Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist Lena Bloch. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Lena Bloch: – I grew up in Moscow, into a family of pianists, my mother played more classical piano and my father played jazz and improvised, we always had jazz records on, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington. When I was 3, I was sent into a ballet school, later at the age of 6 I started on piano and on guitar when I was 13. Started singing jazz when I was 16 and went to classical voice school at 18. There was never a time, actually, when I wasn’t practicing or listening to music.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the saxophone? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the saxophone?
LB: – Oh, there is a story behind it, actually – one day in Moscow it was raining heavily, and I felt the saxophone sound in my body, don’t know why. So I borrowed some money from friends and bought a used German horn in a music store. I started playing right away, as one friend of mine told me which keys to press to get certain notes. My first teacher was a saxophonist from Moscow Studio of Improvisation, who objected to starting with learning major and minor scales and started me with chromatic scale, intervals and pantonality right away. After that, living in Israel and then in Europe for 10 years, I did not have any saxophone or improvisation teacher, except my brief study with Yusef Lateef in 1994. By then I was already learning from his book, Repository Of Scales. Yusef Lateef taught us composition, harmony and improvisation based on 12-tone system. In 2001 I finally met a teacher who transformed me, my relationship with music and my playing – Lee Konitz. Lee is a genius teacher, he put me in touch with my inner self, taught me how to really improvise, how to ignore my ego, ignore inner and outer pressure to play in a certain way or certain things, endure uncomfortable circumstances and always be listening on stage. It is an endless journey, but his light shines the way every day for me.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
LB: – I learned the most important lesson for me about the sound on a woodwind instrument: your sound is as good as your breathing is. For many years, I tried to imitate or get closer to the sound of the players I loved: Johnny Hodges, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, John Coltrane. Later I had workshops with Dave Liebman on sound production and I learned various exercises (coming from Dave’s teacher, the great Joe Allard) to relax the facial muscles and the throat, to shape the tongue, to practice overtones and altissimo register. In 2003, when I came for my Master’s degree to University of Massachusetts, I met a teacher who finally succeeded in teaching my body how to breath – Adam Kolker (also a former Joe Allard’ student!). He is a fantastic sound teacher. So my sound is not a result of a specific concept of how to sound, it is a natural organic vibration that comes from the way I breath (and from training my body and my face to assist, not to interfere).
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
LB: – When practicing I always try to be clear what tempo I am playing in, what note values (eighths, quarters, triplets, etc), what time signature it might be and how many bars I am covering and on what beats. I try to shift phrases from strong beats to weak beats and feel how the phrasing changes. There is a certain approach how to do that, used by Warne Marsh in his teaching. When I practice pieces, the first necessity is to be aware of where the “one” is in every bar. It is essential for being able to play “over the bar lines”, building a continuous statement, obscuring downbeats and time signatures.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?
LB: – I have always liked pieces in minor rather than in major, for some reason. In our quartet, Feathery, the harmony is oftentimes improvised by our pianist, who also prefers minor, fortunately for me. The question about dissonance, in my experience, is not what notes are heard, but when they are heard in relation to the piece. Using dissonance that the piece does not call for, I believe disrupts the narrative, as I perceive every piece of music as a story with a certain character and content, which of course might change from performance to performance, as we “tell” the story with our playing. However, sometimes what some minds would consider a dissonance, is simply an upper structure of a mode or a chord. That would never sound disruptive and would be heard as an enhancement instead of a “wrong note”.
JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
LB: – If I understand that question correctly, the idea of improvising within a group is precisely to let all influences to color and affect everything one is doing. Especially when something is happening that you did not expect or even find “annoying”. This situation of total insecurity, fragility, letting all preconceptions go, letting go all prepared and pre-imagined stuff, letting go everything what might make you feel safe – this situation is essential for improvising. Especially improvising together within an ensemble.
