suggestion ultimately culminated in a 1989 concert at the Kennedy Space Center featuring the Brevard Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Fire and Imagination, an original work by Bloom scored for soprano saxophone, electronics, orchestra and “a whole bunch of ringers, the jazz musicians that were in the piece.” Although the work has yet to be performed in its original version since the premiere and has also never been commercially recorded (though some reworkings of that material surfaced on her landmark 1992 album Art and Aviation), Bloom’s association with NASA has had some unusual ripple effects. In 1998, an asteroid discovered on September 25, 1984 by B. A. Skiff at the Anderson Mesa Station of Lowell Observatory was named after her—6083 Janeirabloom!
As for what her next project will be, she has no firm ideas and, as an adherent to valuing choices made in the moment, she seems to like it that way.
Frank J. Oteri: You do a variety of different things. You’re a composer, a saxophonist, and a bandleader. Is there one word that you gravitate toward more than any other to describe what you do? If you were to meet somebody randomly, say on an airplane, and that person asked what you did, what would you say?
Jane Ira Bloom: Wow, nobody ever asked me that before! I’ve got to think about that. Usually I always call myself a saxophonist-composer, but I’m definitely a lateral thinker because I’ve always been interested in multi-disciplinary thinking. It’s an interesting question, but I haven’t got an immediate answer.
FJO: That’s fine, but there’s a corollary to that, which is perhaps equally unanswerable. You have been inspired by so many different things—such as electronics and non-Western musical traditions—and you’ve even composed works for symphony orchestra and wind band, as well as collaborated with filmmakers and choreographers, but your music primarily exists within a rubric that, for lack of a better term, we call jazz. So if that same somebody asked about what kind of music you do, what would you say to that?
JIB: I can’t come up with words. I think the world of my imagination goes wherever it goes and has been its own explanation for itself, whether I’m interested in dance, lighting, theater, film, movement, painting, or whatever grabs my attention. I’m just trying to keep myself interested. I think, as time has gone on, I’m just letting that process happen more fluidly than it did in the beginning when there were more careful definitions to the different areas where I worked, whether I’m working with world music musicians or with jazz or new music improvisers or in an environment that looks even slightly more classical. It’s just me being interested and still being curious. Maybe that’s why it’s not so easy for me to find the categorical word for what it is, but I can tell you how it feels.
FJO: So how does it feel?
JIB: It feels open. It feels like there are possibilities. It feels like I can’t always anticipate what’s going to happen next. I go through periods of time where I get interested in a topic and go down the rabbit hole. Then there are also fallow periods where I don’t know what’s coming next, and I start getting nervous. It’s a kind of ebb and flow.
FJO: So are you okay with the word “jazz” to describe your music?
JIB: Sure. Creative improvisation. We’re improvisers who make up musical ideas in the moment and value that—that’s the important thing. We value those choices. I guess the thing I’ve learned over time is that the more you’ve done it, the more environments and the more experience you’ve had doing it, sometimes you can make better choices.
FJO: I would posit that in addition to what you said about valuing the choices that you arrive at in the moment, you also value the choices that other musicians make in the moment who are performing with you. That seems to be a very big part of it.
JIB: Absolutely. I’m a completely collaborative animal.
FJO: One of the reasons I wanted to begin our discussion by asking these questions is that one of the reasons we have these conversations on NewMusicBox is so that music creators have an opportunity to describe their music in their own words and it is not filtered through someone else’s ideas about them. In preparing for our talk, I was reading a lot of things that others have said about you and one thing that struck me, which I read in a few different places, was seeing you described as “an avant-garde jazz composer.” While there are certainly elements of what you do that are extraordinarily progressive and very innovative, I personally don’t think the term avant-garde accurately describes it since, no matter how out you go with some of these worlds, you’re always very clearly mindful of the tradition at the same time.
JIB: Well, there’s no question in my mind that my strong background as a melodist, as someone who’s loved and studied melody in many forms, takes me wherever I go. I’m a saxophonist who’s very much interested in sound, and I’ve spent a long time working on a particular sound that I really invested a lot of thought in on the instrument I play—the soprano saxophone. And I’m interested in phrasing and breath. All those things travel with me wherever I go, and when I’m using the live electronics, that’s where they’re compelled from. It’s me; it’s not a black box. It’s not an idea. I’ve learned an awful lot from the Afro-American music tradition and the American songbook, as well as exposing myself to world musics and all kinds of contemporary classical music. But I don’t reflect a lot on what I call myself. I know what’s authentic and real about who I am, and I take that with me wherever my imagination takes me.
FJO: One thing that definitely strikes me about your love for the jazz tradition and the American songbook is that although most of your recorded output is devoted to your own compositions, with the exception of your album Modern Drama, I can’t think of any recording of yours that doesn’t include at least one reinvention of either a song standard or a classic jazz composition.
JIB: You’re absolutely right. I guess I can’t let go of that. And Sixteen Sunsets was a compilation of American songbook standards. It was my ballads album.
FJO: So what motivates you to keep going back to that material?
