Gravity and Space

A Conversation With Jane Ira Bloom

Volume CV, No. 3March, 2005

Soprano saxophonist and composer Jane Ira Bloom has been steadfastly developing her unique voice on the soprano saxophone for over 25 years. A pioneer in the use of live electronics and movement in jazz, as well as the possessor of what Pulse magazine called “one of the most gorgeous tones and hauntingly lyrical ballad conceptions of any soprano saxophonist,” her continuing commitment to pushing the envelope in her music has led to collaborations with Kenny Wheeler, Charlie Haden, Rufus Reid, Matt Wilson, Bob Brookmeyer, Julian Priester, Jerry Granelli, Jay Clayton, Mark Dresser, Bobby Previte and Fred Hersch. She’s also spearheaded a new collaborative world music group, “Atlantic/Pacific Waves,” featuring world music virtuosi.

Winner of the 2001 and 2003 Jazz Journalists Award for soprano sax of the year, the Downbeat International Critics Poll for soprano saxophone, the Charlie Parker Fellowship for Jazz Innovation and the International Women in Jazz “Jazz Masters Award,” she is the first musician ever commissioned by the NASA Art Program, and was also honored by having an asteroid named in her honor by the International Astronomical Union.

She has just completed a new recording entitled, “Like Silver, Like Song” which features Bobby Previte on drums (and e-drums), Mark Dresser on bass and electronics, and Jamie Saft on piano and electronics.

Jane Ira Bloom has been a member of Local 802 since 1979.

Matt Weiers is a jazz pianist, music educator and multimedia artist who has conducted exclusive interviews in Allegro with Toshiko Akiyoshi, Fred Hersch and Kenny Garrett.

Matt Weiers: How have you come to have the saxophone sound you have today?

Jane Ira Bloom: My primary influence on the soprano was a very extraordinary player named Joe Viola. He was a saxophone teacher in Boston who taught many professional saxophonists. I studied with Joe for over 10 years from the time I was teenager. I credit his sound as the main model that I used, at least for my starting point or launching pad. Sadly Joe passed away four years ago. A very special man and a beautiful player – and he had a special feeling for the soprano.

MW: What was it about his sax sound that was so unique?

JIB: When I first heard it, I just liked it. I think it had to do with making a sound on the instrument that he liked, that wasn’t dictated by the nasalness or out of tune quality that the soprano can often have. He found a way to get his voice through the instrument to make a sound that he liked. So I guess I’ve used that as my guide.

MW: So is that what you have in common with Joe’s approach – getting your unique voice through the horn – or does your sound also resemble his?

JIB: I’m sure there’s a likeness, but no matter how hard you try, you can’t be anybody but yourself. Over the years, having spent so much time on the instrument, it’s almost like your personality on the instrument develops on its own. As a creative instrumentalist, you can’t help but be yourself. I think by now the sound that I get out of the soprano is as much me as it could ever be. But I do know where it began, and I credit Joe. I have also listened a great deal to instrumentalists other than saxophone players, to get a feeling about a sound or an idea or phrasing or timbre. I’ve listened to vocalists, trumpet players, violinists, and musicians not just from the jazz world for ideas about the sound I’d like to get.

MW: Why did you start using electronics with your horn?

JIB: It’s something I’ve always been interested in. Even from the time I was in college, I was fascinated with electronic sound. You have to understand that in those days it was all about Moog synthesizers and analog sounds. Finding an extension of my instrumental sound through electronics was a real natural for me. I’m still very interested in phrasing, breath, and the timbre of my woodwind sound in combination with electronic sound. So that’s what the effects processing that I use is all about. It’s not like I’m playing a computer interface or MIDI controller. I’m blending electronic sound with acoustic so that I still maintain all the breath, phrasing, and timbre of the saxophone because it’s what I love, it’s what I’ve spent my life doing.

MW: So do you mike the horn and run it into an effects unit?

JIB: Yes. It’s an archaic, cumbersome system, but effects processing is about using microphones to blend the acoustic sound with an electronic signal. I’m still pushing air molecules around.

MW: When you’re playing a concert, do you already know which effects you’re going to use or do you just keep it at the ready case you need it?

JIB: A little bit of both. I have some programs that I’ve designed that I can access using foot pedals. But I do have parameters that I can vary in the moment. Also I have the option of combining different effects. One is an old-fashioned Delta Lab digital delay and the other is an antique Electro Harmonix harmonizer. I’ve souped up both of them. So I have ways of combining the two in ways that are interesting and can vary. Again, depending on how I feel in the moment, I trigger them on and off with the same spontaneity that I would push a finger on a saxophone key. I’ve been using them so long and I know the boxes so well – you practice with an electronic effects box the same way you would with an instrument – you get to know it and finesse it and it becomes part of your voice.

MW: I understand that you are interested in art forms besides music.

JIB: I’m a musician who’s interested in the world of ideas. And sometimes the inspiration I get from other art forms is a way of keeping alive and interested in new things.

MW: How does your music turn out differently if you are collaborating with artists from other disciplines?

JIB: If I am playing music for dance or with dance or improvising with lighting, the end result of those musical explorations are often quite different than what I might play if those weren’t present in the performance environment, and it becomes its own animal. The music where I’ve been inspired by painting, as in my recording, “Chasing Paint,” – the performance medium exists simply in musical form. What inspires it? Who knows? Musicians are always inspired by different things that go on in their minds, but in the end, the result is music. Music that perhaps has been inspired by painterly ideas. Certainly, I’m not the first musician to be inspired by Jackson Pollock’s art, but for me, it is his interest in movement that stands out, because I’m very interested in how sound changes when it moves – that includes all the Doppler-like effects which have applications in my improvising, instrumental performance and orchestral ideas. Somehow when you look at his paintings, you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the spontaneity of his mind and his ideas. There is some kind of tapping into the subconscious flow of ideas that I think improvisers relate to very keenly. They know that they are creating in the moment, and yet there is a logic and a beauty to what they do that could be no other way.

