Marilyn Crispell explores sound at Glasgow improv fest

Marilyn Crispell
Marilyn Crispell
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LIFE is precarious. We can pretend it isn’t, but nobody really knows what’s going to happen the next minute.” The virtuosic American jazz pianist, composer and free-improviser Marilyn Crispell is talking generally about the vagaries of a career as a cutting edge musician, but her remarks might equally apply to the mercurially unpredictable nature of free-improv.

Crispell has been busy this year, teaching, performing and recording, but 2014 was a lean season, apart from a teaching spell and some concerts with Scots saxophonist Raymond MacDonald, with whom she’ll be reuniting at the end of this month at GIOFest, the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra’s annual jamboree of free improvisation and experimental music.

MacDonald, as well as being a widely performing saxophonist (and professor of music psychology at the University of Edinburgh) is a mainstay of GIO and his previous collaborations with Crispell include the 2013 album Parallel Moments. During the festival, based at Glasgow’s Centre for the Performing Arts, Crispell will duet with another renowned improvising pianist, Keith Tippett, in the Improcerto composed by GIO’s guitarist George Burt.

This year’s GIOFest sees the return of the irrepressible vocalist Maggie Nicols and multi-percussionist Corey Mwamba, while it ventures for the first time into the realms of dance-music collaboration, with a piece devised by artist Jer Reid, as well as a specially commissioned sculptural installation and film by Cath Keay and Graeme Wilson. There will also be premieres of six pieces by GIO members, as well as workshops and, of course, the wonderful GIObabies creative music workshop for under-fives.

Speaking from her home in Woodstock, New York State, Crispell regards GIO and its festival as “really important and unique. I’m thrilled they’ve invited me back. I’m trying to think of a comparable group anywhere. There are [free improvising] bands like the Barry Guy New Orchestra and the London Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, but GIO seems to be different in that it’s an ongoing, regular thing, and they’re great players.”

Crispell has lived in Woodstock since the late Seventies when she studied and taught at the influential Creative Music Studio there. Classically trained, she has been improvising, she reckons, ever since she started playing the piano. “I was very lucky when I was young to have a teacher of composition, theory and harmony who made us sing, play, write... and everything we learned, every interval or harmony, we had to improvise on it.”

Then, in her late twenties, she heard John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and nothing would ever be the same again. She has performed with a legion of jazz names and others, from “outside music” champions such as Henry Grimes and Anthony Braxton to John Cage and the New York City Opera.

In performances that can veer between lyricism and vulcanism, she regards composition and improvisation as inseparable: “You learn to think compositionally – that’s if you’re thinking about stuff at all and not just playing like an automaton.

“So sometimes there will be a preconceived idea that I want to develop, but often I’ll just sit down, put my hands on the piano and, based on the first thing that I play, it gets developed in some kind of logical way. It’s spontaneously, intuitively making compositional decisions.”

For the unconverted, a free-improv performance can be tough listening, though much of the attraction lies in its almost theatrical sense of unpredictability. For Crispell, it comes back again to life itself: “You have to do what feels true to you and people will like it or not, just as in life you have to be true to yourself.

“But I also think that in different situations you might play slightly differently if your intuition picks up on a certain feeling. You might emphasise a particular aspect of your music. But it happens naturally – I’m not going to suddenly go in to a Sly and the Family Stone tune.”

• GIOFest runs from 26-28 November. For further information, see