Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Crispell’s Vignettes

By Marilyn Crispell
ECM Records 2027

ECM has always been known as an audiophile’s label, but the audio quality of Marilyn Crispell’s new solo release, Vignettes, sounds particularly gorgeous. Fortunately, the careful production values (recorded in the Auditorio RSI in Lugano, Switzerland, for those keeping score at home) are not misplaced in a surprisingly accessible session marked by its austere beauty.

As the title implies, Vignettes consists of several short improvisations, most under three minutes, mixed together with longer, more formal compositions. The brief, minimalist “Vignette 1” starts the program, establishing the spare elegance of the music to come. Though known for her associations with fire-breathing avant-garde artists, Crispell displays a delicate lyricism on “Cuida Tu Espíritu,” one of only two compositions here not composed in some fashion by the pianist. Likewise, the following “Gathering Light” is elegantly melodic in a way that approaches the revelatory.

Of course, the Cecil Taylor influences still come through. “Vignettes” 3 and 6 have that distinctive percussive playfulness that has long been a hallmark of Taylor’s music. Crispell has also been greatly influenced by Scandinavian jazz artists, many of whom have also recorded for ECM, so the thoughtful composition “Sweden” makes a fitting homage to her colleagues and labelmates.

From the graceful “Stilleweg” to the foreboding “Axis,” Vignettes is a rich study in ostensible contradictions, which Crispell nicely reconciles into a unified musical statement. The disk culminates with the relatively brief “Little Song for My Father,” a tune sharing little beyond the sentiment of the similarly named Horace Silver tune. It is a performance striking for its open spaces and emotional purity—a perfect summation for Vignettes.

Stark one moment, sweeping the next, yet never jarring or disjointed, Vignettes is a richly crafted record. As impressive as Vignettes’ engineering might be, nothing beats live. She performs in New York at Birdland tonight, live and solo, as part of a tour that will also take her to Baltimore, San Francisco, and Seattle over the coming year.