Marilyn Crispell

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Marilyn Crispell
Crispell in concert, April 29, 2008
Crispell in concert, April 29, 2008
Background information
Born (1947-03-30) March 30, 1947 (age 76)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
GenresJazz, classical
Occupation(s)Musician, composer
Years active1977–present
LabelsLeo, Black Saint, Music & Arts, ECM
Aarhus, Denmark (2022
Photo Hreinn Gudlaugsson)

Marilyn Crispell (born March 30, 1947) is an American jazz pianist and composer. Scott Yanow described her as "a powerful player... who has her own way of using space... She is near the top of her field."[1] Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote: "Hearing Marilyn Crispell play solo piano is like monitoring an active volcano... She is one of a very few pianists who rise to the challenge of free jazz."[2] In addition to her own extensive work as a soloist or bandleader, Crispell is also known as a longtime member of saxophonist Anthony Braxton's quartet in the 1980s and '90s.[3]


Crispell was born in Philadelphia and, at the age of ten, moved to Baltimore, where she attended Western High School.[4][5] She studied classical piano at the Peabody Conservatory beginning at age seven, and also began improvising at an early age, thanks to a teacher who required all her students to improvise regardless of their skill level.[4] She later attended the New England Conservatory of Music, where she studied piano and composition, graduating in 1968.[6][1][7] Crispell was not interested in jazz until 1975, when, while living on Cape Cod, she heard John Coltrane's A Love Supreme for the first time. She recalls: "The emotional and spiritual quality of it overpowered me... I can honestly say it's possibly the most overpowering experience I've ever had in my life. That one night of listening to A Love Supreme over and over and over just completely changed my life."[7]

Crispell soon returned to Boston, where she studied jazz privately with Charlie Banacos for two years. According to Crispell, "I had to, like, really go from scratch. I had to do everything in twelve keys. I had to write out seven solos in every key on every piece. I had to listen to tons of stuff and transcribe it to be able to hear and understand what was happening, you know, within the confines of these time cycles and chord changes. How were people using the chords and the notes and the chords and the scales? Where did they go outside of them?" [8]

While in Boston, she met saxophonist Charlie Mariano, who suggested she consider attending sessions at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, NY, founded by Karl Berger, Ingrid Sertso, and Ornette Coleman.[4] In 1977, she visited the studio for a summer, and came into contact with musicians such as Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith, Anthony Davis, and Oliver Lake.[7] Regarding her first encounter with Taylor, she recalled: "I remember the day I first met Cecil Taylor... He was playing pool, and there was a piano behind the pool room. So I sat at the piano and gave him an impromptu concert, hoping he'd listen. When I was finished he kissed my hand, and said, 'This lady can play!' I'm still flattered to hear my name mentioned in the same breath."[9] (During this time, people frequently referred to her as "the female Cecil Taylor" due to her fiery approach to the piano and her tendency to play "lots of notes, all of the time. Continuously, without much of a break."[10][7][5]) Regarding her time at the Creative Music Studio, she stated: "It was and is a unique place in the world for the kind of music that we do... If it had taken place in New York City I don't think the feeling would have been the same. Here you were living and eating and hanging out with the guiding artists in this country motel setting. People would be up all night making bonfires and playing outside on the lawn with musicians from all over the world. It was a very important human experience and I met many of the people I ended up playing with."[7] Upon completion of the session, Crispell quickly moved to Woodstock and has resided there ever since.[4][11]

While at the Creative Music Studio, Crispell also met Anthony Braxton, who invited her to sit in with his group. She recalls: "At our first gig Anthony placed a beer in my hand and said, 'Relax, don't play so many notes.' I was playing like a thousand notes a minute, and he was the first person to make me think of space and breath and phrasing, as opposed to a constant barrage."[9] She was soon invited to join Braxton's Creative Music Orchestra and his quartet, of which she was a member from 1983 to 1995, and which also featured bassist Mark Dresser, and drummer Gerry Hemingway.[6] During this time, she made roughly a dozen recordings with Braxton, and also began releasing recordings under her own name. Regarding her tenure with the group, she stated: "[I]t was like a family. Playing with Anthony really taught me a lot about space, the use of space and silence and breath, and the use of composition in improvisation... Just being inside his compositions taught me a lot about composition... What really impressed me is that he was composing in a way that was very similar to contemporary classical musicians but with a lot more freedom, allowing interpretation.".[4] Since then, silence and space have become known as a central part of her recordings. As she noted in an interview with PostGenre, Marilyn noted, "[W]hen I first started playing creative music, I don’t think I left much of any silence in my performances. I was focused heavily on playing into the energy and showing what I could do. That kind of thinking is very far away from my mindset now."[12]

