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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

"You Cannot Imagine" Interview with Joëlle Léandre

Joëlle Léandre "You Cannot Imagine" 

By Ken Weiss

Courtesy of Cadence Magazine

Double bassist, improviser and composer, Joëlle Léandre [lee-ON-drah] (born September 12, 1951 in Aix-en- Provence, France) is one of the dominant figures of the new European music with over 200 recordings under her name. In addition to working with a lengthy list of Jazz’s greatest improvisers ( Derek Bailey, Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, William Parker, Evan Parker, Irène Schweizer, Barre Phillips, John Zorn, Maggie Nicols, Marilyn Crispell and Myra Melford), she has also been featured in the field of Contemporary music, performing with Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble InterContemporain, and worked with Merce Cunningham and John Cage, who composed specifically for her – as have Giacinto Scelsi and at least 39 other composers. Léandre was a member of the European Women Improvising Group and later co-founded the feminist improvising trio Les Diaboliques with Schweizer and Nicols. She continues to be an outspoken supporter of the need for female improvisers in creative music. This interview was done by phone (by way of the internet) on April 18-19, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Léandre had left her home in Paris and was sheltering in in the center of France at her country house in Touraine.

Léandre: Next year I will be 70 years old. I’ve played for 45 years with my international friends and lived in America, Berlin, Japan and Israel. I’m a musician and a gypsy, a nomad. I started the bass at 9-years-old and I never stopped. All my years have been full of concerts, projects, and creation. After my Classical studies, I went to New Music and Free Jazz, but at the same time I listened to Jazz, even the classical Jazz. I’m deeply a musician but I’ve worked a lot with theater people, with choreographers, dancers, poets. My palette to be a musician is very large. I have this passion. I play with so different musicians, you cannot imagine.

Cadence: You’ve inspired many composers to create works for you.

Léandre: I’ve had 41 composers compose works for me. I’ve provoked them. You see, in 2020, composers are still composing for the same instrumentation. They compose for violin, piano, cello and flute. Why don’t they compose for bass? It’s because we are not a noble instrument. I’m from Europe and we have a very, very old culture, and the decision was always made to compose for certain instruments, to give 

them roles and rules. Who decided that the bass is just a side instrument? That is just stupidity. The bass is such a rich instrument, and I provoked them, even when I was young and in the conservatory, I provoked certain composers. ‘Hey, why don’t you compose for contrabass?’ They said, “It’s a big instrument, it’s very low. I don’t know.” This provoked me, so, I will practice my bass nonstop. I will play my bass. I practiced for 7 hours a day. This shaped my personality. I’m an outsider, an outlaw with my bass. I like this process, not only for the bass, but for my life. You create and invent by yourself. I have no recipe, I am just a bass player who’s met many different people in art – musicians, writers, poets, theater people, dancers, and I was ready to create music for them, and around them with my instrument. It’s freedom and love, and it’s something that takes all your life to do. I do a lot of improvisation, as you know, and composition, of course! When you improvise, you have to be you. You cannot lie. Even if you play wrong, you can say, ‘Sorry, I play shit yesterday, but it was me.’ That’s life, and life is a big work, it’s never finished, that’s the process of to be alive.

Cadence: I’ve seen you perform many times over the past decade and one
thing that strikes me about you is your strength. Not only in the way you play your instrument, but the strength you present through your personality and command of the stage. Where does that come from?

Léandre: Love and anger. It’s natural that when a person plays, they open their mouth. I’m a very political person about what is happening in the world. It’s a feeling, an energy, that comes from the soul. It’s a stupid time and stupid people, mostly the people who are the bosses, the power, the ones who make the decisions in culture, the people who pretend to have the direction to tell us what we have to do. I don’t know if I am an anarchist but all that pushed me to continue, to play, to say, to scream even...I think I’m a rebel because I have a strong conscience about politics and I am against all this hierarchy, this injustice in the world. You know what? Maybe I’m a gypsy rebel. I’m like a big bee, I’m a big, fat bass bee. I go around and create my music. [Laughs]

Cadence: You’ve been described as stubborn, visionary and uncompromising
by some in the past, and as someone unconcerned with style. Would you talk about your approach to music and what’s important to you?

Léandre: This is what people are perceiving, but it’s not me looking in the mirror and saying, ‘Hey, Joëlle, be like that.’ [Laughs] As I said earlier, I am an eclectic musician. I’ve played with Leonard Bernstein, Maazel, Celibidache, Barenboim and Antal Doráti... I worked freelance with Classical symphony orchestras and with chamber music too. When you play different Classical repertory – it’s so far from Mingus or Monk. This is my work, this is my selection, all the time, every day. I’ve done it for long years! You have to search and select. You select your socks in the morning, your food, your pants, and the musician selects their music. When I finished my Classical studies, I worked with two ensembles Ensemble l’Itinéraire and Pierre Boulez’s InterContemporain ensemble. I’ve worked with Berio, Xenakis, Stockhausen, many others, also young generation Contemporary composers like Grisey, Murail, Levinas, Fenelon and Jolas. I met John Cage in ’72, he was so important for me, and Giacinto Scelsi in Rome in ’78. I’m really a kaleidoscope. That’s why I say I’m a gypsy. I like to listen to La Callas, but I also like hearing Ornette Coleman and to see some new Contemporary theater pieces or dance. This is part of my food. It’s not just to play the bass, that is only my tool, that’s all!