MW: If you didn’t have such an involvement with the other arts, how do you think your music would be different?

JIB: I’m not sure my music would be any different. The motion, the flow, the metabolism of my melodic ideas – who knows where it comes from? But it is exciting to gravitate toward what feels like similar energies in other forms, other artistic disciplines. But ultimately the musical ideas come from me. Whatever is me, my metabolism, the way I think or move or flow, the way my heart beats, that’s what the music is.

MW: When you do collaborative performances, do you feel that the audience is distracted from perceiving the full content of your music by the other stimuli?

JIB: When I do those kinds of collaborative performances, I would have to say no, because my intention is to collaborate. It will be neither dance nor music, it will be dance-music, or it will be neither music nor lighting, it will be some hybrid and I already have that expectation in my head. I also know that the places music goes when it is by itself are different, and I enjoy that as well. I wouldn’t want to choose one over the other. I exist in a world where I can have all those experiences. One of the things I’ve noticed when I work with dance is that the musical ideas do simplify. But something is heightened as well because the music is imbued with an interest and an energy from another place. So you give something and you get something.

MW: I’d like to find out more about your interest in space exploration and how that has influenced your music.

JIB: I have always been interested in outer space, even as a child. The early days of the space program fascinated me. The place where I found this juncture of my interests and my music was when it made me wonder what music might be like in an anti-gravity environment. I imagined that perceptual awareness would be different because there’s no up or down, and no gravity. How would a person experience sound differently in a world where there was no up and down? That led to all kinds of thoughts and ideas about omni-directional sound sources and passing sound around the ears in spherical ways. I tried to touch on that idea in some of my orchestrations for wind ensemble and orchestra using spatial elements so that sound surrounds the listener. I had instrumentalists positioned not just on the proscenium stage but on balconies surrounding the audience so that you could have sound coming at you from different angles. Those kinds of things interest me. And with the electronics I let those ideas flow freely into my improvising and composing.

MW: Does a lack of gravity have any impact on sound itself? I would think that it wouldn’t.

JIB: I don’t know. Very early on, when I first got in touch with NASA, I wrote them a letter to ask if there had been any research done on the future of the arts in space. But that was in the early 1980’s. They had asked artists some of those questions, but I’m not sure they came up with any definitive answers. It’s something that I have always been curious about.

MW: Do you see yourself as very much in the jazz tradition?

JIB: I do feel very connected to the jazz tradition. This will sound like a contradiction, but to me, being a jazz improviser means understanding the essence of change, being on the cutting edge, constantly evolving. To me that’s what jazz truly is. So, yes, I find myself connected to the lineage of improvisers from the early part of the century in this country. And I also consider myself an innovator. And that, too, connects me to what I feel is uniquely American and uniquely jazz-like.

MW: So a person doesn’t have to necessarily have to be playing swinging eighth-notes for it to be jazz?

JIB: Well, it has to have momentum. Coming from that tradition, rhythm has to be a very important part of what goes on. Different people have different ideas about how that flows. But the metabolism and the heartbeat of rhythm and swinging is key. You can always tell the difference between an improviser who has come from the jazz tradition from one who hasn’t, one who has come from a classical background or from a world music culture. Jazz players have been exposed to a common vocabulary of sound, of rhythm, of feel, that affects the way they play. I know it does.

MW: How has your music been influenced by the musicians from other cultures that you’ve performed with?

JIB: That exposure has enriched my musical world very much. Early on I spent time with Indian musicians and recently with Asian musicians. I find it meaningful to get out of my own musical zone and to visit the sonic worlds of other cultures. It enriches my own musical palette and appreciation of the different ways of experiencing sound – how music is valued and experienced so differently in different parts of the world. In some cultures of the world there is a whole symphony inside how you bend a note or which harmonic partials ring. In Indian music, how you approach a note or how it decays. Wow, there’s a lot there. It’s not so much about an interest in imitating sounds, but it’s that I allow them to affect my musical thought. And sometimes it’s not even in a conscious way. Painters often talk about being influenced by African art or Japanese woodcuts or Chinese landscape painting. Sometimes they would be hard pressed to explain what it is that impacts their own work, but it does. Just being exposed to and moved by it does.

MW: What is it about jazz that makes it unique among all the world’s music?

JIB: Music based on such spontaneity, and music that absolutely demands that you react not only to the moment but to your own time and place in the world. That’s why jazz improvisers can’t possibly sound like what they sounded like in 1950. You have to absorb, reflect, and react to your own time. The influences, the sounds, the spirit, the feel of your own time.

MW: What is the essence of this time as you feel it?

JIB: One of the characteristics of the music of our time is our exposure to so much music from so many places. Everything from world music to folk, rock, classical, electro-acoustic – there’s just so much that we have available to our ears. We grow up with an enormous amount of musical input. Our range of access was much smaller years ago. With information technology the way it is now it’s so easy to access music from any part of the world. That has to affect how people think about sound.

MW: What is it that you want people to experience through your music?

JIB: I’m interested in making a sound as a saxophonist. I love the soprano and making a sound on the instrument that moves people. I’ve also been interested in musically going from places I know to places I don’t know. I’m interested in sounds that surprise my ears and hopefully will surprise other people’s ears. To do that you have to go from a place you know and venture forth into new territory, and that journey fascinates me.