During the late 1970s and 1980s, she also worked and recorded with Reggie Workman, Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith, the Barry Guy New Orchestra, the European Quartet Noir (with Urs Leimgruber, Fritz Hauser, and Joëlle Léandre), and Babatunde Olatunji. In 1981 she performed at the Woodstock Jazz Festival, held in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Creative Music Studio.

In the early 1990s, her style began to evolve further when she visited Stockholm, where she heard a Swedish group that included bassist Anders Jormin. She recalls: "It just touched a nerve in me... it unlocked the door to the lyrical things that I would have liked to be doing and wasn't doing."[6] "Some of this kind of beauty and Nordic sound and tenderness opened up something in me that I had really kept hidden because I was trying to be really strong all the time. Even when I played romantic things I played them with a lot of energy. So suddenly this other sound entered into my consciousness and it resonated with something in me that I had not allowed to be expressed."[4] She soon performed and recorded with Jormin and his Bortom Quintet. In 1996, she recorded Nothing Ever Was, Anyway: Music of Annette Peacock with Gary Peacock, Paul Motian, and Annette Peacock, her first album for ECM. Regarding her ECM recordings, she stated: "A lot of the stuff I have been doing with ECM is more about an inner intensity rather than an outer one. I feel there is a connection between the two states - wild energy and extreme introversion - two sides of the same coin. I do both and feel like there is an organic connection between them - an integration between them. With the ECM recordings, I like the idea of playing things so slowly that you are almost suspended in time."[10]

Crispell has continued to perform and record extensively as a soloist and leader of her own groups, as well as with the Evan Parker Trio, an all-female trio led by Denmark’s Lotte Anker, Tisziji Munoz, Ivo Perelman, Scott Fields, the Copenhagen Art Ensemble, Trio Tapestry with saxophonist Joe Lovano and bassist Carmen Castaldi, Trio 3 (Reggie Workman, Oliver Lake, Andrew Cyrille), the Dave Douglas Trio, Tyshawn Sorey, and many other musicians. She has also performed and recorded music by contemporary composers such as John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, Robert Cogan, Pozzi Escot, Manfred Niehaus, and Anthony Davis (including his opera X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X with the New York City Opera).

She has taught improvisation workshops and given lecture/demonstrations across the world and has collaborated with poets, dancers, filmmakers, and videographers. She has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Music Composition (2005-2006),[13] a Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust composition commission (1988-1989), and three New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship grants (1988-1989, 1994-1995 and 2006-2007). In 1996, Crispell was presented with an Outstanding Alumni Award by the New England Conservatory, and in 2004, was named as being one of their 100 most outstanding alumni of the past 100 years.[14] She is the author of the instructional DVD "A pianist's guide to free improvisation: keys to unlocking your creativity" (2002, Homespun Video).[15]

In 2000, Crispell appeared in the French film Women in Jazz by Gilles Corre.[16] In 2005–2006, she performed and recorded with the NOW Orchestra in Vancouver, and was co-director of the Vancouver Creative Music Institute and a faculty member at the Banff Centre International Workshop in Jazz.[6] She also created and directed a multi media production entitled Cy Twombly Dreamhouse, with choreography by Savia Berger.[17] In 2017, she collaborated with Jo Ganter, visual artist, and Raymond MacDonald, saxophonist, both from Scotland, on Drawing Sound, an exhibition of graphic scores at the Kleinert/James Gallery, Woodstock, NY.[18]


As leader/co-leader[edit]

