Soaring, poetic, quicksilver, spontaneous, and instantly identifiable are words used to describe the soprano sound of saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom. She’s been steadfastly developing her singular voice on the soprano saxophone for over 40 years. She won the 2018 Grammy Award for Best Surround Sound Album for her trio album Early Americans. Jane Ira Bloom recently sat for an interview with Persimmon Tree’s music editor, Gena Raps:
Gena Raps: When did the voice in your head send you on the path to becoming a musician?
Jane Ira Bloom: From the time I was on the planet. I’m one of those people who knew even when I was very little that I loved music.
I remember starting piano lessons when I was four. I can remember being so excited whenever I would see and hear a musical instrument. I know other musicians have said this, and it was also true for me.
GR: Were your parents supportive?
JIB: They weren’t musicians themselves, but, all the music lessons, all the driving to rehearsals and getting the new instruments and all that… whatever I wanted, they supported me, absolutely.
GR: Lucky. How, and when, did the soprano sax become your voice?
JIB: When I studied saxophone with a famous saxophone teacher in Boston by the name of Joe Viola, I started on alto. Often when I had my lessons, he would pick up the soprano. And when I heard him play the soprano, I liked that.
For quite a while at the beginning of my career, I played both alto and soprano. I knew it was really the soprano for me when I was recording my very first album in 1976. Recorded some alto tracks; recorded some soprano tracks. I listened to them, and it was just clear to me when I listened to the soprano that that was my voice. The alto tracks, eh, they were okay, but there was something about the soprano tracks. From that moment on, it was soprano.
GR: What’s a soprano sax?
JIB: It’s one of the higher members of the saxophone family. When you see the saxophone, you think of the S curve. The soprano is a little bit higher than the alto saxophone, and it’s a straight horn. It’s definitely the upper register.
GR: Is it more difficult than the bigger saxophones?
JIB: That’s a really good question. It’s a fine point among saxophone players.
All saxophones are difficult, and they have their idiosyncrasies. The thing about the soprano is that it has a smaller window of accuracy. That’s the best way to describe it.
GR: That’s scary.
JIB: For example, when you’re trying to play in tune and you’re trying to play fast, it’s a very exacting instrument.
GR: I’m mad about your sound. Our editor, Sue Leonard, listened to some of your recordings, and she’s now in love with the soprano saxophone too. You have the most gorgeous sound. How did you develop your sound?
JIB: It’s a long journey. I think in my case, I listened to other influences than saxophones – a lot of trumpet players and vocalists and violinists – to think about what kind of sound I wanted to make.
Again, because the soprano is an instrument that you have to finesse to get to a place where you’re playing it – where the instrument isn’t dictating itself to you, and you’re trying to get your voice to come through it. It takes time, finessing.
GR: Carol Wincenc’s [the flutist interviewed in Persimmon Tree, Winter, 2013] father was a violinist. She has the most exquisite sound because she has that violin sound in her ear. It’s unique. I’m hearing that’s how you found your sound. When I get a student, one of the first things I work on is sound concept, which is not easy to impart.
JIB: No, it’s a hard thing, particularly in the improvisation world – you know, loud, fast, and high. To be honest, the real mark of an improvisor is, do you have a sound?
GR: I’m with you. If I don’t like the sound of the pianist, I’m out of there.
You studied at Yale. What kind of a jazz program did they have? The joke was, “Yale had a music program; Harvard had a piano.”
JIB: It was mainly extracurricular. Basically, I was a music major in theory, history, and composition. I was lucky; there were musicians in the community in New Haven and at the university, and we made jazz events and things happen. It wasn’t in the curriculum.
GR: While you were at Yale, did you play another instrument so you could be in an orchestra to have performance experience?
JIB: I was a saxophonist. I had the experience of a saxophonist.
GR: Could you play in an orchestra as a saxophonist?
JIB: I remember playing Bolero.
GR: Who were your inspirations and role models?
JIB: A lot of different places than you’d think. As you can imagine, not a whole lot of female role models on saxophone.
A lot of the greats from the jazz tradition, everyone from Sonny Rollins to Miles Davis to Bill Evans. The music of those great masters was very important to me.
But my influences are wider than that. I listened to and absorbed both world music and contemporary new music composition. And electronic.
GR: I know you’re a freestyle player. What does that mean, and how does it differ from jazz in general? You’re giving a primer course to us.
JIB: I’m an improviser. I improvise like a composer, and I compose like an improviser. I have honed a skill of coming up with musical ideas in the moment. Sometimes we write them down, and sometimes we collaborate, and they are of the moment, when I’m playing with people whom I’ve played with for years.
I value those musical choices. A lot of times, improvising composers and compositional improvisors weigh their thinking more in terms of composition, but to me, it’s equal. It’s an equal expression of musical ideas.
GR: How have your voice and your style changed and evolved?
JIB: That’s a really good question. It’s a journey, and when you’re in it, you never think about it. Until you reflect on where you’ve come from.
