Joelle Leandre: Solo (Kadima Collective Triptych #3)
Kadima’s third installment of its indispensable Triptych series, this package of a CD, DVD, and book is devoted to the French double bassist Joelle Leandre. The CD is a recording of a 2005 solo performance at Piednu France; the DVD was shot at the 2009 Guelph Jazz Festival. Both are welcome additions to Leandre’s recorded output. But possibly the most fascinating element of the package is the book, an autobiography written in conversation with Franck Medioni. Originally published in French as A voix basse, Kadima has now made it available in English.
Leandre’s oral autobiography crackles with all the immediacy and spontaneity of having the subject herself in the room, speaking directly to the reader. Like her definition of jazz, the conversation recorded is a ceaselessly creative effusion stamped with her personality: Outspokenly passionate, impulsive, and direct in expression. The book is structured topically, allowing the bassist to situate events of her life story in the context of her thoughts on her background and education, influences, instrument, and approach to improvisation.
Leandre comes from a working class family in the south of France. Indeed, a recurring motif of the book is her conception, clearly drawn from her own self-conception, of the musician as a worker or an artisan as much as an artist—or, to use one of her images, as a farmer who gets up early every morning and gets to work with his tractor. A strong work ethic figures prominently in the stories she tells—of studies with Pierre Delescluse and subsequently at the Paris Conservatoire, and of her own early practice regimen. Although it can be said that her subsequent career in improvisation involved the renunciation of some aspects of her grounding in European art music, she does credit her rigorous training with giving her a solid foundation in technique and reading ability that allowed her access not only to some of the most advanced literature for her instrument, but to a deep grasp of its possibilities and limits. This foundation is still evident in Leandre’s characteristic blend of the structures and sound palette of contemporary art music with the energy and spontaneity of jazz.
As important as her formal training was, of equal importance was a set of chance encounters and of more deliberate meetings with remarkable men and women. One such encounter was with a recording—a Slam Stewart LP Leandre picked up in 1971, because she liked its cover. The music, which she describes as a “shock to the system,” introduced her to jazz and broadened her relationship to the bass. Of the significant people she met—among them Giacinto Scelsi, Derek Bailey and Irene Schweizer–several were to exert influence over her music and more general outlook. Perhaps the most important of these people was John Cage, whom she first met during her initial trip to the US in 1976. Cage opened her up to sound as such; his advice to her to let sounds be themselves had a profound philosophical as well as musical impact on her, and contributed to her decision to be more than just an orchestral or ensemble bassist. From Cage, whom she describes as her “spiritual father,” she got a sense of freedom and the permission to follow it. It’s easy to see how Cage’s philosophy of freedom conjoined to discipline would be congenial to her, appealing as it does to both sides of her character–her work ethic and her impulsiveness. Leandre’s relationship to Cage was such that she suggested he write a score for double bass; his response was Ryoanji, which as she tells it was conceived in Marcel Duchamp’s apartment in Neuilly, where Cage frequently stayed when visiting France.
Leandre’s relationship to her instrument is, not surprisingly, an intense and complicated one. The chapter “Base/Bass” may well be the finest description of the phenomenology of the bass-bassist symbiosis—of what it’s like to live with and through one of these imposing wooden monsters. The bass for Leandre is a second body, “a big empty box” supported in every sense by the musician who must play it in spite of the difficulties inherent in its large size and limited portability. (Any double bassist will nod in agreement when she describes the bass as a “whopping great thing that puts us through hell. But we love it.”) What seems to attract her is the intense physicality associated with playing the bass and the sonorous gravity of its voice. On this latter point Leandre asserts that she’s chosen to pursue sound over virtuosity—an important decision that informs her playing and gives it its peculiar character, making it especially suitable for duets—a format that, not surprisingly, she prefers.
In addition to their inherent musicality, Leandre’s performances are remarkable for the element of theatricality she often brings to them. It isn’t unusual for her to integrate voice and movement into the music, creating a multi-modal experience of particular richness. Seemingly more than most, she incorporates a gesturality in her work that goes beyond the effort needed for the mere production of sound. In this regard it is interesting to read that she comes from a family of circus clowns—and it’s easy to see the connection between the clown, relying on the eloquence of gesture and an expressive motility, and the bassist herself, who draws on these same resources in performance.
With this triple package of book, CD and DVD, Kadima Collective has presented a complex musician in a masterful way. Solo will be of interest not only to double bassists, but to anyone with a desire to understand improvised music from the perspective of one of its leading performers.