JIB: Those are primary sounds for me. That understanding about how melodies work comes from knowing that music on the most primary level. I didn’t learn it; I grew up listening to it. It’s in my bones. I know the lyrics to all the songs. So I think the knowledge of that music and that largely Jewish songwriting tradition—whether it comes from cantorial song or not—also follows me, and it informs me even when I’m writing. The kind of linear line-writing that you hear on many of my original compositions—they have this different kind of motion and flow, but it’s informed by the same kind of pearl stringing that I’ve learned from studying Harold Arlen or Richard Rodgers, their great melodies and why they work. That stuff still informs even the melodies that I write that don’t sound anything like that.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you talk about melody and line and breath as I stare to my right at your beautiful old grand piano, which has manuscript paper on it and a bunch of pencils and an eraser stacked inside it. And I’m remembering reading somewhere that although you’ve been playing the saxophone since you were a child, your first instrument was actually the piano.
JIB: A composer needs to know the piano, and I studied piano for a while. I started when I was very young. But I must have been 9 or 10 years old when I started studying saxophone in public school. Then it wasn’t long after I began studying that I started to study with this master teacher Joe Viola, when I was living outside Boston. Saxophone players know about this guy. He was a great woodwind virtuoso, and he had this special feeling for the saxophone. Why did I pick up the saxophone in the first place? I was in third grade and it was shiny, that’s why. But the soprano saxophone—I think when I heard that sound, I said, “Yeah, I like that!”
FJO: Of course, the soprano saxophone has the most unusual history of the entire saxophone family in jazz. There isn’t this through line the way there is with alto players or tenor players. There was Sidney Bechet early on, but later a huge gap during the bop era. Then all of a sudden Steve Lacy appeared on the scene and soon after that John Coltrane takes up the soprano sax, but not as his primary instrument. And starting in the ‘70s, the soprano sax has had this other whole life as a smooth jazz instrument due to Grover Washington and, later on, Kenny G who is almost an exact contemporary of yours. But what you do sounds nothing like that. Going back to running into that random person talking to you at the airport, when you say that you play the soprano sax, I’m sure the first thing that person is going to say is, “Oh, like Kenny G?”
JIB: Not any more. Actually, the latest thing people say is, “Do you play pool?” They see the soprano case, and it looks like a pool cue case. But it used to happen a while back, and the fact that people knew what a soprano saxophone looked like was pretty interesting—just on a general audience level. That’s certainly what Kenny G brought to the instrument, so thank you.
I’ve always thought that if you’re the kind of person that’s interested in playing an instrument that doesn’t have too much of a stylistic lineage attached to it—unlike all the great saxophone players on the tenor and the alto—and that if you’re interested in doing something new, soprano is maybe not a bad choice. It suits me, for sure, that it has the history that it does and that I’ve been able to create a sound on it. I suppose you could think, not having been over-influenced by a whole stylistic lineage, to create a new sound on it.
FJO: That’s a very inspiring thought, although you were not completely without influences. You mentioned Joe Viola.
JIB: A primary influence, yeah.
FJO: But since there isn’t this lineage in terms of who you grew up listening to and who you gravitated toward musically, it probably wasn’t other soprano players.
JIB: No, not at all. I was listening to Sonny Rollins. I was listening to all kinds of things. I was listening to violin players, but especially trumpet players. And I was listening to vocalists. I was getting ideas from other places that I’ve attached to this instrument. I spent some time studying how people negotiated on a different instrument. For example, I’ve always loved the sense of struggle that’s in the trumpet. That’s what I’ve always loved about Booker Little and Miles Davis, so I’ve gleaned something from them. Same thing with Sonny Rollins. It’s not necessarily looking around for influences to imitate the notes that people play; it’s more getting a kinesthetic feel for where they were that informs me and what I do. I pick my own notes.
FJO: Now in terms of picking those notes, you said that the piano is a necessary thing for composing.
JIB: Yeah, there it is.
FJO: So you compose your music at the piano, not at the saxophone, or do you do a little bit of both?
JIB: Sometimes ideas come from the horn, too, so a little of both. But primarily I sit at the piano.
FJO: One of the most interesting comments we recorded in a conversation in the last few years was when we did a talk with Béla Fleck, who’s now writing for orchestra. He talked about how he came up with clarinet lines in the orchestration at the banjo. He composes from the banjo. He jots down ideas in banjo tablature and then someone else turns it into something that other players can read from.
JIB: Cool. That’s so unique.
FJO: I thought that your compositional process might have been somewhat similar, but then I learned you had a background in piano. When we walked in and saw the piano with all the manuscripts on it, I realized that the way you write music was completely different and that the piano plays a significant role in how you compose.
JIB: Well, for the harmonic information that you hear on my original compositions, yeah. But let’s face it, I’m a line player. I’m a horn player, so I play the piano like a horn player. They inform each other, believe me.
FJO: In terms of what informs your musical ideas, for almost a century people have come up through improvisatory music by woodshedding and apprenticing as a side person in other people’s ensembles. What’s amazing to me is that you really didn’t do that at all. You seem to have emerged fully formed. I’ve only heard two albums that you’re a side person on, and I think there are only three.
