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Music Review: Marilyn Crispell – Vignettes

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The "tipping point" of pianist Marilyn Crispell's Vignettes came midway during "Gathering Light." As a series of open-ended arpeggios attempted to fashion a bit of resolution to the developing theme, a snarling and angular sax solo broke rudely through the pensive…


Ah shoot, the sax was coming from the speaker hanging from the wooden beam directly above me. This is what I get for trying to start a review at a cafe. Normally, I get kind of peeved when recorded music is played in a public space, mostly because it's very often inappropriately loud. I mean, is it really necessary to have techno blaring away in the background of an already noisy Chili's? The music being played six feet away from me is actually a good mix of traditional and modern jazz. It's just that my crummy little earbuds (and Crispell's solo piano) can't compete.

The funny thing about this weird, impromptu mashup of sorts is that it contains some of the very same colliding ideas as my own thoughts about reconciling the music of Vignettes vs. Crispell's work with Anthony Braxton. If you've ever had a chance to listen to Braxton's Willisau recordings, you might remember a very different style of piano. To fit in with Braxton's knotty ideas, Crispell (along with bandmates Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemmingway) had to adopt a necessarily "tough" approach. I had the same reaction when reviewing Storyteller. The problem is I've come to identify Marilyn Crispell with a single style of play — and I've got to learn that that particular expectation does not match reality.

The music presented on Vignettes seems like the polar opposite of her work with Braxton. Or rather, its emotion has been turned inside-out. For every surprising and harsh direction change that came from the Braxton quartet, here there seems to occur an equivalent long gaze at an incremental stillness.

To examine the extremes (a funny word to be using about a mostly quiet program) presented here, Vignettes II and III provide a nice example. The first selection is all about tiny sounds moving slowly through space: notes drop in seemingly at random, the rate of arrival increasing slightly at around the same time the dissonant intervals add some color. This reflective state is broken open by "Vignette III," which explores note clusters moving rapidly from one end of the keyboard to another. The transition feels like the aural equivalent of a mood swing.

Crispell weaves the improvised sections into the written material so masterfully that it's often impossible to hear the boundary — there's a fair amount of chaos in "Axis" that's mirrored by the Vignette (VI) that follows it.

Several listens through Vignettes and you can begin to feel like you've cracked the Marilyn Crispell code: that her approach works both with Anthony Braxton's group and within her solo piano work. Crispell manages to employ both darkness and introspection, making them work together in very subtle ways. The closing "Little Song For My Father" seems like a perfect bookend to the opening "Vignette I" — a very romantic musing that contrasts the partial arpeggios, fragmented runs, and plinky notes.

I really could have done without that sax solo, though…

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About Mark Saleski

  • Having listened to the wonderful little solo piano record already, your first paragraph had me saying “wtf?”

    Another great job describing the indescribable, Mark. I highly recommend this CD, too.