Year released Title Label Notes
1983 Rhythms Hung in Undrawn Sky Leo Solo piano
1983 Spirit Music Cadence Quartet, with Billy Bang (violin), Wes Brown (guitar), John Betsch (drums); in concert
1983 A Concert in Berlin – Summer 83 FMP Solo piano
1984 Live in Berlin Black Saint Quartet, with Billy Bang (violin), Peter Kowald (bass), John Betsch (drums)
1985 And Your Ivory Voice Sings Leo Duo, with Doug James (percussion)
1987 Quartet Improvisations, Paris 1986 Leo Quartet, with Didier Petit (cello), Marcio Mattos (bass), Yoval Mincemacher (drums)
1988 Labyrinths Victo Solo piano
1988 Gaia Leo Trio, with Reggie Workman (bass, drums, percussion), Doug James (drums, percussion)
1989 Live in San Francisco Music & Arts Solo piano; in concert
1990 Duets Vancouver 1989 Music & Arts Duo, with Anthony Braxton (alto sax, flute); in concert
1990 Live in Zurich Leo Trio, with Reggie Workman (bass), Paul Motian (drums); in concert
1991 Circles Victo Quintet, with Oliver Lake (soprano sax, alto sax), Peter Buettner (tenor sax), Reggie Workman (bass), Gerry Hemingway (drums); in concert
1991 The Kitchen Concert Leo Trio, with Mark Dresser (bass), Gerry Hemingway (drums)
1991 Overlapping Hands: Eight Segments FMP Duo, with Irene Schweizer (piano)
1992 Duo Knitting Factory Duo, with Gerry Hemingway (drums)
1992 Piano Duets (Tuned & Detuned Pianos) Leo Duo, with Georg Graewe (piano)
1993 For Coltrane Leo Solo piano; in concert
1993 Santuerio Leo Quartet, with Mark Feldman (violin), Hank Roberts (cello), and Gerry Hemingway (drums)
1993 Highlights from the Summer of 1992 American Tour Music & Arts Trio, with Reggie Workman (bass), Gerry Hemingway (drums)
1994 Band on the Wall Matchless Duo, with Eddie Prévost (drums); in concert
1995 Behind the Night B&W Music, X-Talk Quintet, with Fritz Hauser, Hildegard Kleeb, Urs Leimgruber, and Elvira Plenar
1995 Cascades Music & Arts Trio, with Barry Guy (bass), Gerry Hemingway (drums, vibraphone, gamelan); in concert
1995 Contrasts: Live at Yoshi's (1995) Music & Arts Solo piano; in concert
1995 Hyperion Music & Arts Trio, with Peter Brötzmann (saxophones, clarinets, tarogato), Hamid Drake (drums); in concert
1995 Spring Tour Alice Trio, with Anders Jormin (bass), Raymond Strid (drums)
1995 Inference Music & Arts Duo, with Tim Berne (alto sax); in concert
1995 Live at Mills College, 1995 Music & Arts Solo piano; in concert
1996 The Woodstock Concert Music & Arts Solo piano; in concert
1996 Destiny Okka Disk Trio, with Fred Anderson (tenor sax), Hamid Drake (percussion); in concert
1996 Connecting Spirits Music & Arts Duo, with Joseph Jarman (alto sax, flute); in concert
1997 Nothing Ever Was, Anyway: Music of Annette Peacock ECM Most tracks trio, with Gary Peacock (bass), Paul Motian (drums); one track quartet, with Annette Peacock (vocals) added
1998 Dark Night, and Luminous Edicions Nova Era Duo with Agustí Fernández (piano); in concert
2000 Red Black Saint Duo, with Stefano Maltese (reeds)
2001 Blue Black Saint Most tracks duo, with Stefano Maltese (reeds); some tracks trio, with Gioconda Cilio (vocals) added
2001 Selected Works 1983-1986 (Solo, Duo, Quartet) Golden Years Of New Jazz Compilation of tracks previously released on Rhythms Hung In Undrawn Sky (1983), And Your Ivory Voice Sings (1985), and Quartet Improvisations, Paris 1986 (1987).
2001 Amaryllis ECM Trio, with Gary Peacock (bass), Paul Motian (drums)
2001 Complicité Victo A 3-disc set. Crispell plays solo piano on one disc; the other two discs feature Paul Plimley / John Oswald and Cecil Taylor.
2004 Storyteller ECM Trio, with Mark Helias (bass), Paul Motian (drums)
2005 October 16, 1982: Donaueschinger Musiktage, Donaueschingen, Germany Bootleg / Unauthorized Quartet, with Billy Bang (violin), Peter Kowald (bass), John Betsch (drums)
2007 Vignettes ECM Solo piano
2008 Sibanye (We Are One) Intakt Duo, with Louis Moholo-Moholo (drums, percussion)
2009 Collaborations Live at Nya Perspektiv Festivals 2004 and 2007 Leo Various ensembles; with Magnus Broo (trumpet), Palle Danielsson (bass), Fredrik Ljungkvist (clarinet and saxophone), Paal Nilssen-Love (drums), Lars-Goran Ulander (saxophone), and Per Zanussi (bass)
2010 One Dark Night I Left My Silent House ECM Duo, with David Rothenberg
2011 Affinities Intakt Duo, with Gerry Hemingway (drums, percussion, vibraphone)
2011 This Appearing World Rattle Records Trio, with Jeff Henderson (reeds) and Richard Nunns (Taonga pūoro)
2011 Free Flight: Live At Enjoy Jazz Festival 2010 fixcel (Release with limited circulation[19]) Trio, with Erwin Ditzner and Sebastian Gramss
2012 Play Braxton Tzadik Trio, with Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemingway
2013 Azure ECM Duo, with Gary Peacock
2015 Table of Changes Intakt Duo, with Gerry Hemingway (drums)
2016 In Motion Intakt Trio, with Gary Peacock (bass), Richard Poole (drums)
2018 Dreamstruck Not Two Trio, with Joe Fonda (bass), Harvey Sorgen (drums)
2018 Dream Libretto Leo Most tracks duo, with Tanya Kalmanovitch (violin); some tracks trio, with Richard Teitelbaum (electronics) added
2019 The Adornment of Time Pi Duo, with Tyshawn Sorey (drums, percussion)
2020 How to Turn the Moon Pyroclastic Duo, with Angelica Sanchez[3]
2021 Streams Not Two Duo, with Yuma Uesaka
2021 ConcertOto Matchless Trio, with Eddie Prévost and Harrison Smith
2022 With Grace in Mind Fundacja Sluchaj! Trio, with Joe Fonda (bass), Harvey Sorgen (drums)