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
LB: – The perfect examples of the balance of intellect and soul (or feeling) in music and their complementary nature in a human being of a musician were Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh. They proved it in practice that the most brilliant mind is always extremely sensitive, full of deep feeling. They have been the role models for me. Another example of such perfect balance between intellect, feeling and intuition is our pianist, Russ Lossing.
JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
–LB: – Oh sure, providing it is what they really want, not what they imagine to be wanting. I believe what people really want, is to be touched in their deep inner self. To be opened up, to lose their self-protection, to feel the one with people around them. If something close to that happens on our concerts, I sense a special connection between us on stage and the audience. It is a beautiful experience.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
LB: – I remember my first studio session in Banff, Canada, recording one of my pieces with my quartet, “Farewell To Arms”. I was very nervous in the morning, while having breakfast. Suddenly I saw Dave Holland, who waved me to join him. So we had breakfast together. And he said: “There is no reason to be nervous. You won’t play any better or worse – you will play the way you play anyway! Only being nervous won’t let you play the way you really play!” It was one of those rare instances when the words had an immediate effect on the state of mind… I went and it was one of my best recordings ever, actually. Dave Holland calmed me down with his wisdom!
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
LB: – I don’t think music has any time limit. Music, especially improvised jazz, is always happening now, in the moment. When the players, that these young kids are listening to, really improvise and communicate their immediate ideas, kids will become very, very interested. I know that. Creativity is contagious. But if jazz is being performed academically and without personal engagement, it is very boring and void of meaning – doesn’t have to be standard tunes, even, it can be brand new originals, and they will sound stale and uninteresting anyway. Lee Konitz has been playing All The Things You Are for over 70 years now. Each time he plays it again, he lifts up the band and the audience is being mesmerized, because it is uniquely new in the moment. People who get interested in jazz, are not interested in the material or repertoire, in my opinion. They are interested in other human beings conveying who they are and what they feel right in front of the audience’ ears, so to speak. That can (or not) happen with any material. I believe, the more kids get educated in emotional intelligence, empathy, trust – the more they will become interested in jazz, whether it is Lester Young or Ornette Coleman or Wayne Shorter…
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
LB: – I have never thought about that… My experience is that it is the other way – that spirit seeks to understand us and the meaning of life understands us (or at least tries to understand us every day).
JBN.S: -If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
LB: – If I understand you correctly and you mean the world of people related to music, I would change the way mass media presents music to listeners. I would simply propagandize non-popular music as one of the life’s essentials, not as an entertainment or luxury. Which means that real art music must be accessible for everyone, in form of widely spread affordable concerts, free concerts, cheap good sound equipment, cheap CD’s, many books about musicians and composers, that are also very cheap. All this, including musicians’ incomes, must be sponsored and taken care of. Just like public schools for everyone.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
LB: – I listen to a lot of music, but last few months I was somehow focusing on a few artists and composers: Naseer Shamma (he is a fantastic improviser and composer, who reformed the oud playing in many ways), Russ Lossing (he just released two great albums, “Changes” on Steeplechase and “Motian Music” on Sunnyside), Paul Bley (especially with Lee Konitz), Warne Marsh “Ballad Album”, Hans-Werner Henze (one of my favorite 20th century composers), Masabumi Kikuchi with Paul Motian.
JBN.S: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
LB: – If I can choose only one message… it would be that I want to speak from heart to heart. Human heart knows everything if we can only listen.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
LB: – I would love to go to the 50s and 60s in Soviet Moscow. I can only imagine these times, my parents’ childhood and youth. There was so much hope in the air, hope for peace, brotherhood, justice – that it made everyone happy.
JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
LB: – Simon, I was burning to ask you: are you a musician? what is your relationship to music?
JBN.S: – Thanks for answers. I am a jazz critic, jounalist, general editor …
JBN.S: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?
LB: – Thank you so much for having me here, I had a lot of fun and moments of very serious reflection, answering your questions. They are so original, thought-provoking, digging deep. Just wonderful!
Interview by Simon Sargsyan