Jane Ira Bloom: Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson

Is there a sound in jazz more instantly identifiable than Jane Ira Bloom's soprano saxophone? Even from the earliest days of her career, her ‘voice' has seemed to be resoundingly in place, and the decades since she first emerged haven't witnessed a significant alteration in that identity so much as an ongoing refinement; at this stage, the instrument is as close to being a natural extension of her body as an instrument could conceivably be. That her playing is at its customary high level on Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson isn't therefore what distinguishes the release, despite the considerable pleasure one derives from hearing her play. Instead, the inspiration Bloom's drawn from the nineteenth-century American poet is noteworthy for having brought about remarkable quartet performances and an exceptionally strong collection of original compositions. The saxophonist gravitated to the project idea after learning that the poet was also a pianist and improviser, something Bloom had already sensed in what she heard as the jazz-like character of Dickinson's phrasing; in Bloom's own words, “I didn't always understand her, but I always felt Emily's use of words mirrored the way a jazz musician uses notes.”

Though it's a double-CD release, it's not two complete discs of new material. Bloom presents the fifteen tracks (fourteen originals capped by a lovely solo rendering by the leader of Rodgers and Hart's “It's Easy to Remember”) twice, as first pure instrumental performances and then as a differently sequenced set with actor Deborah Rush contributing readings of Dickinson's writings, excerpts of poetry and prose taken from her collected works and so-called ‘envelope' poems The Gorgeous Nothings. These additions are handled effectively, with Rush often softly reciting a verse or two at the outset of a piece or at its tail end; only in a couple of instances does she appear throughout a song with the quartet playing behind her, as when the full five-stanza recitation of “A Murmur in the Trees—to note” occurs within “A Star Not Far Enough.” As central to the project as Dickinson's poetry is, then, it's handled subtly, with the quartet's playing the primary focus.

Appearing again with Bloom are her long-standing partners Mark Helias on bass and Bobby Previte on drums, though in a change from Bloom's 2016 trio outing Early Americans, Wild Lines adds pianist Dawn Clement. Of the two, my preferred configuration is the quartet for at least two reasons: there's the contrasting instrumental colour the piano brings to the group, plus Clement's presence also eases the pressure on Bloom by divesting her of the role of single front-line soloist. This fuller and richer group sound naturally produces a more satisfying presentation of Bloom's compositions, and the quartet also shows itself to be a remarkably mobile and versatile unit adept at handling the many styles tackled on the release.

Highlights are plentiful. On the bewitching “Alone & In A Circumstance” and “Other Eyes,” Bloom's full-throated saxophone is as sinuous and seductive as ever. Complementing her terrifically are the ever-inventive Helias and Previte, both of who animate her material with endless amounts of enthusiasm. Clement's no slouch in that department either (witness her extended solo turn on “One Note From One Bird,” for instance), and hearing all concerned infuse the performances with swing, blues, and R&B flavours is a major source of pleasure.

One might expect Bloom's riff on Dickinson's well-known “One note from one bird” (“One note from / One Bird / Is better than / a Million Word”) to nod to Charlie Parker, but instead Monk's the one melodically referenced; the bluesy “Singing the Triangle,” “Bright Wednesday,” and “Cornets of Paradise” likewise tantalize with fetching themes, the latter also noteworthy for the way it segues from bop to funk with ease. Another standout is “Big Bill,” which engages from the drop with a punchy groove that's as much gutbucket rock'n'roll and R&B as jazz.

“Other Eyes” offers a particularly instructive illustration of how terrific the playing is. With Bloom voicing a prototypically entrancing melody, Helias provides a solid grounding while Previte, in marked contrast, plays with untethered abandon in generating rapid showers of cymbals and hi-hats. That the performance feels stable in spite of its free-floating design testifies to the connectedness of the musicians in question. Though Wild Lines is Bloom's seventeenth album, the saxophonist shows no signs of creative weakening; if anything, this imaginative project, her first coupling of music and text, has inspired her to write a collection of tunes that ranks with her best.

October 2017