Conversations on Improvisation: Ellen Lease and Pat Moriarty

Jazz writer Pamela Espeland continues her series on improvisation with Pat Moriarty and Ellen Lease, wed for 30 years and the principals behind the Ellen Lease/Pat Moriarty Quintet, honing in on the give and take of musical partnership

1The Ellen Lease/Pat Moriarty Quintet will play at Studio Z (St. Paul) on May 1 at 8 pm. Photo by John Whiting
2CD cover, release available from Innova (2008)
3Photo by John Whiting
4Photo by John Whiting
5L to R: Ellen Lease, Pat Moriarty, Chris Bates, David Stanoch, Kelly Rossum Photo by John Whiting
6L to R: Pat Moriarty, Ellen Lease, Kelly Rossum, Chris Bates, David Stanoch Photo by John Whiting
7Photo by John Whiting

introductionIt might be said (and probably has been) that marriage is improvisation, full of high-risk creative work and in-the-moment decisions. Imagine a marriage in which both partners are improvising musicians.

Wed for 30 years, pianist Ellen Lease and saxophonist Pat Moriarty share a life as parents, educators, composers, and performers. Since 1993, they have co-led the Ellen Lease/Pat Moriarty Quintet, known as “the best unrecorded band out there” until their first CD, Chance, Love, Logic, was released on Innova in 2008. Writing for Cadence magazine, Jay Collins called it “the kind of disc one unexpectedly stumbles on every once in awhile that renews one’s faith in the music.”

Ellen Lease earned her BFA in classical piano performance at the University of Minnesota, where she studied with Bernard Weiser and Alexander Braginsky; her jazz piano teachers were Reginald Buckner and Bobbie Peterson. The first Minnesota National Guard Bandswoman, Lease has won a Bush fellowship, two McKnight composition fellowships, and a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, and she was twice a finalist for the McKnight performer’s fellowship.

Pat Moriarty studied saxophone with Ruben Haugen and formed his first working band in 1973, upon meeting drummer Phil Hey. His graphic notation scores have been exhibited at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Walker Art Center, and the Hartt School in Hartford, Connecticut. Moriarty has a teaching degree and is a band director at Roseville High School.

The couple’s latest musical collaboration is the “Tonight at Noon: New Jazz at Studio Z” series held at Zeitgeist’s performing space in St. Paul’s Lowertown. “Tonight at Noon” began last November with a program of solos and duets and continued in February with the Quintet. The next event is scheduled for Saturday, May 1, when Lease and Moriarty will be joined by bassist Adam Linz and drummer Phil Hey for an evening of free improvisation.

Pamela EspelandWhen I talked with Adam Linz about improvisation, he said, “I have to know the person I’m playing with before we play a single note.” Marriage seems like the ultimate form of knowing somebody. How does your relationship inform your music?

ellen leaseI think we’re very candid with each other, probably more than we would be with just about anybody else. I don’t worry about being politic. He’s much kinder than I am.

pat moriartyThere’s a level of trust [we have]. But there are people we’re not married to, and we also have a high level of trust with them. And trust can be based on things you know about people without actually knowing them. For example, if I hear that Evan Parker wants to play some duets, I’m going to do it. I’ve never met him but I’ve heard him play, and I know he’s not going to screw it up.

PeHow do you define improvisation?

elIt’s using the tools you have to create extemporaneous constructs that happen to be sound. [Your tools are] your instrument, your training, your aesthetics, your physical condition that day, the ambience, who you’re playing with, and the instrument you’re playing on.

pmComposing in real time or composing while you’re playing is, I think, simple enough.

PeWhen did you first get interested in improvised music?

pmWhen I was about 12 and I heard Louis Armstrong and people like that. I don’t know how I learned this information, but I realized that those guys were making some of that stuff up. I thought, “That’s for me!” I hate reading music. The idea that you could make it up on the spot and do it yourself was very compelling.

elI always have improvised. Always. When I was a little bitty kid, I thought that’s just what you did, that improvisation was natural. I remember being seven or eight and sitting at the piano and making up songs. I took it for granted other people did that, too. Why wouldn’t you?

PeWho have you learned the most from about improvising?

pmAs a player interacting with other players, Phil Hey. We started playing together when we were both at a pretty formative stage. Also: Dean Granros. I was in Dean’s band for quite a while. He has a tremendous creative mind…. And Ellen.


pmHer classical training brought a lot of different ideas and sound concepts to the music we were already playing. So, working with Ellen has been really important. And there’s Sid Farrar. I was in Sid’s band for a while; that was interesting stuff.

As a listener, Thelonious Monk is at the very top, and then Steve Lacy, Jimmy Lyons, Ornette Coleman, and this gigantic list of saxophone players. But if I had to name one person, it would be Monk because of the incredible rigor of his music. 

elI didn’t like Monk when I first heard him.

peDo you now?


peWho else have you found influential?

elI grew up listening to classical music, so Chopin, Ravel…. [For jazz,] Count Basie, Charles Mingus, George Cables. Bill Evans, definitely. Chick Corea. Listening to Gershwin play his own music; all of the piano concertos, his orchestral writing — I love it.

peWhat goes on in your head when you’re improvising?

pmListening. Concentrating.

elListening, and trying not to think too much. You just hope the acoustics are such that you can hear the music as a composite, which is something I try to do, rather than focusing on just the drummer or locking in on the bass player.

peWhat do you mean by “trying not to think too much”?

