[17 May 2011]
My semi-secret adoration for saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom has been weighing on me, lately.
Bloom is rare among jazz musicians in all sorts of ways. If you’re going to pick a player for a singular interest, she is certainly a singular musician.
First, Bloom is, exclusively, a soprano saxophonist. The soprano is one of weirdest of the mainstream jazz instruments: difficult to play well, notoriously nasal (and vaguely out-of-tune) sounding, and cursed with two divergent but overwhelming associations—Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” and Kenny G’s treacled smoothosity. Plenty of jazz musicians play the soprano, but almost no one focused mainly—or only—on the straight horn.
Second, Bloom is unusual in that she appears very rarely beyond her own recordings. She has been a leader and composer for 30years, and it seems like she emerged full-blown, with her own concept already intact. Though Bloom studied music at Berklee and at Yale, she is not associated with any significant apprenticeships with masters or even cooperative ventures with peers from her own generation. She was never been a Jazz Messenger, nor has she ever co-led a date with, say, Joe Lovano or Woody Shaw. Indeed, it might be noted that Bloom comes from a flatly in-between jazz generation. She is a bit older than the “young lions” of the ‘80s such as Wynton Marsalis, but clearly not part of cohort that really overlapped with the likes of Gillespie or Miles Davis. Coming of age in the ‘70s, Bloom had to learn to fend for herself.
Third, and most importantly, Bloom is a woman. In jazz this is the ultimate defining difference. However hip it may seem to love jazz, the jazz world is sex-segregated like few others. The list of well-known female jazz musicians who are neither singers nor pianists is treacherously short. On this short list, Bloom stands out as bold, individualistic, and seriously respected. As a player and composer who has blazed her own trail despite the odds, she really deserves to be the female face of the art form.
So when her latest recording, Wingwalker, appeared earlier this year, I realized the degree to which I’ve been ignoring her lately. Why would I take my ear away from one of my favorite players? Had I come to take Bloom for granted?
Out of the Blue
I suppose I had. Because Bloom had become a kind of constant in my listening for decades.
Bloom first caught plenty of ears in the early ‘80s with her 1982 Enja debut, Mighty Lights. Here was a young woman playing the straight horn with the backing of Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell, Ornette Coleman’s once-and-future rhythm section. Her sound was just a little bit Coleman-esque in that she was playing at the edges of conventional harmony, yet with a wonderfully intimate feeling. Her sound on soprano was already distinctive—thin and reedy at times, with little vibrato, but then suddenly rich and creamy in the lower octave, suggesting a human voice. But, of course, a female human voice.
The other collaborator on Mighty Lights is pianist Fred Hersch. Like Bloom, Hersch was born in 1955 and seemed to emerge on this recording as a fully-blown personality combining lyricism and freedom in an unusual way. Their version of the Kurt Weill standard “Lost in the Stars” is a purely beautiful thing, with the rippling runs of Bloom’s soprano constantly caught or cradled by Hersch and his majestic chording. “The Man with Glasses” is their ballad tribute to Bill Evans (an association that Hersch must dodge to this day), and on “Change Up” the two chase each other across the bar lines like a pair of Labrador puppies on the green.
What a couple of out-of-the-blue introductions these were. Too good to be true, then, was a follow-up album of duets between Bloom and Hersch from 1984, As One. Bloom’s “Waiting for Daylight” is a supple tone poem that is almost unfairly pretty, allowing her to demonstrate that her control of the soprano—its dynamics and slightly nasal sonority, but also its famously dodgy intonation—was extraordinary. As a saxophonist, Bloom came off as utterly singular even from early on. She could play fast and precise or loose and free, but she never sounded like any of her role models. On soprano, she did not seem vaguely “eastern” like Coltrane or pinched and urgent like Wayne Shorter. She was not tied to older swing or bop traditions, but neither did her sound seem sloppy or flailing like the free players. Here was a player with something new to say.
Hersch was right there with her. His tune “A Child’s Song” from As One had the delicacy and limpid melodicism of Chick Corea or Keith Jarrett, but the playing seemed wholly fresh at the same time. Am I imposing something on the way I hear this music if I repeat that Bloom’s voice on her instrument is beautiful in a way that could possibly reflect a female voice? (Am I going too far if I note that Fred Hersch is one of the few jazz musicians to be openly gay?)
Bloom, with her delicacy and directness, her willingness to step beyond convention even as she enchants, won me over quickly.
Consistency with Innovation
In the decades that followed, Bloom produced a body of work that was both consistent in its quality and subtly innovative. Though she started her career by starting her own record label (which was very rare in 1980), she recorded twice for Columbia in the mid-‘80s. Her reprise of “Mighty Lights” and a sterling “I Loves You, Porgy” from 1986’s Slalom should have been enough to show mainstream jazz fans that a certain restlessness with the past as well as an embrace of tradition could coexist easily. Again, Hersch was her trusty partner.
This record (and its 1987 Columbia companion, Modern Drama) was not some major label compromise, however. Bloom was moving forward on many fronts. Most plainly, she had started to experiment with “live electronics” as part of her sound. This involved employing effects that, in real time, allowed Bloom to create harmonics or delay, giving her sound a fuzziness, edge, fatness or abstraction. On Slalom’s “Miro”, Bloom not only splits the sound of her natural horn into multiple lines, but she also adds whirring synth blurs to her melodies as she sees fit in real time. It’s a dramatic, eerie effect that works in part, but only sometimes. On “Mighty Lights” it’s subtle, adding weight to her chirpy upper range rather than any artificiality.
Slalom introduced two other Bloomian motifs: her interest in the visual arts and in movement. “Miro” presages her 2003 album Chasing Paint, dedicated entirely to artist Jackson Pollack. On both recordings, it’s clear that Bloom is working in response to a different art form rather than trying to “mimic” it in any sense. “Jackson Pollack” certainly suggests a kind of “splashing” of melody, with the live electronics subtly adding to Bloom’s assertions of color and form, but “On Seeing JP” is less some reenactment of Pollack’s technique than a musical expression of the stirrings great art can create. “Ice Dancing (for Torvill and Dean)” is better than anything than I ever saw or heard while watching the Winter Olympics and makes it logical that Bloom would later compose for dance troupes such as Pilobolus.
The highlight of this run of recordings for me—each featuring Fred Hersch on piano and many also including Mark Dresser’s bass and Bobby Previte on drums—is The Red Quartets from 1999. Here the quartet sounds more symphonic while still achieving great intimacy. “Monk’s Rec Room” is a quirky evocation of the master but with the swirling lines that suit Bloom so well, “It’s a Corrugated World” shifts feels from funky to Latin to free ballad, and “Emergency” seems to work in a free jazz mode without ever losing control. The Red Quartets is the work of a player and composer who is completely in control of her own style and its relation to the tradition.
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.
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.