The rest is my selections. I started as a Classical musician, but I stopped. Why? Because it was not my life to receive a [paycheck] every month and be paid like a fonctionnaire [French for civil servant]. I made the decision to stop Classical music and New Contemporary music because of the hierarchy- you have the composer and you have the performer. The creation is only from the composer. Who decided that the performer has to shut up? What do you mean? Because you have a pencil and white paper, the musician cannot be creative? So, I stopped it. I loved it, but it was not my feeling anymore. I listened to Free Jazz at 18 and it changed my life.

Cadence: Growing up in a working-class family in the south of France shaped your concept of an artist as someone who needs to work just as hard and long as a farmer in the field. Would you briefly talk about your childhood and what led to the work hard concept that’s remained with you?

Léandre: When you grow up in a worker family, you don’t have too money. At that time, only the father worked and the mother stayed home with 3 children. I started out on a plastic flute at 8, and I was quite good. I loved it and I asked my mom, ‘Please mom, I would like to make music.’ Oh, my God, to make music in a worker family? I’ll never forget what she said until I will die. This pushed my ass to grow, to be me. She said, with a long silence. “Can you repeat?” And she looked down on me, a very shy 8-year-old little girl. I repeated it, and she said, “It’s not for us.” Yes, art and culture were not for us, it’s for the bourgeoisie. No books at home for me as a child, but since the age of 15, I’ve been [very active in learning from books]. In my two homes now, I have four libraries. I read a lot. It’s an intense pleasure. As a musician, I travel a lot, and in the trains and planes, I read! My dear parents made a big sacrifice and put me in the conservatory in Aix-en-Provence, the small city I come from.

Cadence: You’re a very creative person. You’ve said before that society doesn’t want creative people. Too much creativity would lead to pure anarchy. Would you explain that, and if so, how does society, or the powers that be, control creativity?

Léandre: Creativity is impossible to control because we are all different and so unique. I think people are born to create something else by themselves. If you go into the track that society decides where you have to be, you become institutional. I could be an institutional musician, receive a grant every year, but I’m not. They probably look at me as an anarchist or an outlaw. The political society doesn’t want people to think too much because they don’t want individualism, they want the masses controlled. They want us to go the same speed, on the same track, and to shut up. If you want to wear pink pants and a yellow hat, why not? But if you have pink pants and a yellow hat, the people around you will say, “Wow! Well, he’s bizarre. Who is he?” Society is built for the masses, not for the individual. If your track is a little different, the people don’t like it too much. The people will be afraid. That’s why we eat the same, we dress the same, we have to think the same... It’s terrible! It’s not liked if you give your own ideas, your own point of view but to be different is a path of freedom, and when you’re attracted by freedom, it’s a long process. It’s a life, it’s my life, it’s long and full of a lot of responsibility!

Cadence: What is it about chaos that attracts you?

Léandre: I don’t think I’m attracted by chaos because even in a pure chaos, you will find the right sense because it will become your sense. My life and my thoughts and my attitude are not at all chaotic. I know exactly where I put my feet. It’s decision and selection. Chaos can lead to change, it can cause explosion, but life is not black and white. we need some colors. Human beings are fragile, in French we say savoir ne pas savoir. Some days it’s boring, so chaos can be good to help you find the way.

Cadence: What do you feel is your responsibility when you take the stage?

Léandre: Good question. I feel very responsible because you’re nothing without the listeners. You can play at home for your cats, if you want, but if you come on stage, there’s a sense of love and beauty, frustration, fear and life and death. It’s all of what we are. When we go on stage, artists touch the audience. You can change a person in public because they are so touched, they are full of questions. I am sure they can receive something new, something different. They can also be shocked, they can receive something else through their senses and emotions. You can change their life, and we are responsible for that. It’s not just ‘Oh, she plays well the bass,’ and to make good money, when we go on stage, we are totally responsible.

Cadence: You’re a very animated performer. You don’t just bow and pluck the bass, you sing, you groan, you shout, move around, play tenderly and violently at times. There’s a strong theatrical component to your playing. Does that come out naturally or Is it done to enhance your performance?