There are aspects to my playing that were extremely intuitive when I began. I didn’t think much about them. Everything from moving when I played to all kinds of interesting electronic sounds. I just did it.
As time went on and I became exposed to different artists and different disciplines, I became aware of what I was doing. For example, this movement thing. I move the bell of the saxophone in front of the microphones to get Doppler effects.
It was really hanging out with some dancers and choreographers that got me thinking this way. I’m interested in how sound changes when it moves, and you move. I’ll just give you one example:
You can hear on my earliest album this Doppler effect. It just happened. As years went on and I started making more albums, I became more conscious of this concept. I started to hone it. I started to augment it with electronic enhancement. I started orchestrating pieces where I moved the sound of the instruments in unison with each other in 180 and 360 degrees in orchestral pieces. Little by little, this thing that was just intuitive became a signature interest in my playing.
GR: I listened to Sixteen Sunsets, as an example of the Doppler effect. The beauty of an online magazine is we can actually provide the music.
Did you play with jazz legend Ornette Coleman?
JIB: I didn’t play with Ornette, but I played with his rhythm section, with drummer Ed Blackwell, and bassist Charlie Haden. I did meet Ornette.
GR: I knew him too. He was the sweetest man.
JIB: He was an extraordinary man. I teach Ornette’s music to students. I’ve been doing it 20 years.
GR: Do you understand his theory of harmolodics?
JIB: I just play the music as I’ve learned it from Ornette.
GR: He played a plastic saxophone. How did you feel about that?
JIB: He could play whatever he wanted to play, and it would sound good.
GR: You’ve mostly been the only girl in the band. How has that been?
JIB: You know, particularly in the beginning of my career, that was true. I have to say that in the last 10, 15 years, it’s been the great joy in my collaborative life that I now work in an ensemble that’s equal men and women. I found a great collaborator and pianist, Dawn Clement. We’re playing in quartets; it’s two guys, two women. I’ve become much more comfortable with myself and finding female collaborators. I’ve been doing some wonderful duets with drummer Allison Miller that we’re getting ready to release. It’s not like it used to be.
GR: I see that you did a project with NASA.
JIB: Just about one of the peak experiences of my creative life. I’ve always been interested in the space program, from the time I was a kid. Watched every Mercury and Apollo launch. I was just nuts to watch anything having to do with the space program.
In the 1980s, believe it or not, I wrote a letter in the dark to NASA, asking if they had done any research on the future of the arts in space. Six months later, I got a letter back from the NASA arts program, which I didn’t even know existed. From that correspondence came an opportunity to be commissioned by the NASA arts program, an astonishing experience.
I joined a team of largely visual artists who have been commissioned by NASA to observe what goes on in all of their different facilities, from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena to Kennedy in Florida to the Johnson Space Center [in Houston], to observe firsthand what really goes on in the workings of the space program, and from that experience, to contribute a work of art. They commissioned great, great painters like Robert Rauschenberg, Dan Namingha, and the like.
I established a relationship with a man who was then head of the NASA program, Bob Schulman, and, lucky me, he was a jazz fan. From this correspondence over the years, the idea came to commission the first musician for NASA. In 1986 or ’88, I premiered a piece down at the Kennedy Space Center.
GR: Is it recorded?
JIB: There’s a movement recorded on one of my albums, called Art and Aviation. The piece is called “Most Distant Galaxy.” That was the middle movement of the suite I wrote for improvisers and chamber orchestra and surround-sound speakers. It was great fun.
GR: Is it written down? Is the performance recorded?
JIB: It’s a scored piece.
GR: Did you score it, or did you have other people score for you?
JIB: No, that was me.
GR: It’s a lot of work.
JIB: My Yale education did something for me.
GR: What does it mean to be a composer of jazz, which is an improvised form? For example, I know Ornette wrote the melody, and he wrote the harmonies, and sometimes his players even played the same melody that he plays. How much is you, and how much is improvised? Can you open up the process?
JIB: Ornette was such a great influence on me in terms of thinking about using melodic ideas as the spirit of a tune, as the spark, the thing that sparks your imagination into the world of improvisation. He had a feel for that and a certain freedom about the choices he made that inspired a whole generation of musicians, myself included.
I think of composition and improvisation, as I said, as one thing. I have an interest in where they intermingle with one another. For me, a really successful piece is often where you can’t tell the difference between what was composed and what was improvised.
I’m a little bit of both. I’m a little bit of the composer, and I’m the improviser.
GR: To elaborate more, when someone has a solo in your piece, how much of it is your music, and how much does the soloist just take off on his own?
JIB: It’s a good question, because a lot of times, the compositional information you give to improvisers is a springboard for their imagination, and they bring themselves to the music.
The idea is that the composition has information in it that communicates something as to why they would play something but not something else. It is often informed by cues that they get from what’s in the composition. You do affect how other musicians play your music, yet, in the world of improvisation, you’re very much hoping that the individual voice and personality of the improviser is what brings the music to life.
Often, in my career, I’ve played for long periods of time with the same people. I have long collaborative reaches to my collaborations.
