By Steve Elman
I spoke with Jane Ira Bloom on September 21, 2021 via Zoom. This transcript has been edited for space and ellipses have been omitted for readability. Some paraphrases and details are added for clarity.
Also see my companion post about her two recent duet CDs.
With Mark Helias (Some Kind of Tomorrow), hearable on Spotify and available through Bandcamp.
With Allison Miller (Tues Days), also available through Bandcamp.
1) About Some Kind of Tomorrow with bassist Mark Helias
SE: Were any ideas pre-set or are these performances completely improvised?
JIB: Completely improvised.
SE: Did you do any thinking about it beforehand?
JIB: No, we didn’t, Steve. It’s the absence of thought that’s important. Mark and I – this was last April, May  when we did it – were just so hungry to play. We couldn’t stand the idea of not being able to play with another musician, to improvise – it’s what we do.
SE: How did you handle the recording?
JIB: We used Zoom for the video, not the audio. [The visual element] was almost like a [reassurance] that the other was there. [But] Zoom was set up for people to do conferences, not for people to make music. There’s a big delay – [the technical term for it is] latency – and you can’t improvise when you’re not getting the information when you need it, in the moment.
Our friend, [bassist] Mark Dresser, who’s done a lot of work with remote recording, discovered this audio platform called SonoBus. You each set up this software and you can use this program to play with each other, and the latency is very, very subtle. So we used this software to hear each other. We’re looking at each other on Zoom, we’re using [SonoBus for the sound] – I’m in front of my screen at my place, Mark’s in front of his screen at his place. We have headphones on to hear each other.
But that’s not the end of it. Because if you use [SonoBus to record], the sound quality [is] not what you would expect on a recording – it’s not good enough. So we recorded ourselves separately, on another platform. [We both have professional mics in our home studios.] We’d do a clap test [to signal the start of a recording]. You know, when you do [she claps her hands], and when you [synch] the clap test[s], the two recordings line up just as when we were playing. [Helias matched and mixed the recordings for the final release.]
SE: How many takes were recorded before you decided on a final selection?
JIB: They’re all first takes. I don’t know how many days we recorded. We’d play for an hour, and then we’d do it on another day, maybe play for two hours. There’s a lot of music that you [don’t] hear. Mark and I heard these tracks in common, that they had something to them.
SE: In the pieces that you selected, there really are no “solos” per se, no moments when either of you are completely alone. Did you decide that the individual moments would be minimal, or was this the result of the improvisational moment?
JIB: It was completely a result of the improvisational moment, and I’ll also say the improvisational need.
It’s so hard to be a musician and not play. You can feel all this reaching-out to other musicians, because you miss them so damn much and you can’t perform in front of an audience. There are times you just feel like crying.
I don’t know if you can hear it and feel it in the music, but we were so needing to connect, and so filled with excitement about playing with each other, we didn’t want to color with any pre-thinking from a compositional place. The only thing that’s there – and Mark and I did talk about this – when you’ve been an improviser for a long time, there’s a certain maturity about the choices that you make, about the choices that you don’t make. And Mark and I can both feel those. There’s a patience you can hear in this music. There’s a sense of interior composition, of contrast and dynamic variety, because of who we are as both improvisers and composers – composers in the moment.
All of that is inside this music, and that’s because I’m playing with somebody I’ve known and played with for a very long time.
2) Comparing Some Kind of Tomorrow with Bloom’s first duet recording with bassist Kent McLagen
SE: More than 40 years separates these sessions from the last time you made an album of duets with a bassist – your first recording (We Are), a carefully-selected program of original tunes and some jazz classics, with Kent McLagen, recorded in 1978.
Some Kind of Tomorrow is almost the direct opposite, eleven performances that were completely spontaneous. Can you compare how you felt in the We Are sessions with how you felt recording Some Kind of Tomorrow?
JIB: There was a different need and desire for composition in that early work with Kent – composition that helped structure and guide the improviser. And it was fresh – there was so much discovery and newness about that [experience]. It was exciting and felt very timely.