JIB: There are a few.
FJO: Well, the two that I am aware of are both really wonderful records, but you recorded them after you had already released recordings under your own name. The first one is this really odd record from pretty early on in your career, Frederick Hand’s Jazz Antiqua.
JIB: Oh my goodness, yeah. This flute player, Keith Underwood, was a friend of mine from New Haven, from Yale. He was doing this work with Fred Hand, so when the call went out for soprano saxophone, I think Keith told Fred about me. That was a long time ago. I’m trying to think of some other ones. I apprenticed with vibes player David Friedman and recorded with him. I also recorded some albums, but it wasn’t at that early time, with vocalist Jay Clayton and did some guest appearances on some other people’s albums. But you’re right. Largely I had a different path.
Coming out of New Haven in the ‘70s, I was around a fascinating community of new music improvisers and jazz musicians. I’ve read books about this. They now call this the New Haven Renaissance. If I listed all the musicians who were actually in New Haven at that one time in the ‘70s—it was this fascinating creative music community and everybody was inspiring everybody else. At that time, Wadada Leo Smith was in New Haven, and he was making albums on his own—LPs; there were no such things as CDs then. He had important music to document that he was playing, and there were no record companies that were getting Leo to record for them. So he was making his own albums and documenting his own music. Everybody got inspired by him: George Lewis, Gerry Hemingway, Pheeroan akLaff, myself, Mark Dresser, and Mark Helias—loads and loads of musicians were there, and it inspired all of us. I was inspired to start my own record company. It was like 1976. I had been playing duets with a bass player named Kent McLagan. We had important music that we were making. Why not document it? And I learned how to make a record and how to promote my own music. Trial by fire, I learned how to do it myself, by asking a lot of questions and making a lot of mistakes and figuring it out. They turned out to be my calling cards when I moved to New York City. That’s a really different path than going off to apprentice with some great. I have a few early stories. I remember I sat in once with Mercer Ellington. But I knew that wasn’t my path. It just wasn’t me, so I followed this different direction.
FJO: I have to confess that I don’t know either of those first two records, aside from the little snippets from them that you posted on your website—one of which was a very intriguing gamelan-tinged piece.
JIB: Oh, “Shan Dara.” That’s with David Friedman.
FJO: I’d really love to hear the whole thing one day. But after these two completely self-produced and self-released albums, you recorded an album for a very highly respected independent label, Enja, with an unbelievable cast of characters. Two of the members of the quartet album you recorded had been part of the landmark Ornette Coleman Quartet—Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell. And the other player was Fred Hersch, who went on to become a very important collaborator of yours. So how did this come together?
JIB: Thank you Matthias Winckelmann, the head of Enja Records. He knew about me through David Friedman, the vibes player, because I’d been on tour with David. He said, “I’d like to make a record; who’d you like in your rhythm section?” I was given the chance to name my dream rhythm section. So wow, hell, I want to play with Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell! I want Fred Hersch playing piano with me! It was just me having my chance to pick the dream rhythm section of all time.
FJO: So you didn’t know those people? You’d never worked with any of them before?
JIB: I had met Blackwell and I had played with him in New Haven. And Fred and I had also done some playing together. I don’t think I had played with Charlie, but I knew I wanted to play with him.
FJO: To stray a little bit from the chronology here, I find your history of making recordings to be somewhat emblematic of our times. You formed your own record label. After that, you recorded an album on this really prestigious independent label. Then you got picked up by one of the global Goliaths, Columbia/CBS, now Sony. You did two albums with them. Then you went back to do doing stuff on indies—a series of really important albums on Arabesque, a terrific label which no longer exists, and then a disc on ArtistShare. But your recent albums are back on your own label. So you made a full circle.
JIB: Complete circle. But having all the skills as a producer from the get-go has been an asset throughout everything. I was the only self-producing jazz artist at CBS. I produced those albums myself. It was unheard of. But it was because I had the skills. At the time, George Butler was the A & R person at CBS. He knew I could do it. He had evidence. But isn’t it interesting—the full circle? I started off on Outline Records, went around the block, and now I’m just back doing what I always did on Outline Records. And, you know, it just has kind of worked. I’ve been making albums for so long now that I’ve been fortunate enough that even with an independent label, when I’m ready I can produce an album and it comes to the attention of people in the writing community and the jazz radio community and they look forward to it. I have a long-time history with people.
And I work with a terrific team. Max Horowitz at Crossover Media has been working with me for over 15 years, and now my niece Amanda Bloom is working with him. So I’m not doing it by myself anymore. I’ve got good help. And I also work with Jim Eigo at Jazz Promo Services. These are people who are very, very helpful.
FJO: I imagine the same has been true for how you’ve published your music. You’ve written several works for wind ensemble, as well as for orchestra, so you had to prepare scores and parts for all of these. Is there a place where people can go to get this material? I imagine it’s all self-published.
JIB: Yeah, I’ve got them. All the scores and parts are sitting behind those two cabinets over there.