Léandre: It’s just me. I’m a performer, but first my language is sound and music. But, by chance, I have a voice, and I can sing. I have a free voice. I never studied voice. I can sing Jazzy and Opera and Pop, and I can be funny or dramatic. The fact that I play this huge instrument, it’s furniture, it’s like a body, maybe. When I arrive on stage, I’m not alone, I’m two. You’d have to ask the audience because it’s hard to talk about myself, but the music is more than music for me, it’s also action, narration sometimes, and I always try to give some sense, structure, repetitions, forms thematic or not, I try my best to organize my materials. It’s like a composition! Many bass players sing along or make percussions with their bass, perhaps because we don’t have a big repertory, we have to invent it. Maybe it’s also a kind of rebellion against the traditional role of the bass as a side instrument, along with the drums, which is so wonderful, but also boring. It depends on the musician with who you play. Naturally, I think I provoke tension and release, which is life, which is my personal drama. Everybody has a personal drama.

Cadence: What do you see is the role of your voice versus the bass in your music?

Léandre: The voice for me is simply another string. I have 4 strings on my bass, and when I add the voice, another string is added.

Cadence: How did you decide that bass was to be your instrument? Were there concerns about the difficulties inherent in physically dealing with such a large instrument?

Léandre: I started on piano at 8. After six months, a man came to tune the piano and told my parents, “You have a son, why not put your son in the class of this fantastic, new bass teacher who is looking for students?” So, my parents put my brother into the conservatory, and he started the bass. When I saw this instrument, I saw this body, oh, my God, standing up, and it played so low [mimics a low human voice as if the bass was being bowed]. I was so attracted. I’m a sandwich between my sister and my brother. I was such a silent baby, I never cried. I just looked at people with my big, green eyes. It was like a human being to me, it became my friend, my puppet, perhaps. The bass was magical for me. I loved it and I started on the bass at 9-years-old. I stood on a chair. For six years, I continued piano and bass at the Aix-en-Provence conservatory, along with the school, it was a lot, and when I finished my study there, my teacher said, “Joëlle, you play piano not bad, but if I would be you, I would study bass at the Conservatoire of Paris. After you study there, you will be with your friend, and you will travel. You will be so happy.” I stopped piano and I presented to the Conservatoire of Paris at 17 and a half, very young. I finished my studies at 20 and a half, which is also very young. I was alone in Paris, 800 kilometers away from my family. Paris was not easy. It was totally another culture, people had an accent, but I had this bass with me, and I just played and practiced the instrument all the time. It was a jubilation!

Cadence: Jazz was a little-known genre for you until you became intrigued by the cover of Slam Stewart’s Blowin’ Singin’ Slam album [1945, Savoy], which you found at a second-hand stall along the Seine in 1971. How did that record spark your interest in jazz?

Léandre: Yes, I remember it very well. I saw the bass on the blue cover, and I bought the LP like I bought and listened to [the records of] Mingus, Paul Chambers, Major Holley, Glenn Moore, Richard Davis and Jimmy Garrison. I bought all the bass LPs in Jazz. Barre Phillips, Eddie Gomez, nobody told me to buy these, but I did, and I didn’t finish my Classical studies. I wanted to know and understand what this instrument is, not only in Classical music. I was very curious. In Classical training, they give you an instrumental knowledge, in Jazz, you’re given the adventure to invent, to create your own music.

Cadence: While in Paris, you heard Free Jazz players such as Bill Dixon, Anthony Braxton, Archie Shepp, Alan Silva and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. What did you learn from seeing them?

Léandre: I’m a child of Free Jazz. I was at the American Center in Paris listening to them all. I was 18 and it was a shock for me. It was a fantastic shock. We had already all this music in Europe, it was a big explosion starting in May of ’68. They gave me jubilation, everything was new. Everything was possible. This was my generation. They gave me the message to “be you.” They, along with John Cage, gave me this message. I didn’t talk like this when I was 25, 40, or even 50-years-old, but now, I can look back at my past, and I can see how I decided. I started to meet dancers. I composed my first dancer music in 1974, and I composed my first music for theater. I never said no, I say yes! I’m a worker in fact, or a bee. If I don’t understand, I go home, and I work in silence to understand what I have to do. In Europe, we had all these American artists move to and play, mostly in Paris, and I was ready to listen to it!

Cadence: Your interests quickly shifted from Classical to Free Jazz. How well versed are you in traditional Jazz and its history?

Léandre: I listened to the real, classical Jazz, Bebop and Swing on records. I have fantastic albums at home with all of Monk, all of Coltrane, all of Mingus and so many more. It’s fantastic to listen to them, but it was not my music. I was not going to function with those rules and the roles of bass and drums serving as the traditional rhythm section. That was not me. That’s not my music. I was looking for my music, my feeling, my decision. It’s a risk, but life without risk can be so boring, no? I was looking to create new music, my music, in my century, plus I am a woman, not a man. I had to find my music, my feeling, my sounds. I don’t want to play like a man. Men have examples to look up to, not only in music, but as a woman, we don’t really have big figures on podiums. The only figures in front of me were men. I had to find myself, as a woman, in a creative way. All the world is built by men, almost everything. Women have to do somethings by themselves. I invent and create my own shit, I did not want to have the groove of Charles Mingus and the sounds of Charlie Haden, for example. I wanted to be Joëlle Léandre. I learned a lot from poetry, painters and composers. This is my private garden. I understood when I was so young, at 19, that I was not interested anymore in necrophile music. I want live music! Especially in Classical music, or classical Jazz, they have to sleep. It’s enough! We are in the 21st century. I want to be in my century.

