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Jane Ira Bloom: Sixteen Sunsets makes textura: 'Best Jazz of 2013' List

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Acclaimed soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom brings thirty-plus years of experience to her fifteenth recording and first all-ballads album Sixteen Sunsets. She's covered standards before-Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's "Lost in the Stars" on Art and Aviation and Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington's "The Nearness of You" on The Nearness, to cite but two examples-but does so even more plentifully on Sixteen Sunsets, which complements nine American songbook classics with five of her own compositions. But don't think for a moment that Bloom has phoned in, so to speak, these performances. Though she's no doubt played the pieces countless times, the material sounds startlingly fresh on this recording, and alive, too, due to the amazing multi-dimensional clarity the surround sound recording brings to her playing (the saxophone was literally surrounded by an array of microphones for the sessions), something especially audible in her solo saxophone treatment of Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin's "My Ship."

Bloom less plays the melodies in the standard so much as caresses them and lovingly at that. In that regard, there's maybe no more exquisite moment on the recording than the sound of Bloom wrapping her voice around the heartfelt melodies in "I Loves You Porgy," and though she delivers the songs' themes with deep feeling, she goes deeper in the solos where it truly feels like she's trying to penetrate into the material to get at its heart (one example of many: her solo in Billie Holiday and Mal Waldron's "Left Alone"). One of the recording's great pleasures comes from observing how Bloom straddles the line between hewing closely to a given song's melodies and straying from it with soloistic embellishments. Put simply, her handling of the album content suggests not only an acquaintance of long-standing but one of deep affection, too, all of which makes Sixteen Sunsets noteworthy for presenting some of the most emotional playing of Bloom's on record.

Though she has become well-known for the application of live electronics to her playing, Sixteen Sunsets features her soprano saxophone playing in its pure form. Pianist Dominic Fallacaro, bassist Cameron Brown, and drummer Matt Wilson provide tasteful support, their relative unobtrusiveness not unwelcome in a date of this kind. Fallacaro stands out for the elegance of his playing, but so too do the others; consider the magnificent support the trio gives Bloom for her haunting rendition of Jimmy Van Heusen's "Darn That Dream" as evidence.

Highlights are plentiful, and from the first moments of "For All We Know," the tender side of Bloom's playing is on full display, and what a wonderful a thing it is to witness. Her own bluesy composition "What She Wanted" exudes such a classic ballad quality, it feels perfectly at home within such esteemed company, especially when the also-bluesy "Good Morning Heartache" and "Left Alone" are also featured. She covers a standard of her own in featuring a new version of "Ice Dancing (for Torvill & Dean)," which originally appeared on the late-‘80s Slalom and whose lilting swing and serpentine melodies sound as good today as they did then. Her breezy "Primary Colors" also adds a welcome moment of uptempo swing to a recording whose focus is otherwise on slow tempi.

One of the most well-known historical precursors to Sixteen Sunsets is, of course, Coltrane's Ballads, which likewise features a sax-led quartet interpreting an album's worth of timeless romantic standards. Fifty years after Coltrane's recording first appeared, Bloom perpetuates the tradition with a beautiful one of her own that can't be praised too highly.

January 2014        

The soprano sax has enjoyed a long and distinguished history in jazz, with figures such as Steve Lacy, John Coltrane, and Wayne Shorter having established clearly recognizable voices on the instrument. Jane Ira Bloom established her own voice on the instrument at a rather early stage in her career: by the time her third album, 1982's Mighty Lights, appeared (on which she was auspiciously joined by Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell as well as pianist Fred Hersch, with whom she's enjoyed a long-standing musical partnership), Bloom's distinctive voice, both as a player and composer, had come into clear focus.

She certainly wasted no time in making a name for herself as both a composer and player. Her first solo album, We Are, a nine-song duet date recorded in March 1978 with bassist Kent McLagan, features seven Bloom originals, while her love for timeless standards was already evident in the inclusion of Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge" on her debut and Weill and Anderson's "Lost in the Stars" on Mighty Lights. There's a warmth and lyrical quality to her playing that's present on those early recordings, and such qualities blossom to an even greater degree on her latest, a beautiful set of ballads titled Sixteen Sunsets.

Bloom has also received a considerable number of honours and awards over the years. She was the recipient of the 2007 Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award for lifetime service to jazz, is a six-time winner of the Jazz Journalists Award for Soprano Saxophone, and a winner of the Downbeat International Critics Poll for soprano sax. Currently a professor at NYC's New School for Jazz & Contemporary Music, Bloom has had such a huge impact that The 2009 Bloom Festival, a Brooklyn-based jazz festival devoted to cutting-edge woman artists, was named in her honour; she is also the first musician to have been commissioned by the NASA Art Program and even had an asteroid named after her by the International Astronomical Union (asteroid 6083janeirabloom).

01. Near the beginning of your recording career, you were joined by Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell on 1982's Mighty Lights. What was the experience like for you playing with such revered figures?

