Sweeping full circles with her soprano sax, Jane Ira Bloom literally places notes all around her. They hang and linger, and as they disperse, combine with the trail of new notes. Layers subside; fresh ones are lain. It’s both aural and physical at once.
Jane has an extensive discography but perhaps her newest CD is among the most unique in approach. Titled “Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson” [2018 Grammy Award for Best Surround Sound Album], it comes directly from her gut-felt impressions of the poet’s works. There’s a sweet melody in the track “Alone and In a Circumstance,” punctuated by Jane’s powerful bends and falls; a respite while piano takes over with a cool and percussive solo; then upon her re-entrance, the sax restates the theme and concludes with a perfectly executed soft landing.
“Emily and her Atoms” is perhaps a musically molecular study of the profusely published poet; as the sax begins with a series of modal scales, the heart of the song soars to heights which is immediately grounded by piano; and in turn trades off to the bass. Jane builds new momentum, again with these strange and beautiful scales, until ultimately soaring like a bird that disappears in a cloud.
Why were you drawn to the soprano sax?
My earliest exposure to the instrument was through my teacher Joe Viola. He had such a special feeling for the instrument and whenever I heard him play, I was so moved. I thought, that’s the instrument I want to play.
Are you surprised – and – what does it feel like to be nominated for a 2018 Grammy?
Absolutely. As a self- producing artist, I don’t exactly expect that kind of recognition. It was such a charge to hear about the nomination. One of the most exciting parts about participating in the Grammy celebrations is that you get to meet artists from all parts of the music world. At a Grammy luncheon the other week I met this amazing group of female Mariachi musicians, Flor de Toloache, who just won the Latin Grammy.
The name “Early Americans” refers to what? How do you reflect this in the compositions?
To me, titles to songs and albums are like titles of poems. They’re meant to stimulate people’s imagination so there is no one interpretation, just the many resonances that words might elicit in people’s minds. Always different and completely personal.
Do you have a favorite track on that CD?
Not really. They all have something different in them.
With its higher pitch than the alto, how do you get the most expressiveness out of the soprano?
The soprano is really no different than the other members of the saxophone family; it’s just that its higher range requires a somewhat smaller window of accuracy when it comes to pitch. The soprano takes some time to finesse – to get your voice through the instrument as opposed to the instrument playing you. I’ve just spent a lot of time on the horn and after a while it became my voice.
Biggest change in jazz as an art form since you started your career?
I think the level of compositional complexity in the music and influences from music around the world has skyrocketed since I began.
Do you like how jazz is evolving?
I think the music is doing exactly what it should be doing, which is reflecting and reacting to its own time. It’s in the DNA of the music itself to change.
Talk about the joyful feeling of being in the middle of- surrounded by- music?
When you listen to the playback of an album you’ve recorded in surround sound you have the most extraordinary experience of hearing music both with the spatial memory of the sound and its physical placement relative to the other musicians in the band. It is a hyper-real experience of hearing yourself and your insides come back at you in 360. It’s this amazingly addictive listening experience. Once you’ve heard it you never want to go back to stereo.
What inspired you to compose around the poetry of Emily Dickinson in the new CD “Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson”?
I went to some lectures on her poetry and the role of music in her life. I was always intrigued by the mystery and feeling of her language, but when I heard that she was also a piano player who improvised, that sealed it for me. Her language felt jazz-like to me and it seemed perfectly natural to allow that thought and inspiration to intersect with my own compositional voice.
How did you get into the right frame of mind to interpret such a huge body of work?
I wanted to have a more abstract relationship to the text as opposed to the more traditional way of writing tone poems set to her text. I used excerpts from the poems that sparked my imagination instead of complete poems, and allowed my imagination to run from there.
Most memorable part of writing, recording or producing “Wild Lines”?
Will never forget premiering the piece in Amherst, MA when myself, pianist Dawn Clement, and actor Deborah Rush performed at the Evergreen Estate at the Emily Dickinson Museum. The room remained almost exactly as it was when Dickinson’s brother lived there and late that Wednesday afternoon when we performed, I looked down at the floor and saw the same “long yellow shadows” coming through the very same windows that she saw and wrote about. It was magical.
What excites you most about performing?
Playing in the moment and the excitement of being on the edge. You never know where a good idea is going to come from.
What do you want people to think of when they listen to your recordings or in live performance?
I think you put yourself more at ease if you focus on the act of playing and let the audience into your music in whatever way they can.
I have had the extraordinary experience of collaborating with musicians who I’ve played with for years. Drummer Bobby Previte, bassist Mark Helias, and pianist Dawn Clement are all mature composer/performers in their own right and bring a level of depth to my music that is hard to define.
For more information, visit www.janeirabloom.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Jane Ira Bloom. Top photo (c) Brigitte Lacombe; second photo (c) Lucy Gram.
© Debbie Burke 2018