Cadence: What were your thoughts and concerns on leaving France in 1976 for the Center for Creative and Performing Arts in Buffalo, NY?

Léandre: I went to work with Morton Feldman after I received a grant. I had applied for grants to work at Valencia, California, Bennington College and Buffalo, and Morton Feldman invited me to Buffalo for a year. I was there with other musicians. It was fantastic. We got money every month. We were well paid, and we did what we wanted. We played some New Music concerts, and then we had parties almost every weekend. That was so great! It was a fantastic time to be there with Morty, as we called him. I was already known in France at the time from my work with Ensemble L'Itinéraire and Ensemble InterContemporain. I didn’t have the position in those ensembles, I was a freelancer when they needed a second bass for certain scores.

Cadence: Do you have memories to share about Morton Feldman?

Léandre: I remember his apartment. It was empty, with totally white walls, and this huge white painting of Jasper Johns. We’d go to his apartment to practice or for some party. He was such a funny guy, he had a fantastic, heavy, and so loud, laugh. You cannot imagine. “Hah! Hah! Hah!” It was like that. He had a severe personality, but at the same time, very funny. A loving life type of man.

Cadence: You speak a lot about John Cage. He was an important mentor to you during your first stay in America and afterwards. You refer to him as your “spiritual father.”

Léandre: Yes, in a way, he continues to be with me almost every day. He gave me this knowledge to love any sounds without hierarchy, without any preference in sounds. Who can decide that this sound is not beautiful, and this sound is ugly? The people with money, the institution, decide what theater piece and what music is good. They have the power to decide for you. This I did not like at all! For them, the creation, or the creative music, can be just institutional. They will never, or rarely, send you to a little gallery or somewhere to hear a creative group. They will send you to a large and well- known institution. Creation is not institution, and John Cage understood this. If you crash a bottle filled with water, who decides this is not a nice sound? Cage knew the reality about sounds and silence, and it gave you the sense of responsibility to be you. It’s so deep, and I think all my life I will thank John.

I can say John because I was so close to him. Every year, since 1976, I went to New York, and each year, I called John Cage, and he cooked for me. He was a friend. Later, he composed a piece for me, Ryoanji, for bass and small orchestra. It’s a dedicated piece for me. I had asked him if he had ever composed for bass and he said no. I said, ‘Why haven’t you composed? You could compose a piece for me.’ He said okay. This happened in Paris in 1981, at a party centered around Teeny Duchamp, the widow of Marcel Duchamp. Marcel Duchamp was a very good friend of John Cage. John told me to meet him at an address outside of Paris, in Neuilly, at 7 o’clock PM. He was so precise with time. I remember he had his stopwatch all the time. I was there on time, and he screamed down from the second floor to come up. Later, he cooked for us.

He asked if I knew where I was? Oh, my God, it was the apartment of Marcel Duchamp! You can’t imagine how touched I was because, even before Free Jazz, and everything, I am a child of this time. A part of Erik Satie, Surrealism, Café Voltaire, Marcel Duchamp, the readymade, all the question about art or no art. I’m a child of that, and to be in Duchamp’s apartment, where the piece Ryoanji was decided between John Cage and me, it’s a wonderful memory. He said he had composed a series of solo instrumentation called Ryoanji, whichis a temple in Kyoto, Japan with a [Zen rock garden] which is very meditative. Cage was like a God in Japan. I miss John Cage almost every day.

Cadence: Cage famously disliked Jazz and improvisation. What did he have to say to you regarding that side of your musical interests? Did you attempt to convince him of the benefits of improvisation?

Léandre: I talked about that with John. He talked about Hard Bop, Bebop. He said it’s always the same tempo, and he didn’t like that. He didn’t like all the same beat, the repetition. But, in terms of improvisation, he made me a joke, almost the last time I met him. He had a cane, he was older in Paris by then. I asked him if he liked improvisation and he said, while laughing, he was all the time laughing, “May I tell you something Joëlle? Sometimes when Merce [Cunningham] dances above the stage, and he has different musicians, of course, we have a score, we play my music with a stopwatch,” and he said, “Do you know what Joëlle?” [Laughing like a baby] “You know what? Sometimes I improvise.” [Laughs] Never will I forget that! Everything was possible with John Cage, everything was great. He was unique, but he didn’t like too much Jazz.

Cadence: Your first performance in Buffalo was a solo set in 1976, and your first album Joëlle Léandre - Contrebassiste (Taxi) was a solo recording [1982, Adda]. Why make the decision to present yourself as a solo artist to begin your career?

