In A Low Voice

Joëlle Léandre
Improvisation is my life

By Ken Waxman

For MusicWorks Issue #105

For Joëlle Léandre it all begins and ends with the double bass.

After spending most of her life – from age nine – playing and studying the intricacies of the often-unwieldy bull fiddle, the sounds she creates with it are so personal, that defining them as Free Music, New Music or anything else is almost beside the point. Since the late 1970s, Paris-based Léandre has played throughout Europe, North America and Japan, performed notated scores specifically tailored to her skills, composed music for dance and theatre companies and above all, worked with a clutch of improvisers As Léandre states: “Improvisation is my life. It’s music without hierarchy or rank; it only involves an individual and his commitment.”

It didn’t start out that way. Léandre, who was born in 1951 in Aix-en-Provence –“on Opera Street across from a theatre,” she notes – studied the standard double bass repertoire intensively in her home town conservatory, and at the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris. By her late teens she was subbing in the bass sections of large classical ensembles (“in opera when the basses play, something is going to be revealed or a murder takes place”.) Although drawn to Paris Jazz clubs, she wasn’t involved in that scene since her conservatory-honed facility with the bow made, standard pizzicato playing somewhat off-putting.

Like other aspects of her life, however, her appreciation of improvisation was stoked in a unique fashion. In a second-hand record shop, she chanced upon “Bowin’ Swingin’ Slam”, a Savoy LP by American Swing bassist Slam Stewart. Stewart (1914-1987), had developed the unique technique of playing arco solos, while simultaneously humming the same line an octave higher. “Bass, swing, voice and bow... it was a shock for me,” she admits. Since, as Léandre says, “I’m all about improvising with the bow,” this style intrigued, and drew her towards improvisation.

Around the same time, she received a one-year scholarship to study at the Center for Creative and Performing Arts in Buffalo, N. Y. “America kicked my ass,” she exclaims. Not only was she exposed daily to the most modern currents of so-called serious music from composers such as John Cage, but she also frequently traveled to New York to listen to improvisers – both local and foreign. “Meeting Derek Bailey in New York had nearly the same impact on me as meeting (John) Cage,” she has said.

Some of the musicians she met around that time such as French baritone saxophonist Daunik Lazro and American trombonist George Lewis, she still often performs with in many situations. In 1981 she received another grant to work intensively with other musicians and dancers on a British project with Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. “From Cage I learned everything about life,” she says somewhat theatrically, “ego, acceptance and difference.” As for Cage’s reputed antipathy towards improvisation, what he disliked she explains was “the codification, the habits and techniques improvisers often repeat when they play. He did not hate anything.”

Eventually Cage and Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi, with whom she also studied and collaborated, would compose “open-form” works specifically designed to feature her. “In composition there’s always a purpose because each composition has a definite end. But in improvisation it’s action that dominates.”

“The first motion is crucial,” she adds. “Great knowledge of your instrument is needed. You have to have memory of what your fingers can do and a memory of every gesture in the game.”

Initially she played solo – and her massive discography includes many examples of this difficult art, including one of the two CDs of her recent Live in Israel disc (see Sidebar Three) – but she soon began collaborating with other sonic explorers. Since that time she has become the epitome of the peripatetic musician, on the road about 160 days out of every 365, involved in familiar and brand-new interactions. “I’m a nomad, a gypsy” she states ruefully. In 2008, for instance, she played with saxophonist Jean Derome and drummer Danielle P. Roger in a Montreal club; that same year at New York’s Vision Festival she duetted with trombonist Lewis. Earlier, her performance with American violinist India Cooke was one of the highlights of the 2004 Guelph Jazz Festival (GJF) and in 2009 she gave two well-received concerts at the GJF, one solo and one with the otherwise American Stone Quartet. All were recent collaborations.

On the other hand she continues to improvise with musicians with whom she has worked for decades. Why? “Because as we evolve over the years, each of us changes as individuals – our molecules, our DNA and our music as musicians,” she replies. “So even after so long years of collaboration each time is a new adventure.” Referring to her CDs as her “babies” Léandre explains that you make a CD, the same way you make a baby – “you need a partner, pleasure, fun and love.” Similarly she explains, since these musical babies constantly need new experiences to grow, music made with new partners – the other frequent Léandre strategy – provides this. “Improvisation is heading towards the unknown. It involves all your reflexes and all your knowledge and exposes creative surprises.”

