Jane Ira Bloom embodies the point where formal academic training and traditional jazz performance meet. With a master’s degree from Yale School of Music, this Grammy-winning composer and soprano saxophonist has made a career of interesting and innovative projects, including a commission from NASA!
Bloom was born in 1955 in Boston and grew up playing drums and piano. Although she tried alto saxophone first, soprano sax better suited her fluid, mercurial style in both playing and composition. Her interest in all things art-related has made her the perfect collaborator on multi-media works, including a dance piece for the Baryshnikov Center in New York and a sound-and-light installation for the Philadelphia Music Project.
The NASA commission was an unprecedented honor: in 1988, Bloom became the first musician invited by NASA Arts to create a work of art reflecting space exploration in some way. Previously, only visual artists had enjoyed such commissions. The result, Most Distant Galaxy, is an ethereal, eight-minute jazz chamber work. Not only did Bloom record it for her 1992 album Art and Aviation, but NASA rewarded her efforts by renaming Asteroid 6083 after her; it’s now called janeirabloom.
Bloom currently teaches at the New School in New York. Enjoy these eight great tracks by Jane Ira Bloom.
- Track: “The Man with Glasses”
Album: Mighty Lights
Mighty Lights is a quartet album with Bloom on saxophone, Charlie Haden on bass, Fred Hersch on piano, and Ed Blackwell on drums. This was one of several collective projects for these musicians. With this 1983 recording, the 28-year-old composer/saxophonist demonstrated to the jazz world how intriguing and energetic a soprano sax can be. That instrument is too often associated with vacuously smooth jazz and “elevator music” arrangements, so any artist who gets a different sound from it is making an important contribution. (With a completely different style, of course, Branford Marsalis has followed just as individual a path.)
Bloom wrote “The Man with Glasses,” which features a reflective, meandering melody. She has excellent control over tone and dynamics, giving the piece an intricately sculpted shape.
- Track: “Child’s Song”
Album: As One
Working again with pianist Hersch, Bloom exhibits a leaning toward free jazz on As One. Both musicians take risks in their solos, barely staying moored to the original melody and harmony. The album contains numbers by Bloom and Hersch, as well as Wayne Shorter and Alec Wilder.One of the Hersch compositions is “Child’s Song,” dedicated to bassist Charlie Haden. It’s an interesting play on 12/8 time, seeming to be in interlocking meters simultaneously. When she enters, Bloom takes a quiet, conversational tone before flitting off to explore nearby musical planets.
- Track: “Most Distant Galaxy”
Album: Art and Aviation
“Most Distant Galaxy” was the piece Bloom wrote for her commission from NASA Arts. Here it serves as the centerpiece of a particularly imaginative album. Bloom experiments with electronic sounds (which she plays herself) in conjunction with her saxophone, and the effect is mesmerizing. She is joined by a half-dozen acoustic jazz musicians plus an “elektro-acoustic percussion” player, Jerry Granelli.
As for the NASA work itself, Bloom truly seems to have captured outer space in a bottle. This is done with a dizzying array of pitch, rhythmic, and timbral motions that swirl like space dust and shoot by like comets.
- Track: “Jax Calypso”
Album: The Red Quartets
Another team effort by Bloom and Hersch, The Red Quartets also includes Mark Dresser on bass and Bobby Previte on drums. Jazz critics at the time gave this album high marks, both for the precision ensemble playing and for the range of styles and moods on display from track to track. Indeed, these four musicians seem perfectly suited to each other, responding to cues of phrasing and expression in a way that continuously fleshes out the work.
The album includes an interesting experiment in this Bloom’s mash-up of her own piece, “Chagall,” with the Irving Berlin standard, “How Deep Is the Ocean.” Another excellent track is “Jax Calypso,” which has a gentle Caribbean syncopation under some sweet-toned virtuosity from Bloom. Stick around for Previte’s inspired drum solo, much of it on the rims.
- Track: “Jackson Pollock”
Album: Chasing Paint
Chasing Paint, featuring the same lineup as The Red Quartets, is one of several concept albums she has made focusing on a particular artist. The overarching theme is abstract painter Jackson Pollock, and many of the tracks refer to him.
On the tune titled “Jackson Pollock,” Bloom might be using her free-floating melodicizing to describe either the painter’s technique or his directionless personal life. The runs on the saxophone interact with the poly-metered snare phrases. Bloom seems to use every possible embouchure to find the extremes of her instrument’s timbral spectrum.
- Track: “A More Beautiful Question”
Album: Mental Weather
Label: Outline Records
In 1978, Bloom released the first of many albums on her own label, Outline Records, for which she has continued to record for decades. Mental Weather is one such project. Among its many strong points is the interplay between Bloom and pianist Dawn Clement, whose filigree touch at the acoustic and electric keyboards is the perfect foil for Bloom’s long, thoughtful lines and intricate patterns on the saxophone. Mark Helias plays bass, and Matt Wilson is the drummer.
Written entirely by Bloom, the album opens with the atmospheric “A More Beautiful Question.” Her upper register is crystal clear, without the reedy strain often heard on that end of the instrument.
- Track: “Good Morning, Heartache”
Album: Sixteen Sunsets
Label: Outline Records
It’s impossible to hear the song “Good Morning, Heartache” and not think of Billie Holiday. Therefore, it’s appropriate that Bloom approaches her arrangement of this jazz standard with more of a retro feel than usual, mostly staying in her saxophone’s lower registers until the gloriously high-arching final verse.
Cameron Brown’s bass playing is so sensitively crafted that he threatens to draw focus away from Bloom’s melody. Dominic Fallacaro plays piano while Matt Wilson stays laid back on snares.
- Track: “Singing the Triangle”
Album: Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson
Label: Outline Records
Wild Lines is another of Bloom’s concept albums, this one commenting musically on the writings of poet Emily Dickinson. The project was a commission from Chamber Music America, although Bloom had already written three of the pieces and recorded versions of them on an earlier album before receiving the commission. Wild Lines is unusual for offering two works for each title, one occurring on either of the two discs.
The titles themselves refer obliquely to imagery in Dickinson, rather than making an obvious parallel with particular poems. “Singing the Triangle” begins with actress Deborah Rush reading from what seems to be a letter or diary entry by Dickinson, describing the circus arriving in her hometown of Amherst, Mass. in 1866.
Header image courtesy of Jane Ira Bloom/photo by Brigitte Lacombe.