FJO: So you had a whole self-publishing operation, preparing performance materials, renting them out, etc.?
JIB: Well, at that time I was getting grants and I got help from some great copyists to find my way through the orchestra. I remember a particularly wonderful copyist by the name of Randa Kirschbaum, who is the best there was and who helped me get through my orchestra experiences. That’s a whole other issue. But I didn’t find a continuation of that work that was easy for me at that time, and I was less successful about recording a large ensemble work. So the stuff that you hear is for smaller ensembles.
FJO: It’s all very personal and very intimate; the exact opposite of orchestral music. You’ve mostly recorded quartets—you with piano, bass, and drums. But you also frequently feature unaccompanied soprano saxophone solos on many of your recordings and Early Americans, the recording you made just prior to your most recent one, is with a trio of just you, bass, and drums, no piano.
JIB: Yeah, I’m just getting comfortable with that. I’ve been playing in a trio for years and years with Mark Helias and Bobby Previte, and finally the guys said, “Hey, Jane, it’s time to document this thing.” So we literally just went into the studio and did what we do. It was a long time coming, but you can feel how natural it is. And winning a Grammy for surround sound for that, I can’t tell you how it makes me smile on the inside, collaborating with the engineer Jim Anderson and my co-producer Darcy Proper. These were people who took me to a new place.
FJO: So in your experience does winning a Grammy still have the ability to get significant attention for a recording? Does it increase sales? What role does it play at this point?
JIB: Well, I did start getting more calls. It’s just more public awareness of my work, that’s all. There’s just something about the mystique of it. The fact that this jazz trio album won in a category of music against musics from all other kinds of disciplines was really a very satisfying moment for us. We didn’t expect it. There were all kinds of music, but it was about the surround sound technology and the music that made it happen.
FJO: Going back to talking about your earlier large ensemble music for a moment, creating music with a small ensemble of people you’ve worked with for a long time is such a stark contrast to how, especially, orchestra music gets rehearsed, performed, and—if you’re fortunate enough—recorded. It’s a very different experience to create music for a large group of people that you might never have met before to working with a small group of creative improvisers who you’ve known for years. You know what they can do and you have an idea about what they’re going to bring to your music, as opposed to when you’re dealing with a large ensemble, for whom you have to have everything worked out in advance and very clearly notated and with whom you’re lucky if you get two rehearsals.
JIB: Oh believe me, I know. You spend several years writing a piece of music, you get a few hours of rehearsal, and boom. That was a startling realization. They’re completely different worlds, and the task and the skill of the colorist, the orchestrator—their knowledge of instruments and their combinations and the unique qualities that create sonic originality in the orchestra—is a skill like no other. I was dabbling. I was just taking my world and seeing where I could go in that playground. But the world that I largely work in is, as you say, more long-term collaborations with people who I’ve gotten to know over long periods of time.
I tend to stay playing with people a lot longer than most. I think it’s because of what you’re talking about, that unconscious communication that develops among improvising musicians over long periods of time. Not that it shouldn’t be informed by new input and new ideas, because we’re all growing and are going in different directions at times, but I do truly value what’s very special about musicians who’ve known each other and played with each other for a long time—particularly when you go into the studio, which has its own set of issues. How do you get spontaneity and creativity and the unexpected to still happen in places where just about everything in the environment is trying to tell you the opposite of that? I tend to find my greatest excitement comes from playing with musicians who I know really well.
FJO: That’s very different from that first non-self-released recording where you picked your dream team, and then they just showed up at the studio and you recorded an album with them.
JIB: Yeah, I think I got together with Blackwell and Fred a couple of times, but I don’t think Charlie was ever there for any of the rehearsals!
FJO: Now, for Modern Drama, was that an ensemble that had been touring or was that also put together just to make the recording?
JIB: We’d been playing together some. It was a combination of some of my work with vibist David Friedman and some developing work over a long period of time with Fred Hersch, and at that time it was Ratzo Harris on bass and Tom Rainey on drums. That was an expression of things I was doing with live electronics, compositions that expressed that, and I wanted to document that and this very special chemistry with those people.
FJO: It would be great to have you explain how you operate the electronics in a performance, but first, how did you first become interested in working with electronics and how did you learn about it?
JIB: I always loved electronic sound—I’m talking early electronics, analog electronics. I’m talking about when the Moog synthesizer first hit and when some of the first composers integrated electronics into their music, like [Morton Subotnick’s] Silver Apples of the Moon. I can remember being in college and studying electronic music with Robert Moore, having our first hands-on sessions with these synthesizers that looked like refrigerators. There were lots of faders and dials. That’s how I learned about electronics. It was really old fashioned. So I have a predilection in my thinking toward this less digital and more analog approach to these Forbidden Planet kinds of sounds. That’s what appeals to me. So I worked with some specialists who helped me design what you would call an effects processing setup.