As side musician[edit]

with Lotte Anker and Marilyn Mazur
with Clint Bahr
  • Puzzlebox (Moonjune, 2022)
with Thurman Barker
  • The Way I Hear It (Uptee Productions, 1998)
with Anthony Braxton
with Andrea Centazzo
  • Stolen Moment (Ictus, 2020)
with Agustí Fernández
  • River Tiger Fire (Fundacja Słuchaj!, 2015)
with Scott Fields
  • 48 Motives, January 11, 1996 (Cadence, 1996)
  • Five Frozen Eggs (Music & Arts, 1997)
  • Stephen Dembski – Sonotropism (Music & Arts, 1997)
with John Geggie and Nick Fraser
with The Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra and Evan Parker
  • Parallel Moments Unbroken (FMR, 2018)
with Barry Guy
  • Blue Horizon. Barry Guy@70 [Live At The Ad Libitum Festival 2017] (Fundacja Słuchaj!, 2018)
with Barry Guy London Jazz Composer's Orchestra
with Barry Guy New Orchestra
with Guy-Gustafsson-Strid Trio
with Barry Guy and Paul Lytton
with Francois Houle
  • Any Terrain Tumultuous (Red Toucan, 1995)
with Anders Jormin
with Henry Kaiser
with Steve Lacy
  • Five Facings (FMP, 1996)
with Joelle Leandre
with Urs Leimgruber, Joelle Leandre and Fritz Hauser
  • Quartet Noir (Victo, 1999)
  • Quartet Noir Lugano (Victo, 2005)
with Joe Lovano
with Raymond MacDonald
with Raymond MacDonald and Pierre Alexandre Tremblay
  • Two Duos : Three Trios (Bruce's Fingers, 2016)
with The Roscoe Mitchell Creative Orchestra
with Michael Moore and Gerry Hemingway
with Tisziji Munoz
  • Auspicious Healing! (Anami, 2000)
  • Breaking the Wheel of Life and Death (Anami, 2000)
  • Heart to Heart (Anami, 2013)
  • Beautiful Empty Fullness (Anami, 2014)
  • The Paradox of Independence (Anami, 2014)
with NOW Orchestra
  • Pola (Victo, 2005)
with Larry Ochs
with Parker-Guy-Lytton Trio
with Ivo Perelman
with Nelly Pouget
  • Le Voir (Minuit 5 Regards, 1998)
with Michele Rabbia and Vincent Courtois
with Gunhild Seim and David Rothenberg
  • Grenseland (Drollehala, 2018)
with Gunhild Seim & Time Jungle
  • Elephant Wings (Drollehala, 2012)
with Wadada Leo Smith
with Reggie Workman
with Bobby Zankel
  • Human Flowers (CIMP, 1996)
performing works of John Cage
  • Works for Piano, Toy Piano & Prepared Piano, Vol. III (Wergo, 1991)
performing works of Robert Cogan, Pozzi Escot and Manfred Niehaus



