As one of the more iconoclastic pianists of her generation, Marilyn Crispell can sometimes find it difficult to hit upon a sympathetic setting for her elegiac, languidly free playing. Although she has had some luck playing alongside like-minded improvisers such as reed player Anthony Braxton and bassist Henry Grimes, she’s always seemed like she’d be more suited to solo excursions like the enchanting one she took aud members on early Tuesday evening.
Performing in support of her just-released ECM outing “Vignettes,” Crispell spent a little more than an hour weaving subtly hued, softly enveloping tones from Birdland’s grand piano, coaxing listeners to lean in for a quiet discourse, rather than confront them with strident tones. The Philadelphia product displayed a terpsichorean athleticism on “Gathering Light,” peppering the keyboard with the sort of elegantly stinging combinations that Muhammad Ali built a career on.
More often, however, Crispell settled into an austere mood, one in which she employed overlapping patterns that shifted tone gradually as her fingering built — or ebbed — in intensity. The overall effect was not unlike standing on a cliff overlooking a Scandinavian seascape, the emotional chill tempered by the eye-opening salinity of the occasional gust blowing in from offshore.
The pieces that Crispell aired during the perf showcased her lyrical side more often than the angular aspects she often leads with, which added a potent dose of soul to the cerebral proceedings.