Basically what I do with the electronics is I still play the saxophone, but I play through microphones that access electronic sounds that I blend and combine with my acoustic sound. And I trigger them using foot pedals, live and in the moment. Over the years, I’ve gotten skillful playing on one foot and tapping my toe on some pre-programmed settings that I’ve designed—on basically an old harmonizer and an old digital delay—and combining them in unusual ways. What you’re hearing on the recordings is balancing that electronic sound with the acoustic. It blends a little easier because I’m dealing with more analog kinds of electronic sounds. They’re not as cold and digital sounding as some can sound. I’ve spent some time trying to get the way I use them as an improviser as fluid as if it was a key on my saxophone. I wanted to have the breath that still compels my saxophone sound to the electronic sound. I still wanted to have the phrasing that’s behind who I am as a saxophonist. I’m still a saxophone player. That’s really what’s at the core of it. It’s just I hear this expanse of electronic sound that can open up from the acoustic. And that’s why I feel like it makes sense to me. It makes sense to me when the sounds appear and when they don’t, when I choose to use them and when I choose not to use them. It’s got to be fast. It’s got to be intuitive, because I’m using them very much in the moment of improvising. And it has to have a warmth and a breath that is still compelled from being a saxophone player.
FJO: So in terms of it being in the moment, you’ve got these pre-set things, but you might decide to take it out of the recording studio into a live performance, let’s say, which comes with another whole set of baggage. How do you make sure the space can handle the balances with that?
JIB: It’s always a balancing act.
FJO: But it could be that the spirit moves you in a live setting and there are tons of electronics in some of them, or it could be that the spirit doesn’t move you and you’re completely acoustic. That decision happens in the moment.
JIB: It does. And also the composer in me is thinking about a set of music that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and also hears when the ear needs to relax from being saturated with electronic sound, when things needs to thin out, just as an orchestrator would go from a thicker density to a thinner density. There’s a lot of skill to thinking about how you go from an acoustic to an electronic place in a piece that helps listeners’ ears not feel jarred. I have thought about that a lot. When you hear the electronics on the recordings, there’s a lot of extra help from Jim Anderson, now my almost life-long engineer. How we work, how we record the saxophone, how the electronics appear in the sonic picture, lots and lots of detailed thinking goes into making this thing that I’m talking about in a recorded fashion.
FJO: I wish I could have heard this material live, if it was done live, but one of my all-time favorite recordings of yours is Like Silver Like Song, which is the one record where you’re not the only person using electronics.
JIB: Jamie Saft, what a foil. Mark Dresser. Bobby Previte. All master composers, by the way, in their own rights. And, interestingly enough, whether they’re playing acoustically or not, all are clearly influenced by electronic thinking in their sonic palette. It was another dream team. I love that recording, too. I treasure listening to the music that we made together.
FJO: How did that material work live? Did it work live?
JIB: It was easy. When the guys are on same page with you, it’s just fun.
FJO: But in order to make it cohere in a live performance setting, did you have a live mixer with you on stage?
JIB: I would have loved to have had an onstage mixer. But we were all composers balancing our instrumental contribution live somehow and doing the best we could. We played in all kinds of spaces. I remember once playing in the Rose Planetarium with Jamie and Mark. Somehow we make it work.
FJO: To take it back to Modern Drama, there’s a lot of stuff on there that seems like it would be hard to replicate live.
JIB: The only thing that would be hard to replicate was the gizmo designed by my friend Kent McLagan, a bassist whom I spent my early years performing with who is also a mechanical engineer and physicist. We designed this strain gauge attachment that we put on the bell of the soprano so that, based on how fast I was sweeping the bell of the horn, it would create a flurry of sound regeneration in the harmonizer. So I kind of hot-rodded my harmonizer to be controlled by this strain gauge—Kent called it a strain gauge; it was measuring velocity.
FJO: So that’s the wacky sound on “Rapture of the Flat”?
JIB: Yeah, and it appeared on many things. On “Over Stars,” a lot of the electronic, silvery, shimmering sounds that you hear, that’s the strain gauge of me swirling the soprano around.
FJO: I’m a huge fan of “Rapture of the Flat” since it’s such a strange combination of things. It starts out with this kind of straight-ahead rock and roll riff, but then all of a sudden it becomes this insane, out-there electronic thing.
JIB: It’s one of the pieces I dearly love listening to. I’ll never forget Fred Hersch playing the Hammond B3. That was a great time we had doing that. But the strain gauge wasn’t very portable. It looked like a piece of equipment out of War of the Worlds actually. But I still travel with the harmonizer and the digital delay. They look like antiques. And I have these foot pedals and stuff, it’s very old-fashioned, live-electronics effects processing. It’s not fancy, but I can still do it.
FJO: Now when you say War of the Worlds, where my mind immediately goes is thinking about how you got connected to NASA.
JIB: Wow, that’s a story. Flashback to me in the 1980s. Things were not going great with my career. I was having dinner with a friend of mine, the actor Brian Dennehy. And I said, “Brian, things just aren’t looking so good.” This is a true story. Brian said to me, “Well, what are you interested in?” And I said, “Well, I’ve always been interested in the space program. I’ve watched every launch since the Mercury days, and I’ve always been fascinated with space exploration.” He says, “Well, why don’t you write a letter to NASA?” I said, “What do you mean, write a letter to NASA?” “Just write a letter. Tell ‘em what you’re interested in.” I thought he was nuts.
