02: Joëlle Léandre


Today my guest is French contrabassist, vocalist, improviser and composer Joëlle Léandre. 

(photo by JFPicaut)

When she first emerged on the european musical scene in the 1970’s, as a young conservatory student, she was quickly recognized as a major figure. She’s gone on to a career which has helped to define the nature of contemporary european music, both as an improviser deeply influenced by American free jazz, and as a sought-after virtuosic interpreter of the works of contemporary composers such as Cage, Feldman, Scelsi, Xenakis, Boulez and many more. She was playing in San Francisco recently after an absence of nearly ten years, at which time she made many friends and fans in the Bay Area with a long residency at Oakland’s Mills College.  We started our conversation talking about her early days at the Conservatory in Paris around 1970.

Shark: Joelle got the reputation as “a shark” as they’re called in France, a top-tier musician who can immediately read any kind of difficult score put in front of them and deliver a great performance without a lot of rehearsal.  At the same time, on her own, she was discovering the american free jazz players who were visiting or living in Paris, and who helped set her on her own self-defined path, combining classical virtuosity, contemporary performance art,  and the freedom and joy of playing jazz and improvised music.  Her fiery combative nature and unpretentious creative spirit guaranteed she wouldn’t be making a career in symphony orchestras or playing really any other conventional role in life.

ready:  When Joelle began to meet major American and European improvisers,  such as english guitarist Derek Bailey, saxophonist Evan Parker, bassist Peter Kowald, american composer and saxophonist Anthony Braxton, she was ready to start playing with them, and they were ready to treat this obviously immensely talented young woman as a peer.

squareheads: In her career spanning 40 years, Joelle has toured almost constantly,  playing an assortment of gigs either as an interpreter of contemporary compositions, or as an improvisor, focusing on her own spontaneous and ephemeral music, whether in solo or small ensembles.  And aside from a certain number of composers to whom she remains loyal – including Cage, Scelsi, Berio and Ligeti – in recent years she has moved away from playing other’s compositions, and has some criticism of the contemporary definition of what a composer is and does.

Ljubljana:  – This is Joelle on bass, with vocalist Lauren Newton, from their two-thousand-ten CD ‘Live in Ljubljana’  LUHB-LI-AHNUH

George: Joelle with George Lewis, trombone, from their two-thousand-nine CD “Transatlantic Visions”

Braxton: This is Joelle in duo with saxophonist Anthony Braxton, recorded live at the jazzcafe Heidelberg, in Belgium in two thousand seven.