How to compare that with [Some Kind of Tomorrow]? I think there is less of a need [in the 2020 recording] for the compositional structure, and perhaps more comfort with who I am as an improviser that comes over time. Also, [my] collaboration with Kent [was built on} a lot of rehearsing together for [just] a few years. That’s a whole lot different than the years [I’ve worked with Mark], having played with him in many different contexts and compositional settings.
[Bloom’s first recording with Mark Helias was Mental Weather (Outline, 2008), but they had worked together for some time before that year.]
SE: Is Some Kind of Tomorrow in some way a response to the isolation of the pandemic? Is there some element of the music that reflects your and his isolation, rather than just the pleasure of playing together?
JIB: It’s got to be there. It’s the reality of what brought us to find each other and play. I think there was something, at least inside me, that said, “How do you make sense of a world in a moment?” Not in a composition, not in something that you’ve pre-thought about. “How do you make sense of this world in this improvisational moment?” There was a sense of heightened awareness, of heightened listening. I used to talk to [bassist] Charlie Haden about this – [in this kind of playing,] your ears are like radar scopes, honing in.
SE: We Are was a calling card in 1978, essentially putting your flag in the ground and saying, “This is who we are and this is what we’ve decided to do.” Now, you don’t have to prove anything to anyone – you’re universally recognized as a jazz artist of the first rank, the leading voice on soprano saxophone, an innovator in saxophone sound and technique, and a leader with almost 20 releases under your own name.
And yet, both of these are somewhat different from your other recordings, in each of which you usually have some theme or concept in mind. Neither of these records has an overarching concept. Did you know this, or realize it, or do it intentionally?
JIB: It’s very profound what you’re saying. An artist never thinks about what you’re saying. It’s always, “What’s next?” “What’s of the moment?” “What’s new?” Was I aware of letting go [of pre-conception]? Yes. Because I had to. If you can’t do it [because of the circumstances], you [have] to do something else. The time just necessitated this.
3) About Tues Days with drummer Allison Miller, and comparing the two duet sessions
SE: How did the idea of these duets come about? Was it an outgrowth of the musical conversation with Mark Helias?
JIB: Yes. I had done a concert, a really rough Zoom concert at the New School, with fellow faculty member Allison Miller, just me on soprano and her on drums. She’s played in my quartet a few times and in my quintet. And then we played this duet concert. We tried a couple of pieces, just [free] improv stuff for an hour. Even on Zoom, with that terrible delay, something clicked.
So I asked her: “I’ve learned the [on-line recording] system. How about we make these recordings, as I did with Mark, together and separately?” She has this very sophisticated setup of her drums in her studio in New York, and I have a pretty sophisticated setup in mine. We did the same thing, and Mark Helias helped us line up the tracks as our mixing and mastering engineer [again], and it worked out great.
We did it on five Tuesdays in the spring. March and April of 2021.
I think the sessions were about two hours – again, lots of music. It was the same thing [I had with Mark] – we just couldn’t stop. It just felt so good to play. Absolutely no discussion – just play.
SE: Working without a bass player is like working without a net. As you know, Mark is a very subtle and very creative player. The foundation [of the music with him] moves, and you can feel that foundation moving. When Allison is playing, does she provide some of that bass foundation? Is she filling in something that needs to be filled in?
JIB: I’m sure unconsciously she was doing that, I wouldn’t be surprised at all. Remember, the soprano is up in that upper register and has a need for timbres that are in the mid- and lower-registers. So I’m sure unconsciously all those things were affecting [her] decision-making.
And the absence of a bass frees up parts of my musical thinking. Sonny Rollins talks about it all the time – he doesn’t need a bass. Having complete melodic and harmonic freedom is very invigorating for a saxophonist. It’s very freeing.
SE: You’ve mentioned that you and Allison are both faculty members at the New School. Was that part of the foundation of your rapport?
JIB: The times that she and I have played together have been very meaningful – not, certainly, the kind of history that I have with Mark Helias. But when you click with somebody, you click.
SE: Allison is about 20 years younger than you are. Was there any difficulty in finding common ground?
