One of the finest modern jazz pianists, Marilyn Crispell first emerged as an exciting, adventurous soloist and composer on the free scene in the early '80s. She was a member of the Anthony Braxton Quartet during the '80s and '90s, and also led a number of her own dates (mostly for Leo and Music & Arts) during this period. Although not as widely acclaimed as she deserves to be, Crispell has nevertheless gained an increasing amount of respect and fewer write-offs simply as a pianist in the Cecil Taylor vein.
Crispell is a rarity in that she's not interested in hard bop, jazz/hip-hop, or fusion. Her style, with its slashing phrases, percussive mode, clusters, and speed, pays homage to Taylor (whom she reveres) but isn't merely an imitation. She's not as dance-oriented, and her use of space, African rhythms, and chording also recall Thelonious Monk and Paul Bley, two others she cites as influences, along with Leo Smith.
Crispell started piano lessons at age seven at the Peabody Music School in Baltimore. She later studied piano and composition at the New England Conservatory in Boston. She abandoned music for marriage and medical work in 1969, but returned to the music world six years later, moving to Cape Cod after a divorce and being introduced to the sound of transitional John Coltrane (A Love Supreme) by pianist George Kahn. Crispell attended Karl Berger's Creative Music Studio and studied jazz harmony with Charlie Banacos in Boston. She met Anthony Braxton at the studio, and toured Europe with his Creative Music Orchestra in 1978, recording on his Composition 98 album in 1981. Crispell began playing solo and leading groups in the '80s, teaming with Billy Bang and John Betsch in one band. She made several albums on the Music & Arts and Leo labels, among others, working with Reggie Workman, Doug James, Andrew Cyrille, Anthony Davis, Tim Berne, Marcio Mattos, Eddie Prevost, and several others.
Crispell continued recording throughout the '90s, yielding a number of incredible albums and interesting lineups that included her Braxton Quartet bandmates Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemingway, as well as sessions with Paul Motian, Irène Schweizer, Workman, Georg Graewe, Braxton, Gary Peacock, Fred Anderson, and many others, not to mention a few solo recordings, including Live at Mills College 1995. She also performed at a large number of jazz and avant-garde festivals, occasionally as a solo artist, as with her set at the 2000 Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville in Quebec, preceding a solo set by Cecil Taylor.
Crispell also kept busy in the studio, releasing Amaryllis in 2001, Storyteller in 2004, and Vignettes in 2008. She then delivered a handful of well-received duet albums, including 2010's One Dark Night I Left My Silent House with clarinetist David Rothenberg, 2013's Azure with bassist Peacock, and 2014's Beautiful Empty Fullness featuring guitarist Tisziji Muñoz. In 2016, the pianist appeared on several trio dates, including In Motion with Peacock and drummer Richard Poole and Deep Memory with bassist Barry Guy and drummer Paul Lytton. ~ Ron Wynn