Léandre: When I received the grant in Buffalo, it was possible for me to give a solo concert. I composed for the first time for solo bass. It was a piece called “F. A.,” which stood for France America. After Buffalo, I received another grant and I decided to return to America in 1980 for the second time. I stayed one year in New York. During my second visit to New York, I was so curious about bass repertory. What is the bass - an instrument that had been totally forgotten in this century. Why doesn’t the bass have repertory? Because nobody in Europe at this time composed solo pieces for bass. Before me it was Bertram Turetzky from San Diego. He made a lot of things and pushed composers and received more than 200 scores for solo bass. In New York, I found different scores at a publishing company. During my second time in America, I made my first album Joëlle Léandre – Contrebassiste. I was invited to Cincinnati by the ISB [International Society of Bassists], and Classical bassist Frank Proto had a studio there, and he invited me to make my first album.

Cadence: That recording’s title track begins with you screaming three times for a taxi and then venting in French about the stupidity of taxi drivers not knowing how to deal with your bass. It’s really a performance art piece. Is that the direction you were heading?

Léandre: I composed this a long time ago, before the album, and I put it on the album. I don’t know that I was heading in that direction. I was a freelance musician in Paris, and I took many different taxis with my bass to play with the different ensembles. I was ready to talk about the stupidity of the cab drivers. They all repeated the same complaints about why did I need this big, heavy instrument. In my brain, it was hard to listen to the same complaining sentences over and over each time I took a cab. One day, I had a recorder with me, and I took 8 or 9 cabs around Paris and I recorded all the provocation from me putting the bass inside the taxi. The result is really from the taxi drivers – it’s not my text. It’s what they said. I went home and selected [certain portions] and built the phrases out of it to compose the music. Yes, it’s a theatrical performance. To see a musician playing and talking at the same time is forbidden for a musician. A musician had to shut up and just play! [Laughs] It’s sad why a musician cannot speak.

Cadence: Bassist Barre Phillips served as an early source of inspiration for you. He recorded the very first album of solo bass improvisation, and he’s lived in the south of France since 1972. Would you talk about the special connection you share with him?

Léandre: He was such an important figure for me, totally. I listened to Barre and I didn’t finish my Classical study in Aix-en-Provence. My bass teacher there, Pierre Delescluse, was so impassioned, and such a fantastic bass player. At 15, he told me there was a bass player giving a recital in Aix-en-Provence that night and that I should go with him and other students to listen. It was Barre Phillips. It was a shock to listen to Barre. He played his music and part of a Bach suite – a slow-moving prelude. I was fascinated. I’ve told Barre that, and we’ve played together so many times in different bands and with dancers also, and we’ve composed a long theater piece together. We have invited Robert Black to play with us! I call Barre my brother. After Barre, I was the second or third bass player to make a solo recording.

Cadence: Derek Bailey was an early important influence. Would you talk about him?

Léandre: It was my time, surely. During my second stay in America, I opened the [Village] Voice paper and saw that Derek Bailey’s Company was giving a concert. So, I went to listen, and at the end of the concert, I went to Derek, maybe he knew my name, I’m not so sure, it was ’80 or ’81, and I said, ‘I am in New York for one year and I am free to do what I want.’ And he said, “Ah, we have to play together.” I don’t know if it was by chance, but I was ready. We got together for 3 days in the afternoon, until the evening, drinking tea and playing guitar and bass. We played and talked about the music, and about the people, about freedom, Jazz, Pierre Boulez, New Music, composed music, Free music. It was fantastic. He invited me a few months later to play with another Company performance, and I started to play with Bill Laswell, John Zorn, Evan Parker, Peter Brötzmann, and others. I can say that Derek was the protagonist, the spiritual father in Europe about Free music, although I don’t like the term Free music. My God, we are not free. We have a past, we have a tradition, a culture. I like to improvise. I like the term improvisation. More or less, Derek invented this genre, along with AMM, in Europe. Derek was a pure attraction for me, and for the concept of giving your life for this creative music. I was attracted by that. A year later, I went back to Europe and he invited me to play in trio with Evan Parker and him at the BBC. I met different British musicians there.I was there at the right time, and I never said no. I grew to understand sounds and music. We played with jubilation and with a pure expression, a human expression, when we improvised. Derek is a so important musician, not only in Europe!

Cadence: Talk about playing as a member of two very important and influential all women’s groups – the European Women improvising Group [EWIG] beginning in 1983, and as a co-founder of Les Diaboliques, the trio with Irène Schweizer and Maggie Nicols in 1990.