GR: They get to know you.
JIB: You start to share vocabulary together, and things happen. Things deepen when you play with musicians a long time and when you improvise with them a long time. What we were talking about with Ornette and his rhythm section and playing with Don Cherry, that’s years and years of knowing each other and playing together. Different things happen when people know each other that way.
GR: That’s the magic of the whole process. Were you ever involved in a really controversial project?
JIB: Controversial. Let me think for a minute. It doesn’t come to mind.
GR: You’re a good girl?
JIB: I’m trying to think what could be controversial. You mean musically controversial?
I recall an extraordinary experience. I had a commission from the American Composers Orchestra in New York City to premiere an orchestral piece for improvisers and orchestra at Carnegie Hall. This was early 1990s. I suppose being the jazz musician I am, what I write could only sound like who I am as a jazz musician.
I was so interested in the idea of sound moving through space that I decided we had to have the brass section standing up in the third balcony at Carnegie Hall. Much to the dismay of the concert manager, we had the trombone section and the French horns of the American Composers Orchestra standing. I don’t know if you’ve ever been up to the third balcony at Carnegie. You stand against a rail, and it’s a precipitous drop. Their job was to stand up there, to play certain motifs, moving the bells of their horns in unison 180 degrees, left-right, right-left, at different speeds.
That’s not your usual orchestral request. Thank God it was the American Composers Orchestra because they were game.
GR: Charlie Mingus would sometimes have two players improvise at the same time. Is that something you’ve done also?
JIB: Very much so. Ornette Coleman is also a great inspiration in that respect. About the simultaneity, the way that musicians connect on unconscious levels when they are playing simultaneously but thinking about the same thing in different ways.
GR: How do you stay in shape to keep up your breath? Does soprano saxophone require more breath?
JIB: There is a physicality to it, and there’s a physicality to the embouchure, so you, yes, practice.
I am the kind of a person who’s interested in physical exercise. The past year and a half, I’ve been studying qigong. I’ve studied tai chi for many years. Every morning, I’m out there either on the bike or walking or doing my tai chi or doing my stretches. I’m very much a physical person.
GR: You’ve been at the New School for many years. What has the mix of students been like? Has it changed? I know in my class, it has changed. How’s it been for you in the jazz program?
JIB: I’ve been there 21 years now, and geez, this year, when we’re doing Zoom teaching, I had classes where I was simultaneously teaching students in Israel, Russia, Korea, Beijing, Taiwan, Chicago, San Francisco. God knows how everybody was lining up at the same time.
Sometimes, we were tracking recordings. I would just sit back and think about it, how physically geographically far apart everybody really was. Wow.
GR: Have you played outdoors during the pandemic?
JIB: Not yet, but I look forward to my first outdoor concert, whenever that may be. I’ve been mostly doing projects where I’ve been playing remotely but live, with other musicians, over the internet.
My latest album, Some Kind of Tomorrow, is a series of duets I played with my bassist, Mark Helias. There’s a new project coming out soon on Bandcamp, playing duets with the drummer Alison Miller.
You know, musicians – somehow we find a way.
GR: It was only in 2004 that jazz found its own home at Lincoln Center, the first place in the country to build a hall dedicated to jazz. The acceptance of jazz as an important musical art form has been a long time coming. Where do you see the place for our talented students in the future?
JIB: In places that they can’t anticipate right now. If the music is doing what it should be doing, I think young people will be finding new places and new ways to hear music. I think clubs will always exist, but I have a feeling that there’ll be many new environments that young people will think of to play and make music. We don’t even know what it’s going to be or how it’s going to be communicated.
GR: How were you inspired to write Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson?
JIB: I was exposed to some radical historians who wrote about Dickinson and discovered that she was a musician; she was also an improviser. She used to go upstairs – her father talks about it – where she would just make things up on the piano at night.
I always thought there was something jazz-like, something improvisatory, in her language, something that resonated with me about the way she uses words. It feels like the way jazz musicians use notes. I don’t know why I thought that.
That’s what brought me to this project, where I learned so much more about her poetry. This Wild Lines project, it wasn’t the more traditional approach of writing tone poems inspired by her complete poetic works. I often would take fragments of her poems, gorgeous nothings, little moments of her pieces that triggered my imagination to stimulate a musical composition. Then I combined it with the readings of some of those excerpts, along with the music.
That was a different approach, more improvisational, more abstract. It was definitely some kind of crosstalk that I was having with her across the generations, no question about it.
GR: And Emily & Her Atoms…
JIB: I believe it’s from a quote from The Gorgeous Nothings. “Please excuse Emily and her atoms.” I just love that phrase. I love the fact that she even thought of herself in the realm of science.
Often, I use titles as a poet does. I never like to use them as descriptive of pieces; they just are something to stimulate the imagination.
GR: Aren’t we the luckiest people, to be able to make music during this time, which has been so horrendous for us? It kept me alive.
JIB: The duets I was playing with Allison, we were just giddy to be able to play with each other.