But some time went by and I actually sat down and I wrote a letter in the dark—a letter in a bottle, right?—inquiring whether NASA had ever done any research on the future of the arts and space, in zero gravity environments. Something I was always fascinated with. Six months later, I get this envelope back, which has the NASA logo on the front of the envelope from a guy by the name of Robert Schulman, director of the NASA Art Program. I didn’t even know what that was. I’d just basically written this letter saying I’m a jazz artist and I’ve been interested in exploring. Anyway, turns out a correspondence develops between me and Robert Schulman, and I learn about this organization that’s been in existence at NASA since the beginning of the space program called the NASA Art Program where they commission visual artists, famous ones, to experience what goes on with the space program and everything, from the launch, the landing, the deep space program, astronaut training. They invite artists to observe this, and from this, to create a work of art, a visual work of art that they would contribute to NASA’s Space Art Collection, which I didn’t even know existed.
Bob and I corresponded for years. He was interested in jazz musicians—lucky me, you know. He started sending me all kinds of wonderful stuff, press releases and stuff from NASA. Eventually I posed the idea, how about NASA commissioning the first musician for the Art Program? And he loved the idea. That was the start of it. We had all kinds of corporate sponsors for this big concert to happen. I basically joined a NASA art team that came down to the Kennedy Space Center for the first launch after the Challenger accident. It was the space shuttle Discovery. I traveled with the artists and went to all the facilities, to the launch and the landing at Edwards Air Force Base. I went to a jet propulsion lab to see the deep space telemetry. It was a peak experience in my life, no question about it. And from that, I created a new work, which we premiered at the Kennedy Space Center.
FJO: Now when you say NASA commissioned it, there was a concert, but then what happened? Did they send it into space? What was NASA’s role in it?
JIB: Well, I can tell you about the concert. It was an experience like no other. It was this wonderful special NASA audience concert that was held at the Kennedy Space Center with the Brevard Symphony Orchestra. I brought down a whole bunch of ringers, the jazz musicians that were in the piece. In addition to the visual artists who were also there contributing to the evening, there were several astronauts who gave talks before the concert took place. I remember meeting Astronaut Robert Crippen and Astronaut John Young. I shook hands with a guy who went to the moon. It was a NASA evening that was documented; it was video-ed. Where did the piece ultimately land in NASA’s Space Art Collection? Wherever it goes. There’s a piece of my score that’s there, and there’s this video recording of the piece. But more importantly, it turned out to be an experience that’s informed almost all my musical thinking and writing since then. It was one of my first large orchestration experiences, and it was also a time when I was integrating live electronics and surround sound. So many concepts that were channeled into that experience are still with me in work that I’m exploring today. I cite that experience as incredibly pivotal in my thinking.
FJO: And yet it has still never been released in the original format you conceived it.
JIB: No, just the electronic trio piece that’s in the middle of it—a piece that I performed with Jerry Granelli on electro-acoustic percussion and Rufus Reid on bass and prepared electronic tape, and me on electronics—that’s called “Most Distant Galaxy.” That’s recorded on my album Art and Aviation. That was the second or third movement. I forget which.
FJO: Although most of the pieces on Art and Aviation also have space-inspired names.
JIB: Yeah, it was right around that time, but that’s the only one that’s directly material from that. Art and Aviation was a spin-off of the work that I did for NASA. I did a huge piece at Town Hall. Oh, I’ll never forget that one.
FJO: I was at that concert. It was the first time I heard you perform live.
JIB: Wow! Yeah, that was a fun one. That was the first time I integrated getting the brass section up in the balconies to do some surround sound effects.
FJO: Now the other thing that’s on that record, which I find funny because it’s quite a contrast from all these space exploration-inspired things, is a piece called “I Believe Anita.”
JIB: That piece was very important, and it’s important today. I still perform that piece, and I still believe her. Absolutely.
FJO: Anita Hill was just in the news again recently. They were talking to her about how back then there were no hashtags. There was no #MeToo back then. A lot of people believed her, but it ultimately didn’t make a difference. Clarence Thomas still got nominated to the Supreme Court.
JIB: Hard to believe, but I believe Anita.
FJO: So when you play that piece now, how do you frame it?
JIB: History. It’s bearing out history—sticking to your convictions and seeing how history plays things out.
FJO: You were talking earlier about being a melodist. That’s another area I would love to talk about in greater detail with you because you developed this whole technique that you call motion-inspired melodies, which you’ve also described as painting with sound.
JIB: On a detailed level, there’s always been an interest in melodic lines that have their own unique sense of motion flow—accelerando and deccelerando, groups of fives and eights and nines, not just chugging along in eighth notes and sixteenth notes. It’s been a characteristic of my melodic line writing for a long time. You can hear it in almost all—I can show it to you. It has informed so much. It comes from this sense of motion filled-ness, physical motion. I’ve always been interested both in my own body when I play and then translating that into sound and how that compels melodies in different ways, too. It’s all one thing.
