If we’re talking food, Lena Bloch’s saxophone is a pouring of honey, a warm trickle of red wine and a bite of the crisp, sweet and salty in turn. Describing herself as a “long-time disciple of Lee Konitz” (see below) and having studied under other greats such as David Liebman, Yusef Lateef, Joe Lovano and others, she soaked up enough to create her own signature sound—sweet, full-bodied, textured and pure. Born in Russia, she moved to the US and joined the incredibly explosive jazz scene in Brooklyn and is now firmly embedded in New York City jazz culture. A composer and educator, she has toured festivals the world over (Russia, Amherst, Germany, Israel). Her latest album is an homage to the (in the US, little-known) poet Marina Tsvetaeva with the new CD called My Name is Marina. It includes seven of Tsvetaeva’s poems, sung (told, chanted, intoned and implored) by Kyoko Kitamura with the warm interplay of Bloch’s sighing, soaring sax and the sensitive playing of her band (piano, percussion and double bass).
Bloch leads Feathery Quartet, the latest CD being Live at the iBeam in Brooklyn, a five-track CD (three of which are written by Bloch) that is easy on the ears while threading lines in and around some more-than-pretty motifs.
How has your background/heritage influenced the musician you are today?
I started hearing jazz very early, as soon as my parents got their own apartment and a sound system, because they were both pianists and loved listening to jazz, Duke Ellington, Count Basie with Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman. My father played piano by ear and transcribed many jazz tunes straight from the radio.
I grew up inside jazz, swing and improvisation. I never thought of jazz and improvising as something one has to learn. I just did it naturally. Later, when I graduated from high school and became a singer (jazz and opera), I was transcribing instrumental and vocal improvisation from Roy Eldridge, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. When I first met Lee Konitz in Germany and he asked me to play a solo tune for him, he said after my playing: “I see nobody told you that it is difficult to do.” Indeed, my background created some kind of “jazz life” inside me, so I never had to study how to play in time, how to improvise or how to play by ear.
What are the ingredients for a successful and fulfilling collaboration?
I think responsibility is the main ingredient, to be dedicated to the project and to its fulfillment. Then, if we are talking about a creation of a musical result, comes flexibility and willingness to accept (or at least try) the unexpected, organic changes and organic developments that might not be as planned or as scored. Then, to find a balance between coming to the foreground and leading – and retreating, if someone else is coming to the foreground and leads. In other words, it is very similar to collective improvising. And the key to everything is constant focus and listening.
Your favorite venues in Brooklyn? NYC? Outside of the US?
In Brooklyn, we have a musical community that is dedicated to new music featuring very exciting composers and their ensembles. Nearly all jazz venues in Brooklyn are musicians-owned or musicians-curated. They are my favorites: iBeam, Bar Bayeux, Soup and Sound, The Owl. In Manhattan, the style of jazz is more traditional, even if it means a recent tradition of the 2000s. In the city, my favorites are Smalls and Mezzrow. Outside of NYC, in the US, there are a few fantastic venues like The Falcon, Maureen’s Jazz Cellar and New School of Music (Boston).
What performance had the biggest impact on you and why?
Many of the performances with my group Feathery left me deeply affected spiritually, I do not know what it is; perhaps it is the direct experience of telepathic contact, the experience of being “the other,” a part of the joined collective Mind.
What inspired “My Name Is Marina”? How did you choose the musicians who play with you here?
Marina Tsvetaeva is hailed as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. She has been one of my most beloved poets since I was 13. I was writing poetry and she was one of my role models. Later, when I became a singer-songwriter, I wrote some songs to her poems.
However, I was shocked to find out that Tsvetaeva is nearly unknown in the US, although she is deeply admired in Germany and France. So before I applied for this grant, I also found out that the world would celebrate her 130th birthday in October 2022. Then I had the idea to embark on this journey, apply my past experience as a singer, a songwriter and a poet and for the first time bring it all together in a song cycle for voice and jazz quartet.
I also aimed at fulfilling my other desire, to work with a great singer improviser, Kyoko Kitamura.
The idea of this project was to bring together several types of audiences: American and Russian American, jazz lovers and poetry lovers, my old followers and new listeners from the communities that I have not played for before. At first, I planned to use already existing English translations of her work, but as I was reading three to four versions of translations of every poem, I found out that they were not singable. Sound and rhythm were not the most important in these translations, but Marina’s poems are all about sound and rhythm. So I decided to translate seven poems myself, specifically for the purpose of being sung.
After that, every poem offered me its own melodic and rhythmic world, making my job very easy, just notating on paper what was already there. It was not an experience of composing, but an experience of listening to what the poem has in it. Therefore, every piece came out organized differently. The only device that I used in a few pieces was a distinct bass line that creates tempo and expression. I also had to through-compose the melody to the whole poem without the usual jazz approach of repeating “choruses.”
When we started rehearsing, there came the phase of score revisions, adding and removing things. The overall musical idea I had was to compose in such a way that the listener cannot tell the scored parts from the improvised sections and cannot tell who is playing the material and who is improvising. Also, the scored material sounded very different depending on what mood or feeling each musician wanted on that day. I was amazed at the level of dedication and commitment of all my new ensemble members – and as a leader, I was so happy that each of them made decisions and choices and took the lead at certain points. Some pieces had a pre-set arrangement, but some were very open and took a lot of unexpected turns. Kyoko Kitamura, Jacob Sacks, Ken Filiano, Michael Sarin. I am infinitely grateful to them for handling my material in such a creative and caring way.
Talk about the Chamber Music America grant, how you found out about it and how it felt to be awarded.
I have been a member of the CMA since 2017 and there are regular grants that CMA offers every year, so I decided to apply, but only as a composer with a brand-new ensemble and a new project. This grant program is called Artistic Projects. It is a coincidence that the then-director of the grant programs called me on the phone to tell me the news on December 31. It was not official yet, but she just wanted to let me know the great news as soon as possible.
Receiving the official grant award and its acceptance means receiving and signing a contract, which followed a month later. To apply for this grant, I had to present a detailed budget for how much I needed for various costs, including artist fees, production costs and promotion costs. The grant funded everything. I just created a realistic budget after contacting all the participants and inquiring about the costs of the project. Before I applied, I already knew how much I would need for the budget.
How would you describe your sound on the saxophone?
I would say it is the sound of my breath, transformed by my mouthpiece and my instrument, like a singer’s voice going through a microphone into the speakers.
What do you love most about being a musician?
Freedom; being inside a different time than the conventional time we all live in, because music creates its own time. Being inside a musical reality is a very different, fascinating time, like a time warp.
When I am not playing, I love the realization that, although I am not playing, I can.
For more information, visit http://www.lenabloch.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
© 2023 Debbie Burke