Over the years Léandre has also been involved in creating dance and theatre pieces. Her most recent project for theatre, “l'Erotisme de la Tragedie” links her score for two cellos to what she describes as a “poetic and provocative text”. Her work with dancers, which has been ongoing since 1974, is even more proactive. For instance a quartet program developed with choreographer Josef Nadj has toured Hungary, Serbia and Slovenia, featuring movement from Nadj and another dancer, as well as a notated and improvised score performed by the bassist and multi-reedist Akosh S. – with whom she has also recorded (see Sidebar Three) – all on stage.

Theatrics seem to come naturally to Léandre. After all, when she performs in a solely sonic setting whether it’s with vocalists like American Lauren Newton or Maggie Nicols from England; on her own; or with any number of other instrumentalists; the bassist hums, chortles, yowls, mumbles, shrieks and often verbalizes phrases as she plays – taking the Slam Stewart reference one step beyond. Although the dramatics may contrast with her habitual stage wear of voluminous dark blouse and matching slacks, especially when she peers professor-like over the dark-frame glasses she sometimes sports, “all this is expression,” she notes. “For me it’s natural to sing, to vocalize and to talk when I play. It’s all part of my vocabulary.”

Expressing the improvisatory element has, over the past few years, also included teaching, most notably at California’s Mills College with colleagues such as British guitarist Fred Frith. Observe her methods dealing with enraptured music students captured in director Christine Baudillon’s DVD (See Sidebar Two) and you can see how this woman, who has worked against musical conventions since she was at the conservatory – expresses improvisatory concepts in gestures, words and music. “Practice need passion and passions”, she says at one point, encouraging them. “We go on stage to touch the people and to pass something on to them.”

For Léandre and her admirers, the past few years have been a particularly fertile time for experiencing the results of Léandre’s expression. Besides her constant touring, not only has she released memorable CDs, and been the subject of Baudillon’s documentary, but a book about life and thoughts has also been published in French (See Sidebar One).

Overall after many decades in the music, her options and ideals remains linked to her bass, which she describes as “an ugly thing with a big ass”, and with improvisation still her motivating force.

“Improvisation for me is equal to composition,” she states. “We improvise all the time in life, every day, every second and every moment. When you play in an instant you become sound yourself. Improvisation is like life and death. It reveals that true life is now, not yesterday or tomorrow”.

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Ken Waxman (www.jazzword.com) is Toronto-based, where he writes about jazz and improvised music, as well as regularly reviewing CDs and books for MusicWorks and reporting on different areas in Sonic Geographies.

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A Book on Léandre

Released by French publishing house MF in early 2008 – and cunning entitled À Voix Basse – this is a volume that likely could only exist in France. The 140-page book is a first-person account of Léandre’s life and thoughts, the result of extensive interviews with the bassist by Franck Médioni, a journalist, author (John Coltrane, 80 musiciens de jazz témoignent) and producer of the Jazzistiques show on the France Musique network. Unadulterated Léandre, he allows the artist to expound on such topics as her influences and training; the uses and misuses of the double bass and its place in the musical firmament; a comparison of improvisation and composition; and documents her thoughts on the life of a nomadic musician, on recording improvisation and on politics. With a selective discography – Léandre’s complete discography numbers more than 50 sessions and is expanding rapidly – as well as an index, the book is so not been translated into other languages.

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A DVD about Léandre

Joëlle Léandre BasseContinue, is a two hour and 20 minute DVD released by Hors Oeil Editions. Filmed over more than a year, the DVD captures the bassist in particular form on tour, in concert, in the studio, in the classroom, and at home, in France, Israel and the United States. Interspaced with a discussion of her life, her attitudes and her musings on improvisation and the improviser’s life, are extended performances by Léandre in the company of associates ranging from Americans, saxophonist Anthony Braxton, trombonist George Lewis and violinist India Cooke; to French baritone saxophonist Daunik Lazro, a small ensemble organized by Israeli bassist JC Jones; and another ensemble that includes Canadian clarinetist Lori Freedman and French trumpeter Jean-Luc Cappozzo. It is directed by Christine Baudillon, who is also responsible for a film on French pianist Siegfried Kessler and is preparing another on Lazro, Joëlle Léandre BasseContinue was launched in November 2008 with a single-night theatrical showing in Paris, followed by a solo concert by Léandre.