Intuitively, even before I even thought about it, I always moved a lot when I played. I didn’t know why I was doing it. I just felt things in my body when I play. As time went on, I collaborated with choreographers who were much more cognizant of this quality and interested in it and actually made me look at it in a much more concrete way, to think about what you could do, to look at it and think about it, and how you could make sound change by moving. It was really choreographers like Richard Bull—who did Improvisational Dance Ensemble—that got me really thinking about it. So much other compositional thought was generated from the movement, whether it was making melodies or being inspired by Jackson Pollock in the Chasing Paint album, trying to think of arcing sound in space the way Pollock moved a brush. I was always a visual thinker, so this was a real natural place for me to go, to think of sculpting sound with movement and then augmenting that with electronics and melodic line writing.
FJO: Your first Pollock piece goes all the way back to your first combo album, and then it grew into this larger six-movement suite that’s on Chasing Paint.
JIB: Yeah. I was always interested in Jackson Pollock. He spoke to me, I guess, as he’s spoken to many improvisers.
FJO: A painting of his was even used for the cover of Ornette Coleman’s album Free Jazz.
JIB: Absolutely. He speaks to improvisers.
FJO: So, in terms of this arcing sound, do you encourage the other players in the group to also move around? If you’re sitting at a piano, that seems like it might be hard to do.
JIB: Well, I don’t dictate. But I know there was a period of time when I was recording with Fred, I can remember one piece called “The Race (for Shirley Muldowney),” where we put some of the effects processing in the strings of the piano, so Fred was actually playing with effects processing in that piece. I can think of times where Bobby Previte—although he himself was not using any extended electronic sounds, his compositional thinking on the set is so compelled by visual thought. It’s just in his head.
FJO: Yeah, well he’s created a whole cycle of pieces based on paintings by Joan Miró.
JIB: Oh yeah. Right. I was on one of his Joan Miró pieces. I’m with like-minded collaborators. So again, I don’t dictate to people about that, but clearly there’s something in the air.
FJO: So were your Pollock pieces inspired by specific paintings?
JIB: Absolutely. And when we played the pieces, I made some really good color printouts, the best I could, so people had them on their stands. And then at one point, we did play at the Museum of Modern in Art in Houston, where we actually played in front of a Pollock. It was not one of the ones that I’d literally written a piece about, but it was right behind us. You could just turn around and look at it. And that was so cool.
FJO: And the group you performed those pieces with was another dream team.
JIB: Yeah. Fred, Mark Dresser, and Bobby Previte—wonderful quartet.
FJO: There’s a real chemistry between the four of you.
JIB: Absolutely. And sometimes it’s not what people think, that you put likeminded people together. Sometimes it’s the very unique characteristics of each of the players, and the strengths that they bring that are very different from one another. And those people had it. That’s what I remember about that quartet. I think very fondly about that collaboration now.
FJO: You’ve recorded at least two albums with that exact lineup, and then others where there’s almost all of them.
JIB: Yeah, it shifted a little bit. But we did the Red Quartets and then the Pollock album, Chasing Paint.
FJO: Another thing that’s probably related to your being inspired by painting is that you are also a photographer. When did that start?
JIB: High school. I was one of those people who spent a lot of time in the old days in the dark room sniffing chemicals. I just had a passion for black and white photography.
FJO: Interestingly though, in terms of everything we were saying about the melody line and hearing something, having it be balanced and wanting it to be just right, is that it shows how mindful you are of the world around you—in the way that a photographer also usually is, but in a way that perhaps abstract expressionist painters aren’t as much. Their processes inform their work, and the work is what it is. So even though you’ve been inspired by Pollock, your aesthetic is very different from his. Or at least it seems to be.
JIB: Who knows? He just speaks to me. The freedom he was in touch with, this motion in nature is something that, as jazz musicians, we can tap into so easily. I know so much about what he was talking about, that fractal nature of the movement of wind and moving grasses or branches or trees, and how that manifests visually in the natural world, and also feeling how that might be in sound. You don’t know how people inspire you. It’s not that you’re like them; it’s that they speak to you about something. Thank you, Jackson Pollock. That’s all I can say.
FJO: Jumping to the present moment, when I first heard about this I thought it was so incongruous, yet it totally works. Another person who’s inspired you, another great American cultural icon, is Emily Dickinson. But I never would have made that connection.
JIB: I think the first time I was exposed to her poetry was through The Belle of Amherst with Julie Harris on WGBH in Boston. It was a basically one-woman show about the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson. I think that’s where it began. It took a long time simmering, but I think I went to a lecture on Dickinson’s poetry given at the Philactetes Society. I’ve forgotten who the poet was who gave that lecture, but that’s what sparked it. I forget when that was. But then I started re-reading. Somehow I didn’t understand her, but I got her. I don’t know why. I don’t intellectually understand her, but there’s something about the way she used words that feels like the way jazz musicians abstract notes and ideas. That’s where I started from.