JIB: I thought about that. You know, improvisers are funny. When you play with somebody, you just feel so connected, you don’t think about the age difference. I’m aware [that] there’s a good bit of time between us, but when you make music, it’s timeless. You don’t think about things like that. Somehow the common vocabulary that we have finds itself.
4) Comparing these duets with Bloom’s past experience of other musicians
JIB: One of the things I have wanted to do was [to record] a live album in a performance space night after night – and then pick [the best takes], but that hasn’t been possible.
SE: You’ve never had the opportunity to do something like “Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard,” where a week of performances is recorded in a club?
JIB: This is a sad fact, but I’ve never had that opportunity. Years ago, when I used to play at Sweet Basil [in NYC], I used to get a week, from Tuesday to Friday. I [also] had a week at the [Village] Vanguard, with [bassist] Charlie Haden, [drummer] Ed Blackwell and [pianist] Fred Hersch, [in the] early 1980s, [but recording live] wasn’t an option. That’s certainly what we would want to do – to [record when we] have an audience, and be playing night after night, where you can throw [a lesser performance] away, because one night isn’t so valuable. There’s a kind of relaxation that enters the music [in such a situation] that’s very, very special.
[Bloom’s quartet with Hersch, Haden, and Blackwell was recorded in a studio in NYC contemporaneously with this Village Vanguard gig (Mighty Lights, Enja, 1983).]
SE: You’ve talked at some length about how important working with Haden and Blackwell was in your personal development, and [how] you had such great regard for them as a rhythm section. How do the new duets compare with the work with Haden and Blackwell?
JIB: What a wonderful question, Steve, because Mark and I had so many conversations about Charlie, and Allison and I had so many conversations about Blackwell. And Mark played with Blackwell.
Deep bass, Steve, deep bass – that’s what Charlie and Mark have in common. The sounds of their instruments are different, but the timbre of their instruments are accessing the very deepest resonances of that instrument. It’s a very different approach than [that of] players who work in the high areas of the [bass] and with more upper-register fast facility. [They share] a connection to groove, time, motion, flow. Certainly the common history of the music that Charlie made, also as experienced by Mark – they [both] played with [saxophonist] Dewey [Redman], and [trumpeter] Don Cherry, and Ed Blackwell. There’s a lot of channeling going on about playing music in that way, that kind of rhythmic propulsion, that kind of relationship of playing on the spirit of composition, and the expressive melodic role of the bass.
SE: I think Haden – because he was at one time a singer, [as a child] with his family band – almost always has singing is in his playing. And Blackwell seems to me to be one of the most African of jazz drummers.
JIB: Whenever I played with Charlie, there was always a sense that no matter what you played, no matter what key center you were in, he always made you feel like it was absolutely right. He always used to talk about [this] – he credited [this ability to] the fact that when he was a child singer, with his family singing group, he was used to part-singing and singing internal voices inside the harmony, not always just on the bottom, but in the middle, which created [in him] an uncanny ability to find an internal voice that makes whatever [the soloist is] playing sound absolutely right.
SE: I think that’s one of the things that Ornette [Coleman] appreciated [in Haden’s work] as well. When Ornette would make those tonal turns that he liked to do in his soloing, Charlie was right there.
JIB: The thing is, [Haden] was not chasing key centers. That’s not what it was about. It was about finding some internal fourths or fifths that are inside your harmony that are not necessarily like chasing scales. I used to describe the feeling of playing with Charlie and Ed together [as] like surfing on a wave. When you played with those guys underneath you, all you had to do was sit back and relax, it felt so darn good. It was magical. I was so young  when I played with them – I thought it would go on forever, and sadly, it didn’t.
To this day, I have moments with different rhythm sections – Mark [Helias], [drummer] Bobby Previte, a little bit sometimes with Allison, where you can feel that wave. But I can’t say that I ever felt anything like [Haden and Blackwell] again. It was gone in the air, and it’ll never be captured again.
SE: Bobby [Previte] has done considerable work of formal composition. He did a record of formally-composed miniatures [The 23 Constellations of Joan Miró, Tzadzik, 2002], and you’re on that record. He’s a different thinker from the other drummers we’ve been talking about. Can you talk about Bobby’s importance, his individuality?