Léandre: This was big. There are so few women [playing this music]. It’s hard to be in a band, it’s a quite hard life. It’s difficult with trains, waking up early and catching, maybe three trains, because you have a gig in a small village and it’s hard to reach. In a way, it’s really more of a man’s life, it’s a challenge.
I had heard the FIG, the Feminist Improvising Group [the precursor band to EWIG], in Paris, and it was fantastic to see for the first time, a women’s band. For centuries, we just looked at men’s bands, why not women bands? [Laughs] It’s so simple. We had only a few fantastic women piano at the time, and singers in Jazz’s history. When I listened to FIG, I was shocked in a good, a positive way. They made some noise and some sounds that were bizarre, but when you listened to the Sun Ra band and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, they made also very bizarre sounds and sang. I went directly to Irène after the FIG gig. She’s such an important musician, she’s the first woman in Europe, in ’62, playing with Louis Moholo and with Kowald and more. She was the ONLY woman in all of Europe to be on the road. To be on the road means to have a band, to lead the band, to find the gigs, and pay the band. We are still very few. The FIG eventually became the EWIG which was Lindsay Cooper, Maggie, Irène and me. Les Diaboliques came after that. I’ve played with Irène and Maggie for close to 40 years. You want to know what the difference was 
to play with Les Diaboliques? Women have a lot of humor and spirit, even on stage, and sometimes we make jokes. I love that. Men play Jazz SO seriously. Oh, God, and men in general [are so serious], only maybe Han Bennink and Misha Mengelberg, but they are Dutch musicians. What I understand to bethe difference between men and women, women don’t have this attraction to power and competition. Men, yes, I am quite sure. I’m quite sure. I’ve been on the road with them, and I’ve played 90 percent with them. Men are in competition, competition about the number of gigs, CDs, grants, and blah, blah, blah. I think with women, up until now, we don’t have this feeling of competition. We don’t care, we are happy to be together and play! There’s no anxiety or stress over having to play like another sax player, or more fast, or more money, etc... Playing with Les Diaboliques was a pure pleasure, but it’s also a great pleasure to play with men, don’t worry, I learn a lot from being with them! And please, music is not men or women, music is... that’s all.

Cadence: You’ve done a lot of work with dancers. What do you draw from the art of dance?

Léandre: I understand that as a musician I can learn about movement, structure, organization, rhythm, space and silence from a dancer. The three or four dancers arriving on stage can give you food for your music, in either spontaneous or composed music.

Cadence: You’ve gotten to play with a lot of the people who you experienced playing in Paris when you were a student. That must have been quite a highlight for you.

Léandre: Yes, I’ve played with many people. Braxton called me in 1982. I was supposed to play a solo at the Victoriaville festival in Canada, until Michel Levasseur [the founder] called me and said, “Joëlle, Braxton wants you to play with him.” I said, ‘Oh, my God! How to do?’ But I knew already Braxton’s music, his compositions, his scores, and I can read because I played quite a lot of New and Contemporary music in my past. So, I was ready to play with Braxton. My God, he had three kilos of scores, and we had only 3 days to prepare. With Boulez, to work his scores with his ensemble, we’d take 10 days of rehearsals. I looked at his score and said, ‘Anthony, I’m sorry, it’s impossible. We have only 3 days and all of this portion is composed.’ He composed a lot. Braxton is a so important composer. NOT ENOUGH PLAYED! But I was ready, and we played. I have so many different stories like that with so many different musicians, as well as poets and dancers. You just need to be ready, to take risks, and to work! The risk to be you. It’s work, but life is work. To be alive is a work. You could go – “Ah, life is beautiful!” No, life is difficult if you open your eyes and ears! It’s a long process to slowly understand life. Did you know I played with Bill Dixon? I listened to him at 19-years-old, and I played with him a few years before he died. I met him at a party in Paris. He saw me and said, “You are Joëlle Léandre. Sit down, talk to me.” We were eyes to eyes. I told him, ‘Bill, in 1969 I did not even finish my Classical studies as a bass player in Paris because I went to the American Center and I heard you in duo with Alan Silva, and who knows, without listening to you, NEVER I would be what I am or have become.’ His eyes grew so big and bright. He was so shocked and happy, he gave me a bang to my stomach and arm, and he said, “We have to play together!” And we did. He asked what I wanted to do. I asked about including piano, but he said, “No, they play too much.” He wanted to play as a duo, and we found gigs. This is the life I have, a gypsy life, an adventure life!

Cadence: You’ve produced four solo recordings. How do you decide it’s time to release solo work?

Léandre: I record solo when I’m ready. The music is, before all, a collective meeting. When you play a solo, it’s a moment very precise. It’s an important moment.

Cadence: You’ve made over 80 duet recordings with a wide range of performers and instruments [violin, vocalists, spoken word, piano, vibes, bass, multi- reeds, trombone, trumpet, flute, guitar]. Why has that setting become your favorite?