FJO: And it’s so fascinating that you issued performances both with the words being recited and without them, so listeners can either hear it with the words or not. You can have two completely different experiences with it.
JIB: Those fragments of the poetry inspire the music that you hear, where we go with it. But it’s a different approach to intersecting music and words than traditional settings of poems. I was not interested in that approach at all. It’s really a much more abstract relationship to her and to her poetry.
FJO: You mentioned performing with Jay Clayton, but on your own music you’ve never worked with a singer.
JIB: No, nor had I ever done anything with words. Never. This was the first time. And my husband is an actor and a director! But this was the first time that I actually did a collaboration with literature, and it was very meaningful to me.
FJO: I find it somewhat strange that you’ve never included a singer in your music, especially after hearing all of the stuff that you’ve said about melody, as well as being inspired by the American Songbook. I could imagine a recording of you with a singer that would be as symbiotic as the album that John Coltrane recorded with Johnny Hartman, which really sounds like two singers—Hartman singing the words and Coltrane singing on his saxophone.
JIB: That’s right. It may be in the future. In truth, I do think when I play ballads that I am singing those songs into the saxophone. But what collaboration might be in the future, who knows?
FJO: Okay, so what would be a dream project that you’d love to do that you haven’t done yet?
JIB: I just went this weekend to the MOMIX Dance Theatre. Years ago, I wrote some music for the dance company Pilobolus and one of the original dancers, Moses Pendleton, started this company called MOMIX, which is dedicated not only to dance but a high use of stagecraft in lighting and illusion, to create very magical looking effects on stage. I remember thinking when I left, “I wonder if I could get a grant to get together with a really powerful design team, lighting designers and stage production designers, people who do this kind of thing. How fascinating it might be to create the music that I create with this other kind of visual element—simultaneously. But we’d definitely have to get a grant for this one.” That’s the latest thing that occurred to me.
FJO: One area that we didn’t touch on that we should are those fascinating world music collaborations that you did about ten years ago, which really took you in new directions. I actually heard a connection between those performances and your Early Americans trio album, where there’s finally no piano which means you can freely venture beyond the 12-tone equal-tempered scale and improvise on other modes. I did hear things that hinted at this terrain in several of the pieces on that album, like “Dangerous Times” or “Other Eyes,” which perhaps came from your experience in those world music collaborations.
JIB: Well, I’ve always been interested in world musics. Not that I’ve studied any in great detail as some of my colleagues have, who have gone to different parts of the world to study shakuhachi or Indian music. But I’ve always had this open ear. It all started probably in the 1970s when I listened to the Nonesuch World Music Explorer series in the library. I used to listen to music from all over the world and let it into my musical thought. Over the years, I’ve collaborated with musicians who were more studied than I in traditional world musics, whether it’s Geetha Ramanathan Bennett and her husband Frank Bennett and being exposed to beautiful South and North Indian music, whether it has to do with the years listening to Asian music, the shakuhachi or the Chinese guqin, having experiences improvising with the master pipa player and improviser Min Xiao-Fen or Korean music, being exposed to it through my friend Jin Hi Kim. Again, it’s all learning by doing and being around the musicians themselves. And they themselves were interested in collaborating with jazz artists. I was improvising together with musicians who wanted to share vocabulary with me. That’s how it happened.
FJO: It was so incredible hearing Geetha Ramanathan Bennett play “Cheek to Cheek” on one of those performances. That blew my mind.
JIB: Wasn’t that amazing listening to “Cheek to Cheek“ on the veena, how she can handle the harmonic changes on a veena?
FJO: That would be a great thing to take into the studio and record.
JIB: I know. I still talk with Geetha every now and then. She’s out on the West Coast with Frank. We’re longtime friends and collaborators from 1970-something. Again, the collaborations that I really value are deep, long-term ones.
FJO: So we’ve already planned at least three new projects for you, something with a singer, and a multi-media improvisation with music and lighting, and a cross-cultural recording.
JIB: Thank you.
FJO: A last area I was curious about, because it’s been a part of your life for a very long time, is your teaching at the New School.
JIB: I’ve been there 20 years.
FJO: So what keeps you doing it? What inspires you?
JIB: I’m the most reluctant educator there is, but what inspires me is I like being around young people. I like being around unfettered enthusiasm, the idealism, all of the energy. It fuels me. I give it back to them, but they give it to me.
FJO: So what sort of projects do you do with them to get them thinking out of the box?
JIB: There are several courses I’ve taught over the years to do just that. A class called “Linear Composition for Improvisers”—definitely getting improvisers into a composing mode and thinking outside of their comfort zones. I’ve taught the music of Ornette Coleman. I’ve taught a course on how to play ballads. Teaching young people how to play slow. I have a course that I designed that I teach with my husband called “Improvisatory Artist Lab” where we combine classical artists, jazz artists, and drama students, to do new creative work together. For them to learn about each other’s vocabularies, cross-disciplinary projects and thinking. There’s a course I designed taking young composers up to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, having them research a topic of their choice and then creating a new work of art that we perform at Lincoln Center at the end of the semester. All of it is pushing the boundaries.