JIB: Sure. Bobby is a composer. He’s an orchestrator at the drums. There’s nobody that I’ve played with – not only his sense of groove and joy, that rhythm, when you hear it, you know it, you feel it – but his choices, when he’s in an ensemble, are compositional. You’ll be playing with Bobby, and all of a sudden – almost like the way Tony Williams used to do – all of a sudden, he’ll just stop! And it’s not because he’s just stopping because, “Well, let’s just stop.” He’s stopping so that other ideas can be created in the music. These are orchestral choices he’s making – it’s a highly, highly sophisticated mind that’s behind his compositional choices. And so I treasure playing with him, it’s very, very special. And very of the moment. There’s nobody like him.
5) Developing a personal aesthetic
SE: In your 1984 interview with Terry Gross, you said: “My earliest music teachers told me to get some Charlie Parker records. I got a Paul Desmond record, Sonny Rollins records. Everything was new at that time.”
“Everything was new.” There’s a great observation of a young musician exploring all this stuff for the first time. Inevitably, as time goes by, that sense of freshness and newness fades, maybe replaced by a wisdom in listening that offers a different kind of excitement.
What’s your emotional response to jazz now that you are a seasoned musician, as opposed to the response you had in your early years?
JIB: I remember thinking and feeling those things. And I can add, it was not just hearing things that were new, but also things you didn’t understand –“What the heck’s going on here?” As time has gone on, one of the things that augments – I don’t know if it takes the place of that freshness – is an expansiveness of what you let into your ears. So it’s not just those particular artists that you’re listening to. You’re listening to a lot of things, not only from [jazz], but different musical settings, different instrumentations, different vocalists – getting ideas from all other kinds of places – and to be honest, you’re still trying to create that sense of freshness – like, “Surprise my ears!” Because that’s what makes it work for me. You keep letting new things in.
SE: When you hear something [new today, do] you think, “How can I use this?” Or is there still a sense of wonder in hearing what you hear?
JIB: The sense of wonder moments, the “Aha” moments, the sense of ecstasy moments, are rare. They don’t happen as often as they did when you’re younger, but when it happens, you know it – when you hear something unexpected, or when something delights your ear, surprises your ear. You still keep listening and looking, because you’re looking for that moment, looking for that feeling, that ecstasy.
SE: Is there anything that you can recall that had that sense of surprise and delight? Anything that you heard specifically where you said, “Oh! This is making my brain cells dance.”
JIB: This is quite a few years ago. I’ve never spent any time talking about how important listening to the voices of Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell was to me. I was a folkie who came up in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Listening to Laura Nyro was a profound influence on my thinking. And so was Joni Mitchell. Every day, coming home from school and put[ting] those records on, over and over and over again, how that delighted my ear. And I think that touched something emotionally. I found something in their emotional voices – I plummeted down there with them.
SE: Both of them used unconventional structures in their music.
JIB: Yeah. The time I rehearsed with Laura Nyro I didn’t see any written music. She did it all by ear? All the beautiful orchestrations that are on her albums – she was a genius. Likewise, so is Joni Mitchell. They’re absolute geniuses. And the canvasses they painted with their voices . . . wow. That’s something I haven’t talked about much – that’s a place where you wouldn’t expect [me to be].
SE: You can’t segregate the sounds that you’re hearing and say, “Well, this belongs in this box, and that belongs in that box.” I’m sure the same thing is true with Allison. I’m sure she’s hearing things that maybe you haven’t heard, and that would have an impact on her playing as well.
JIB: Absolutely. She’s playing quite a bit of percussion [beyond the trap kit]. She talked about how this playing stimulated her to grab out of her percussion [arsenal] – things she had in her studio that she hadn’t played in years. Something in our music together helped her want to explore all these different sounds – bells, chimes, all kinds of things.
