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The Jackson Pollock of jazz


Marilyn Lerner’s jazz improvisations have been compared to a sonic interpretation of a painting by abstract expressionist artist Jackson Pollock.

“We’re more comfortable in our culture with visual abstraction than we are with sonic abstraction,” the pianist says.

A prolific composer and recording artist who’s performed around the world, Lerner draws a comparison between improvising and composing, which she has been doing since she was in Grade 3. “When you start with an idea for a song, you really don’t know what it’s going to be,” she says, adding that improvising during a performance is on-the-spot composing. “It takes a lot of skill to do it well, and a lot of experience.”

Lerner calls her avant-garde improvisations abstract lyricism. “Lyricism has certain emotional, song-like qualities, but the abstract is that it’s not necessarily in a predictable kind of form,” she says. “So, if I think of a Jackson Pollock, for example, there’s a lot of expression, but the form is more free. It may have structure internally, but it doesn’t outwardly have it.”

As a composer, she says she enjoys playing with form and writes intuitively. “Because I’ve done so much music, I think the studying I’ve done comes through.”

From the age of eight to 15, Lerner was immersed in classical music, studying piano in her native Montreal at École Vincent d’Indy, where she was taught by nuns. At 15, she discovered Joni Mitchell and the folk music scene. “I didn’t want to play piano anymore. I taught myself to play guitar. I didn’t want to study classical music anymore. It wasn’t cool,” she says.

Lerner left Montreal at 17 to attend Toronto’s York University, with the aim of becoming a psychologist, but she switched to the jazz program after being exposed to the music of jazz pianist Bill Evans.

“He had studied a lot of classical music himself, and listening to him made me realize you could play classically and make things up at the same time,” she says.

She went on to play in various local jazz bands, but then classical music came back into her life. “To this day, when I play, I play Bach a lot,” she says. “I go to concerts. I love Schubert. That’s as much a part of my listening as jazz is.”

Another side of Lerner is her affinity for Jewish music. Recording an album with top Cuban musicians in 1997, she says she was struck with their knowledge of classical music, jazz and their own Afro-Cuban music. “It made me curious about my own music, which was interrupted by the Holocaust.”


She and violinist Daniel Koulack then formed a group that reimagined traditional Yiddish music by adding their own modern influences. After they performed at the 1997 Ashkenaz Festival, Lerner began collaborating with some musicians of the New York Yiddish revival. She worked with the late Yiddish singer Adrienne Cooper – her partner for nine years – the Klezmatics, Frank London and other klezmer artists, improvising around their music or playing her own take on it.

Lerner has recorded some 15 CDs. She’s the pianist in the Ugly Beauties trio, which released its second album, Strange Attractors, this past March. Lerner, cellist Matt Brubeck and drummer Nick Fraser all contributed to this collection of jazz improvisations. The trio’s first recording came out in 2010. Since then, both Brubeck and Lerner have lost family members, and Lerner says the new album is a “remembrance of that period.”

Lerner will be performing French songs at the TD Toronto Jazz Festival with bassist and cellist Andrew Downing and singer Patricia O’Callaghan. The trio’s program includes selections from 200 years of French songs, from the works of Gabriel Fauré, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy to those of Erik Satie, Serge Gainsbourg and Michel Legrand. “I like Fauré, Ravel and Debussy a lot because they influenced a lot of jazz harmonics,” Lerner says. She adds the group’s aim is to “interpret and open up some of the French songs,” rather than “jazzifying” them.

The Marilyn Lerner Trio performs at 7 p.m. on June 28 at Toronto’s Church of the Redeemer. For more information about the concert and the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, visit http://torontojazz.com.