Léandre: I love duet recordings, duets are art. You can hear and listen very well to your conversation. When you improvise, there is no hierarchy. You just listen deeply, in a way, you become the other one. The duo is fantastic for this. The question you should be asking me is what is composition and what is improvisation? This is the question, because when you improvise, you compose. There is exactly the same organization about sound, repetition, form, structure, organization, variation, theme or not. It’s like when you compose, and you have this white page, you have to listen to do it. This is a deep and important discussion, talking about composition and improvisation. If you compose, you decide everything by yourself – just one person! When you improvise, it’s a collective music, and you have to trust the musician with who you play. Life is always decisions, it’s also how you select. I like to compose, and I get sometimes commissions to do that, but I really like immensely to improvise. [Laughs]

Cadence: The Not Two label released A Woman’s Work in 2016, an 8-CD box set that documents some of your activities over the past decade. What were your thoughts on releasing such a mammoth work

Léandre: You have to ask the producer [Marek Winiarski], not me. He wanted to make a 5-CD set and I told him I had more than 5-CDs of work, and he said, “Joëlle, you do what you want.” [Laughs] I proposed different tapes, and I think it’s an important box. Why not? It’s also to say, hey, in this man’s [music] life... Don’t forget, some women can work, have ideas, can create, etc....We know how men can be so macho, especially in Jazz! I don’t know why. Can you imagine a woman arriving at a men’s meeting? “Oh, my God! We have to be careful now, we have a woman in the band!” I think men are very well together. They drink together, they have fun together, they talk about [women]. I play 95 percent with men, it’s like that! If they call a woman, she has to play FOUR times better than them. Do you know that? She has to be a strong player. That’s why we are so few. This 8-CD box? I said to myself, ‘Why not?’ John Zorn put 20-CDs in a box. Why not Madame Joëlle Léandre? I like the title with its irony. Hey, women can do some things also, that’s why I call it A Woman’s Work, because many think woman’s work is to clean the apartment, to make the food and take care of the children.

Cadence: You’ve said, “I never teach. I am not a teacher. I pass, I push musicians.” That’s confusing because you taught improvisation and composition at Mills Music College in 2002 and 2004.

Léandre: Exactly, I never teach. When I say that I’m not a teacher, I’m a passer. I mean that, how do you say it, I give a foot on the ass [a kick in the ass] - boom! In order to be you, you need to learn first, and then to unlearn. And when you unlearn, slowly you start to be you. It’s a long process. You need to shut up and learn with humility. So, when I was at Mills, I passed something else to these young students about music, about looking at life, about a lot of things, and they grew...maybe. This came from Cage, again. It’s important to put out our own music, slowly with patience! The young musicians who arrive here, for example, in Paris, for festivals or clubs, they know everything, all the riffs. They play so good, but I don’t know if they play the music. You know how I call these fantastic American young musicians? I call them the “old young musicians.” They are old! They have to listen to Braxton’s music or all the other creative international musicians, but they don’t. You know how I call this music, this commercial music? Sorry, it’s commercial shit! People were afraid of John Cage’s music and Rothko’s painting, but art changes, it moves, and that’s what it is to be alive. I’m okay to listen to the fantastic Beethoven and Mozart, and the so important Jazz people like Miles Davis. It’s so good. It’s big work for these students to take the risk to be themselves and to listen to the world, but without risk, life would be boring.

Cadence: Many Americans best know you from your frequent appearances at New York’s Vision Festival, which was co-founded by bassist William Parker. How did you first connect with Parker?

Léandre: I played with Peter Kowald many times and Peter was very close friends with William Parker. The first time I met William was in 1979 or ’80. I played in a quartet with William Parker, Peter Kowald, and Paul Rodgers in a bass quartet in New York. Then I received a grant in Berlin and stayed 2 years there. Cecil Taylor had gotten the same grant the year before me, and in this time, Cecil had a band with William on the bass. So, because of this, William was there, and we played in duo in Berlin. We became very good friends. I met many New York musicians there because Jost Gebers of the FMP label had invited them to come. William is like my big brother, and he and Patricia [Nicholson Parker – co-founder of the Vision Festival] invite me almost every year to the Vision Festival, which is a so important festival in America.

Cadence: Peter Kowald was one of the first European Free Jazz artists to have a strong physical presence in New York City. Do you have a memory to share about him?

Léandre: I was to give a solo performance at a Jazz festival in London in 1978. I had already started playing solo bass concerts around the world at that time. The organizer said he had another bass player that wanted to play with me. As I said, I never say no, so I asked who it was, and he said Peter Kowald. So, we played together. Peter was fantastic, and he later invited me to play in [his hometown] Wuppertal and Berlin, and I got to play with all of the musicians in the East and West Germany Free Jazz scene that was already beginning in the ‘80s.

Cadence: What’s the hardest thing about performing for you?

Léandre: It’s my life, if I don’t go on stage, I’m sad because it’s my expression, my language. What I like about Jazz, you can add this, is that I was attracted by Jazz musicians because they continue all their life to perform and to play their instruments. Music for me is instrumental life! They are a performer, improviser and composer forever.

Cadence: You’ve visited America numerous times. What strikes you as most odd about the culture here?
Léandre: I like the attitude they have. They can be a great child, they have a smile. They meet adventure with open arms. In Europe, especially the French people, they analyze everything, and they are very serious. What I don’t like about America is that it invented this marketing system. They created this big industry that is centered around stars and money. I lived in New York twice and you can really see what’s happening on the streets. You have these so, so rich people, so stupid rich, and just two blocks around the corner, you have the poor homeless. This is terrible for me. I think in Europe, it is more human.