6) Bloom’s career experiences and their impact
SE: As a young musician, you were part of a scene in New Haven Connecticut that revolved around Yale, where you went to college. You’ve mentioned hearing and working with Anthony Davis, Wadada Leo Smith, George Lewis, Mark Hemingway, Mario Pavone, David Mott, Gerry Hemingway, Pheeroan akLaff, and Mark Helias, which is heavy company.
I’m struck by the individuality of all of these players – each of them stands within a tradition, but also strives for a personal stand that is distinctive and non-traditional. (In fact, George Lewis and Anthony Davis have chosen to step outside the jazz tradition altogether and establish themselves as Composers with a capital C.)
This individuality seems to be part of your own aesthetic as well. Was there something about that scene in New Haven that nurtured this idea of individuality, that told you it’s better to be your own person rather than part of a crowd?
JIB: There sure was. I credit to this day Wadada Leo Smith. He was a leader of the creative music community [in Hew Haven] at the time, and he was a mentor to everyone, by example. If you had interesting music, well, [he said,] “You document it yourself, you make your own record label.” I had an opportunity to play with him and be inspired by him, but more importantly, [he fostered] this ethos – “There’s value in my voice, in what I want to say, to document.”
And the environment itself, by being in this community of musicians in New Haven, a bunch of very creative people, all in the same geographical place at one time. We all at one point did play with one another, but it was the fact that we were all creating together in this city. They called it the New Haven Renaissance – we didn’t know it at the time. We were inspiring each other, that’s all.
SE: When we met in 1978, I remember you as being very self-possessed already and sure of your direction as an artist. It seemed like the music on your first record had that same kind of direction and sense of “Okay, this is where I’m going.” What do you think you had right about life as an artist in 1978 – and how has your thinking changed since then?
JIB: One thing that was right was – because you had to – start[ing] your own record company. Come up with your music, document it, record it, publicize it, learn everything beyond being the player, the composer, the arranger. And [to be] the producer – the record producer as well – to get your music out there. All those skills stood me in really good stead, especially around the critical parts of my career where I shifted into recording with [major] record companies – I had a big contract with CBS records for a couple of years [1987 – 1988]. I think I was one of the few – maybe the only – jazz artist [at that time] that they allowed to handle their own budget. And it was because I had this track record and skill as a record producer. I credit all that early training and do-it-yourself, trial-by-fire learning how to make [records] – I credit that with [providing] something that I carried with me in my career in a very positive way.
SE: How would you talk to Jane in 1978, and say, “Listen, you really should know about this.” What didn’t you know? What would have eased your progress forward?
JIB: I don’t think I knew how long it was going to take. I was so impatient, as everybody’s who’s young is. I wanted it to happen fast, and of course, it didn’t. And I also didn’t realize how much time it would take as an improviser. Finding your voice – everybody talks about “finding your voice” – how long that really does take, how long it takes to be comfortable with yourself. When I was younger – there’s so many voices in your head about what you wanna do. And it takes a long time to get rid of those things, so that you can be yourself and be comfortable with whatever the heck you are.
SE: I think that some players find the pull of commercial success seductive, and you seem to me to be beyond that. Did you ever think, “Oh, I really should be doing more of that to get my sound out there more”?
JIB: I can remember George Butler at CBS Records once asking me to make a Stephen Sondheim album. From his point of view, it made complete sense. I was a ballad player, and these were beautiful songs – why not? [But] there was nothing remotely that I [wanted to do that was] anything like that. I was very interested in following the path of the original music I was doing, imbued with all the connection I had to the history of the music and its traditions, but channeled and reimagined as I [wanted to] do it.
So you’re right about me – I never had the option of being tantalized by a commercial anything. It’s always been, “Here I am. This is it. This is what I got,” – realizing that there are commercial limitations to [that approach]. I’ve been told [this] by numerous forces from the recording industry, and [I’ve had] the rejections that happen because of that. [They] all just reinforced, “No, I gotta be me.”
This idea brings us back to the improvisatory duo recordings of the present day. The word I would apply to this music is the word “primal” – how comfortable you can be with [yourself] at your most primal musical level. There’s no song-form to follow, there’s no structure. It’s only what you give it. It’s only what you imagine. And nothing could be more yourself than that. It’s not the same as the complexity of a written composition. It’s “Here’s where I’m at primally. I respond to this.”