  1. ^ a b Erlewine, Michael; Bogdanov, Vladimir; Woodstra, Chris; Yanow, Scott, eds. (1996). All Music Guide to Jazz (2nd ed.). Miller Freeman. p. 178.
  2. ^ Pareles, Jon (March 26, 1984). "Noted in Brief: Marilyn Crispell Plays Solo Jazz Piano". The New York Times. Retrieved June 9, 2020.
  3. ^ a b Johnson, Martin (November 2020). "Reviews: Anglica Sanchez & Marilyn Crispell". JazzTimes: 61.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Sheridan, Molly (August 20, 2009). "Marilyn Crispell: Between the Lines". Retrieved June 9, 2020.
  5. ^ a b Enstice, Wayne; Stockhouse, Janis (2004). Jazzwomen: Conversations With Twenty-One Musicians. Indiana University Press. pp. 85.
  6. ^ a b c d Greenland, Tom (October 13, 2006). "Marilyn Crispell". All About Jazz. Retrieved July 19, 2010.
  7. ^ a b c d e Brady, Shaun (May 1, 2019). "Overdue Ovation: Marilyn Crispell". Retrieved June 9, 2020.
  8. ^ Enstice, Wayne; Stockhouse, Janis (2004). Jazzwomen: Conversations With Twenty-One Musicians. Indiana University Press. pp. 86.
  9. ^ a b Shatz, Adam (September 23, 2001). "A Chosen Calm After the Avant-Garde Storm". The New York Times. Retrieved June 9, 2020.
  10. ^ a b Peterson, Lloyd (March 20, 2009). "Marilyn Crispell: Uncompromising Power and Grace". Retrieved June 9, 2020.
  11. ^ Lock, Graham (1994). Chasing the Vibration: Meetings with Creative Musicians. Exeter: Stride. pp. 105–111.
  12. ^ "Density and Space: A Conversation with Yuma Uesaka and Marilyn Crispell". November 3, 2021.
  13. ^ "John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation: Marilyn Crispell". Retrieved June 9, 2020.
  14. ^ "Marilyn Crispell: Biography". Retrieved June 9, 2020.
  15. ^ "A pianist's guide to free improvisation: keys to unlocking your creativity". OCLC 51197945. Retrieved August 15, 2023.
  16. ^ "Femmes du Jazz / Women in Jazz: A film by Gilles Corre". Retrieved June 9, 2020.
  17. ^ "Come As A Musician, Leave As A Master". September 11, 2018. Retrieved June 9, 2020.
  18. ^ "Drawing Sound: An Exhibition and Musical Performance of Graphic Scores" (PDF). Retrieved June 9, 2020.
  19. ^ "The Marilyn Crispell Sessionography". bb10k. Retrieved March 28, 2022.

Additional sources[edit]

  • Crispell, Marilyn. 2000. "Elements of Improvisation: For Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton." In Arcana: Musicians on Music, ed. John Zorn, 190-192. New York: Granary Books/Hips Road.

External links[edit]