Cadence: What are your interests outside of music?

Léandre: I read a lot. I like to walk in the forest. I’m a meditative type of person. I take time to look at nature. I planted roses and geraniums this April. I cook, I like food and wine. We have good wine in France, n’ est ce pas? Ha, ha, ha.

Cadence: The last questions have been given to me by other artists to ask of you:
The first question is actually a question of yours that you gave me to ask William Parker in 2013 for an interview. You asked: “What is music? After my 53 [now 60] years of music, playing so many different musics, meeting so many people, playing so many concerts and festivals and being on the road so much, playing for dancers and poets, I don’t know what music is anymore.”

Léandre: Yes, exactly, I continue to think that. Because sound is both life and death, life is sounds and I’ll give all my life to the music. This I am sure. I believe that. I don’t know what is music after playing it for almost 70 years. I have to use a French term because I don’t know how to say it in English – La Musique, c'est [Music is].

Marilyn Crispell (piano) asked: “What are your perceptions of the current state of women in the music?

Léandre: Marilyn plays the same kind of music that I play, we are on the same train. She has a Classical background, and suddenly she listened to Coltrane and she changed her mind in music. There remains many brothers and few sisters [in this music]. Creation should be made by both. I think women are the future because women have to create their music. Continue to invent! We start to be a force now in America and Europe. We will be more and more [in the music]. Men have to understand that we are a part of this creative world. That’s what I think. We talk about sounds but sounds are not man or woman. I think it would be sad for women to just play with women. We have to continue to meet and play with our brothers, but our brothers have to open up their minds and their hearts and welcome the women.

Alvin Curran (composer, musician, sound artist) gave this question while he and his wife were quarantined in California. After performing a few shows in America, they got waylaid by the coronavirus pandemic and were not able to fly home to Italy. The way he put it was they were "incarcerated" as “refugees in the luxury Greater People’s Park of Berkeley, California.” He said: “Much Love to you, Joëlle. In your opinion, who was Giacinto Scelsi?"

Léandre: Oh, my God, beautiful. Well, I met Giacinto Scelsi for 10 years by taking the train 4-5 times a year from Paris to Rome, and I’d stay for 3 -7 days in this first floor apartment, and Scelsi was on the third floor. I would practice his music. We’d talk about humanity, talk about men and women, about how this music is about loving sounds. Deep talk about how one sound has a soul, a heart. I remember eating a soup and mozzarella in his apartment! Scelsi’s music can touch anybody of any age and any culture. Scelsi’s music is really quite unique. It is a so deep music! Giacinto was also a poet, a painter, a musician and an improviser. All his music, especially piano music, was simply improvisation and recomposed later. He had a tape recorder on top of his piano. He always said to me – “Improvise, improvise.” It was so important to my life to meet Scelsi, but also important to meet Braxton, George [Lewis], and the writers and poets. I don’t like hierarchy, never forget that. Never I will put on the podium a person, a big figure, more than another one

Myra Melford (piano) asked: “What are your memories of the marathon tour in the US with Tiger Trio in 2018, and on what went into getting your visa prior to the tour?”

Léandre: I remember the difficulty to bring my bass and travel case, and all the time in the different cities because it was a long tour. It was so funny, this trio, a brilliant trio! So rich, so creative! We had a long and fantastic meeting all the time in each city. We were laughing, you cannot imagine, during the buses, the flights. I tell you, it’s a wonderful band!

Barre Phillips (bass) asked: “How would you describe the bass playing of William Parker in the overall scene of today's free improvisers?

Léandre: I feel William has the Jazz history in his fingers and his feeling, plus he is a poet, a leader. He and Patricia are so human. They are so rare, I love them.

William Parker (bass) asked: “What musical event changed your life?”

Léandre: I cannot give you one event or one name that is on top of the other. I have already told you about some names, some musicians, some composers, some writers, some painters, some dancers. I don’t want to make a difference. All my brothers and sisters pushed me to be me. I understood and I learned from them, and I have to thank them.

Cadence: Any final comments

Léandre: No, I’ve given you my life, almost I’m totally naked, and I hope you will write a FANTASTIC paper! Thank you so much. Peace and love!


This interview is an integral republishing of the interview that appears in the Oct/Nov/Dec Edition of Cadence Magazine. The text and pictures are by Ken Weiss. 

Many thanks to Ken Weiss and David Haney for the collegial collaboration.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this wonderful interview.

MJG said...

What a fascinating read.

She speaks so much sense with such passion and no little humour. I'd love to hear more about her time with Feldman. And, she's so right about the humour of Les Diaboliques, never have I laughed so much at a Jazz or improvised music concert.

Stef said...

A great lesson in how art and life can be fully integrated- full authenticity and interesting stories.


In the post 60's-70's world music most artists totally avoided being political, speaking about politics etc. There are very good reasons for that, i might not agree but i understand them. Leandre, being also a woman, was always vocal in many issues and apart from being a great musician, she must be pround for this lifelong attitude//