SE: Let’s turn to the idea of legacy. I don’t know how you think about what you’re going to leave behind, what this track record of your recordings will mean. We now have so many monumental ghosts – Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Steve Lacy. Do you ever think, “How am I going to measure my legacy against theirs?”
JIB: I don’t. Look at the choice of instrument that I gravitated to. Soprano saxophone [has] the least amount of stylistic lineage, as opposed to alto or tenor saxophone. I’m the kind of person who wanted to do something different, and I picked the right instrument to do it on. I just hope that I’ve introduced a sound on the soprano saxophone that people find attractive and enjoy listening to. As you know, the soprano has been labeled the “fish horn” [because of its] nasal quality, and there are things about it that are so hard to finesse because of its intonation and [technical quirks]. I hope I’ve come up with a sound that people enjoy listening to because it’s a sound.
I’m channeling all kinds of things that are not from the saxophone tradition. As an improviser, I’m a melodist. I live and breathe – they just come out of me – melodies, whether spontaneously or composed. There’s a lyric and melodic emphasis in my playing that I rejoice in, whether it’s through my own compositions or it’s through the melodic tradition of the American Songbook. That’s there and I hope it always will be there.
Those are the two fundamental aspects of my playing that I hope endure.
SE: In [Ahmir] Questlove [Thompson]’s recent film, Summer of Soul [a 2021 documentary on the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1989], there’s a clip of Nina Simone saying, “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” And yet, for many, the arts are supposed to be above the times, occupying a continuum, from escapism on one end to a mystical holding of reality at a wise distance on the other. What place do “the times” have in your art?
JIB: They absolutely must be present. I’m absolutely of the Nina Simone – Miles Davis school of thought. You must reflect your own time. For each of us it’s different. I often say this when talking to my own students: “Don’t try to play like we were playing back then – like Charlie [Parker], or the way we played in the ‘60s. You gotta play your music, your time. You gotta reflect and react to your own time. It’s the only honest way a musician can be in the world as an artist.” Thank you, Miles Davis – as my inspiration.
These [new] recordings are from an emotional place of living in a pandemic. What could be more real that that?
I’d like to add – the quality of the questions you’re asking me – nobody asks me questions like this. This kind of conversation we’re having is akin to the kinds of conversations I have with my closest music collaborators, with Mark, with Ed, with Charlie, with Allison, with Fred [Hersch], with Bobby. This is the quality of the conversation.
SE: You and I have lived a long time in music. And I’ll never consider myself on the same level as a musician, but I try to listen with the ears that will appreciate what’s there. And I try not to bring anything [extraneous] to it. Because I figure, “These guys already know what they want to do. I better come to them instead of asking them to come to me.”
You are just an inspiration to talk to, and I love the fact that you have such centered feelings and opinions about the work that you do.
JIB: You listen deeply – that’s a quality I can share with you.
Bloom’s 2020 duet session with Mark Helias (Some Kind of Tomorrow) is hearable on Spotify and Bandcamp.
Her 2021 duet session with Allison Miller (Tues Days) is hearable on Bandcamp.
Mighty Lights, the recording of her quartet with Fred Hersch, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell (Enja, 1983), and Mental Weather, her first recording with Mark Helias (Outline, 2008), are both hearable on Spotify.
We Are, with Kent McLagen (Outline, 1978), Bloom’s first recording as a leader, has never been reissued on CD and is not hearable on line.
The first recording of Bobby Previte’s The 23 Constellations of Joan Miró (with Jane Ira Bloom, Lew Soloff, Wayne Horvitz, and others; Tzadzik, 2002) is not available on line. A second recording, which Previte considers “definitive”, with a different ensemble, was made in 2008 and is hearable on Bandcamp.
Steve Elman’s more than four decades in New England public radio have included ten years as a jazz host in the 1970s, five years as a classical host on WBUR in the 1980s, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, 13 years as assistant general manager of WBUR, and fill-in classical host on 99.5 WCRB.