The history of jazz is replete with visionary improvisers possessing wholly original sounds who have gone largely unsung by the music’s mainstream chroniclers. Pianist Connie Crothers, a brilliant player championed by jazz giants such as Lennie Tristano, Max Roach and Jemeel Moondoc, has long flown under the radar, but in recent years she’s become such a prolific force there’s simply no denying her rarified status. Her latest in a flood of recent releases is Live at the Freight, a captivating duo session with adventurous tenor saxophonist Jessica Jonesslated for release September 17, 2013 on the Crothers-founded collective New Artists Records.
Alternating expansive interpretations of American Songbook standards with concise, beautifully constructed passages of free improvisation, the album offers an emotionally exuberant snapshot of two fearless improvisers utterly alive to the endless possibilities afforded by a duo.
Recorded at the storied Berkeley folk venue Freight & Salvage, where Jones joined forces with French horn master Mark Taylor for last year’s critically hailed quartet session on New Artists, the concert marked Crothers and Jones’ first duo performance, though they share a lot of history on and off the bandstand.
“Musically speaking and on a life level, we feel areas of enormous affinity,” Crothers says. “Jessica is a great friend, and we have talked a lot about how we were shaped by growing up in Northern California, and making our way as improvising musicians in New York. There’s a freedom that comes from the recognition of this affinity, as strong individuals who are truly on this path as artists.”
The album opens with a rhapsodic investigation of the Kern/Hammerstein gem “All the Things You Are,” in which Jones and Crothers bob and weave around the soaring melody. The rhythmically oblique dialogue seems to continue on “Clothespins In A Row,” an impromptu excursion informed by their extensive experience “doing free playing in other ensembles,” Jones says. “It’s really a priority and path that Connie’s on. A lot of people who play abstract don’t have this super developed sense of space. She’s somebody who can think of rhythm in a lot of different ways.”
The album’s centerpiece is a tour de force interpretation of Ellington’s luscious ballad “In A Sentimental Mood,” an exquisite piece that showcases Jones’ tough but tender tone.
They playfully deconstruct the Harry Warren/Mach Gordon chestnut “There Will Never Be Another You,” with Crothers offering sly asides to Jones’ faithful reading of the familiar melody, and close the album with a dangerously slow but riveting version of “Family,” a soulful theme by Jones that has become her best known work.
“She plays these songs so beautifully,” Crothers says. “She’s just amazing on ‘In A Sentimental Mood,’ and her tune ‘Family’ is right up there with these standards. It’s a beautiful song melodically and harmonically and emotionally, and I’ve played it since then in other places with other musicians.”
Raised by her paternal grandmother, she started piano lessons at nine, and before long started studying with Edward Hoy, who encouraged her to play her original compositions. Even at that tender age she had “a strong feeling to create my own music,” Crothers says. As a teenager she caught artists like Roy Eldridge, Ella Fitzgerald and the Modern Jazz Quartet in concert with a jazz-loving boyfriend, but she didn’t find herself drawn to improvisation until experiencing a life-changing epiphany while majoring in composition at the UC Berkeley. She happened to hear Tristano’s “Requiem” on an Atlantic blues compilation, which triggered an uncanny vision. “It wasn’t a wish or even sudden realization,” Crothers recalls. “It was a moment when I seemed to be in my future, a feeling of inevitability.”
With his encouragement and a recommendation to Tristano she moved to New York City in the fall of 1962. Greeted by the blind pianist with tremendous warmth, she ended up studying with him formally for six years, and later taught by his side until his death in 1978, when Crothers co-launched the Lennie Tristano Foundation. Strongly supportive of his former student, he began presenting her at house concerts in 1972, and when the New York scene was slow to recognize Crothers he arranged her New York debut, a 1973 solo recital at Carnegie Hall (the first of three such performances he produced).
Crothers made her recording debut as a leader with 1974’s Perception,which includes solo and trio pieces with drummer Roger Mancuso and bassist Joe Solomon. Working widely around the region in the mid-1970s and early 1980s,she forged deep creative ties with tenor saxophonists (and fellow Tristano acolytes) Warne Marsh and Lenny Popkin and bassist Eddie Gomez. She’s particularly proud of her association with Max Roach,who sought her out for a collaboration as part of his duo series. They ended up recording Swish, a stellar 1982 recording they released on New Artists, a record label they co-founded. They joined forces again the following years as part of an ambitious project with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
While the label lapsed into inactivity when Roach signed with Soul Note, Crothers eventually reorganized New Artists as a cooperative in 1987, and it’s become a vital outlet for some of jazz’s most expressive improvisers. She’s moved into creative overdrive in recent years, releasing four albums in 2011, including two featuring her quartet with altoist Richard Tabnik, drummer Roger Mancuso, and bassist Ken Filiano–Live at The Stone, NYC (with poet Mark Weber) and Band of Fire (with trumpet player Roy Campbell). Last year she released another five albums, including a 4-CD box set documenting his bracing duo with pianist David Arner, Spontaneous Suites for Two Pianos (RogueArt), a duo with alto saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc, Two (Relative Pitch), and TranceFormation (New Artists), a trio session with singer Andrea Wolper and bassist Filiano.
“There’s been a burst,” Crothers says. “I don’t know why. I think it’s part of something that’s underground, a jazz renaissance. I’m hearing it all the time. I’ve been very fortunate to be invited in by Art for Arts, the presenters of the Vision Festival. They have flung the doors open and introduced me to a new and wonderful group of artists and musicians. That’s how I first performed with Jemeel.”
It was through teaching that Crothers first met Jessica Jones, who was part of the first wave of students to come up through the Berkeley public school system’s innovative jazz education program. By the time she joined the jazz band in the 8th grade, classmates like Peter Apfelbaum and Steve Bernstein were already accomplished improvisers and local celebrities. Under the direction of Phil Hardymon, she started on alto sax and eventually moved to tenor. Almost from the start, she connected with veteran musicians closely tied to Ornette Coleman, such as drummer Charles Moffett and a later mentor,trumpeter Don Cherry.
Determined to keep music at the center of her life, she studied at several different universities, including UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz. Eventually she decided to make the move to New York, joining her Berkeley High pals Peter Apfelbaum and tenor saxophonist Tony Jones (her future husband). She honed her chops at jam sessions, and hung around the emerging M-BASE scene, explored Haitian music, and received an NEA grant to study with reed master Ken McIntyre. After Tony heard Crothers on a radio interview, he suggested that Jessica seek her out, and she ended up studying with the pianist for a year. Jones is one of many musicians who have gravitated to Crothers, an artist whose radical optimism resounds in her music.
“She’s very intellectual and politically conscious and tenacious about staying hopeful that it’s the time for this music, and that this music can make a difference in the world,” Jones says. “That’s something that people sense and want to be around. Though she’s never had any kind of sustained publicity Connie has a huge body of work at this point. She’s a dynamo, and the centerpiece of so much that’s going on in New York.”
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