It was an opportunity to play with my dream rhythm section. I was scared out of my mind but excited at the same time. You know like the Chinese definition of a crisis-it was "a dangerous opportunity." Playing with Charlie and Ed was like surfing an amazing rhythmic wave. They had a way of making anything you played sound right.

02. Was it intimidating or did you feel at home, so to speak, in such company? And was there anything in particular you took away from the recording experience that was especially valuable?

I was so lucky to have had the experience of playing with them. The kind of feel that they created is completely unique. That recording also marked the beginning of my collaboration with pianist Fred Hersch, which continues to evolve to the present day. Looking back at that recording reminds me of what a creative nexus the whole experience was.

03. You also seemed to find your voice at a preternaturally early stage in your career. How did you manage to do so when other artists sometimes take years to do so?

It's really been a journey. I suppose choosing the soprano-an instrument that you could develop a sound on with the luxury of being stylistically under-influenced had something to do with it. I also think "having a sound" is something that was ingrained in my thinking from the time I began studying the saxophone with woodwind virtuoso Joe Viola. The saxophone is one of the instruments that is closest to the human voice and so making a sound on it should be as personal and unique as your own voice.

04. Obviously most of the standards you've included in Sixteen Sunsets are ones that have been played and recorded countless times, and I'm presuming you've played them many times as well. Having said that, your performances of them on the recording strike me as so fresh they sound like performances by someone almost new to them. How did you manage to make the renderings of the songs sound so fresh, given that you've played many times before the recording sessions?

If you're in a relaxed frame of mind, the best way to play anything is completely fresh to the moment so that every sound you make is a discovery to your imagination. As improvisers we practice this kind of spontaneity-a provocative juxtaposition of concepts, don't you think? With the album, I picked songs that really resonated with me and then tried to record them in a way that was conducive to relaxation. We never really recorded in the studio for more than three or four hours at a time, which helped keep everything fresh.

05. The other thing that strikes me about the performances of the ballads on Sixteen Sunsets is how powerfully emotional your playing is, especially in your solos. Were you consciously setting out to dig deeper into these songs to get to their emotional core or is that simply something that naturally comes out when you're playing such melodically rich material?

You know as you get older, you just get more comfortable with yourself and eliminating all the things that get in the way of singing in your natural voice. I've learned a lot from listening to vocalists. I'm very happy that the emotional reach of the music is audible. It's one thing to play that way in concert and another thing to let yourself go in the studio. I think great melodies do most of the work for you.

06. One of the things that comes through clearly as I listen to Sixteen Sunsets is the unqualified joy it seems to me I hear when you playing something as magnificent as "I Loves You Porgy" and "The Way You Look Tonight." Am I correct in assuming that as a musician one of your greatest satisfactions is simply the experience of having such exquisite material speak through you?

It's like an exquisite synchrony. There's something in feeling and thinking about the lyrics of a song and what they're saying and then transforming that through your own voice. It's such a simple concept for an instrumentalist to play a song thinking about what that song means but you'd be surprised how quickly the transformation to an instrument can confuse that.

07. In 1996, Herbie Hancock released The New Standard, his attempt to argue on behalf of songs like The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" and Nirvana's "All Apologies" as contemporary standards. Those covered on Sixteen Sunsets, on the other hand, are classics of decades-long standing like "Darn That Dream" and "Good Morning Heartache." Can you think of any contemporary standards that hold up next to the ones you covered or is there some truth to the cliche "They don't write'em like that anymore"?

There are great songs in all eras of music. In addition to the American songbook, I grew up listening to Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, etc... Who knows, maybe someday I'll revisit that music. My students interpret the music of their time in 2013 in a way that is completely natural to them because it's of their generation.

08. In a Dec. 7th, 2013 review of new biographies on Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington in the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, Martin Levin states that jazz is "widely thought a dying art form" (even though at the close of the paragraph he writes, "one hopes, that rumours of the death of jazz are highly exaggerated"). What's your own take on jazz's current state of health?

Looking at the wallpaper in his bedroom near the end of his life Oscar Wilde was quoted as saying "One of us has got to go." Maybe it's the critics and their dire predictions that need to take a rest. The music always has and always will continue to evolve and develop in its own way regardless of its observers.

09. No doubt you've attended a great many concerts in your life. Are there any that stick out as particularly memorable, even life-changing?

Listening to Sonny Rollins play a capella solos live is a life-changing experience. Hearing Aretha Franklin singing "Respect" at the Kennedy Center a few years ago was surreal and an experience I'll never forget.

10. As Sixteen Sunsets was recorded in early summer 2013, I'm guessing that you're currently pondering what your follow-up to it will be. Any thoughts as to what your next recording will be like and how it might differ from the latest one?

Not really. I tend to let more time go by between projects so that ideas can evolve in their own time and not according to when I would like them to happen. You never know where a good idea can come from or when it might appear so sometimes you just have to be patient with your own creative process.


January 2014