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Photo by © Kristine Larsen from Jane Ira Bloom's website

Working Fresh and in the Present

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This kind of consistent excellence might suggest that Bloom’s best days are behind her or that her new work is merely the same old thing. But the new Wingwalker says otherwise.

First, Wingwalker features Bloom’s new quartet, still featuring Previte but now also the bassist Mark Helias and young pianist Dawn Clement. (This is the band that debuted with 2007’s Mental Weather.) It’s a new sound but with much of the past in it. Bloom’s “live electronics” are still on hand, but they are now integrated into the whole more effectively than ever. Bloom still alternates between pungent lyricism and fluttering freedom that sounds like darting dragonflies. The original songs dart between freedom and lyricism, and there is still a lovely standard played a new way: “I Could Have Danced All Night” laid out only for the soprano, majestically. Mainly, though, the new quartet is unquestionably more earthy and funky. Helias is rooted firmly to the ground with his larger bass sound, and the new pianist is a significant contrast.

Though it’s rare to fuse jazz with aeronautics and oil painting, that is the lens through which Bloom sees her art.

Fred Hersch was, cliché be damned, Bloom’s other half. He was always shoulder-to-shoulder with her as they flew through the music. Clement, however, brings a sound and style that is more of a contrast, a set of wide and solid gestures that undergirds Bloom rather than matching her. Clement is from Seattle and a generation younger than Bloom. While there is plenty of Bud Powell or Corea in her sound, she has more in common with the current generation of pianists such as Jason Moran, incorporating a slice of pop feeling into her framing of Bloom’s music. On “Rookie”, for example, Clement matches Bloom’s darting lines in unison at the start, then she lays in some bold chords as a true bottom. There is less slight of hand than we used to hear with Hersch, but there is more muscle. Clement’s solo might be called robust. “Live Sports” features a hip left-hand grooving ostinato on piano that seems like it could have come from a great Horace Silver disc.  Very robust.

And it seems just right for Bloom to be giving a place in her group for a female jazz player who has a strong voice and something to say. What goes around has certainly come around, in this case.

Thinking About Women in Jazz

It’s embarrassing that an art that I love so dearly has been—going way back and now coming way-way forward—so sexist. There have been women playing jazz for as long as the style has meant anything, from Lil Hardin to Marylou Williams, from Melba Liston to Emily Remler, from Cindy Blackman to Jane Ira Bloom and Dawn Clement.

Too few, however, find acclaim or play in the top bands. Too few get recorded or play in the best clubs. I won’t pretend to know where the blames lies or why it arose. I do know, however, that supporting the best female jazz players should be easy enough to do. Bloom is at the top of the list.

Bloom plays in a way that suggests her identity as a woman even as she asserts independence with a career never reliant others. Her playing balances delicacy of sound with sureness to direction.  Her tone can be creamy and attractive, yet Bloom’s playing overall never veers toward schmaltz. Like women who climb high in arenas usually reserved for men, Bloom is not a carbon copy.  Even as very few saxophone players experiment with “live electronics”, Bloom uses this technique more artfully each year. Though it’s rare to fuse jazz with aeronautics and oil painting, that is the lens through which Bloom sees her art.

With Wingwalker, jazz fans should be reminded that one of the best saxophone players in jazz remains active and at the peak of her creativity. With a talent like Clement emerging from Bloom’s band, we can all recall how rare it is for women to stake a deep and true claim in the music.

Jane Ira Bloom, I’ll never forsake you, again.

Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.

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