elMaybe a better way to put it would be that it’s a different sort of thinking. I mean, what is thinking? The prefrontal cortex is only a very small portion of the brain. Deliberate thought is only a small portion of what your whole brain is doing. [Improvised music] is too big and complicated for deductive reasoning.

pmIt takes too long. If you can play without consciously thinking, it’s better.

elBecause it’s slow, otherwise.

pmDistracting, too.

peDoes time slow down or speed up when you’re playing?

pmFor me, it could go in a lot of different directions.

elWhat do you mean by slow down?

peDoes it feel like you have time to make decisions, to respond to what’s going on around you?

elThat’s not your sense of time. That’s your sense of repose, of self-confidence at the moment. You can’t second-guess yourself — you know, “I’m an idiot! What the hell am I doing? Why did I do that?” You have to have great patience with the music, and a lot of trust that you’re not going to do something stupid, that the people you’re working with are making sound aesthetic decisions, and that people are respectful of what you’re doing. You have to trust that you have come prepared: you’ve been practicing and working and listening, you’re sufficiently busked, and you’ve brought all the tools you need for the task.

pmYou never feel like you’re rushed. You might be deciding a lot of different things per second, but you don’t feel rushed. And if you do, you’re probably in a lot of trouble.

peSo, how do you know whether an improvisation is working?

pmBy the overall sound, and how it feels.

peWhat do you want to feel?

pmI want to feel that listening is happening all around, that the whole ensemble is on the same page as far as the direction of the music, and that everybody is listening for what’s going to happen to the energy we’ve created. Are we going to maintain this energy? Are we going to change direction? As you play, you’re listening to what’s going on, and you’re listening ahead.

el [to pm]How do you mean that?

peSays the woman who’s been married to him for 30 years…

pmReally good players pre-hear. Some people hear exactly what they’re going to play next. Others pre-hear the overall shape of what they think is probably going to happen next…. Everybody’s improvising all at once, and the structure is being created as we’re playing. You’re trying to feel your way ahead in the music, through listening to the energies and sounds that are coming from other players.

elGod, I’m always in the moment. I can’t think a second ahead.

pmI’m not talking about thinking. I’m talking about being aware of where things are going, as well as where they are.

elThat’s cool that you can do that.

pmI don’t know that I can do it, but I think it’s ideal. How successful you can be varies from case to case, from moment to moment.

peDoes it matter what kind of response you’re getting from the audience?

elOh, you have to be careful about that. You really do. I figure: I’m doing the best I can, and this is all I can think of at the moment. I hope you enjoy it, but if you don’t, I can’t play you, I can only play me. I’m not doing this because I’m trying to fool you.

peWhat do you do when it’s not working?

pmYou try to find another direction in the music that’s going to be more profitable, something that’s going to work better for everybody. Maybe you just ran yourself down some cul-de-sac and can’t figure out to get back on the main drag. [In that situation, I tell myself], “Take the horn out of your mouth, and listen for a second.”

elYou just stop for a moment and listen, try to finish your statement, and then pull back into traffic. You reach a certain level of competence where you’re not going to put in a crappy performance. And even if people screw up the parts, which can happen, or somebody comes in wrong, or all of the things that can go wrong do go wrong, everyone else compensates. As an ensemble, you develop game plans. Part of performance art is learning to cover your ass. If you’ve had to cover your ass enough times, you can do it pretty well.

peCharles Mingus once said, “You can’t improvise on nothing. You gotta improvise on something.” What is your starting point?

elIf you’re playing free? If you have some chops, and you’ve been playing music for decades, that’s not nothing; that’s a lot. Nothing would be no chops, no training.

pmYou’re improvising on what you know. It’s pretty rare to play things you don’t know while you’re performing. If you play for an hour, the amount of time you’re playing something new — that you’re able to execute but that you haven’t played before — is pretty small. We don’t do very many things that are pure free improvisation.

peYour concert coming up on May 1 [with Adam Linz and Phil Hey] will be free improvisation.

pmThat one will be, but it will be the first time in a long time that we’ve done a performance like that.

elPlaying with Adam and Phil is not nothing.

pmThat’s one of the reasons we have so much confidence it will work well, because Adam and Phil are involved.

peHow are you preparing? Are you rehearsing?

pmNo rehearsing. No charts.

elThat’s part of the preparation — no preparation, no preconception. We don’t want to fall into some habit of playing, which you do if you play a tune enough. We’re hoping our playing will at least be competent, that it will rise above competency.

pmIt should be incredible.

elI don’t know if it will be incredible or not.

peWhat advice would you give to somebody going to hear improvisational music for the first time?

elDon’t pick it apart, just let what you hear wash over you. Go along for the ride. Don’t try to think about it. Be open to it.

pmLetting it wash over you is really important, even for experienced musicians. If you’re listening to someone like the Cecil Taylor Unit —

elThat’s a tidal wave.

pm— you’re not going to listen to every single note. That’s not the point.

elEspecially in free music, you’re not listening to a soloist being supported by other musicians. It’s not melody and accompaniment. It’s counterpoint. It’s polyphony. Listening for the composite sound is what you should be doing, rather than trying to pick out “Which player should I pay attention to now?”

peMany people think they need to understand jazz, especially free improvisation, before they’re willing to give it a try.

pmPeople don’t need to understand music to enjoy it, and it doesn’t make any difference what kind of music you’re talking about. Sometimes people don’t take to [free improvisation] right away, but we’ve had plenty of experiences where people who have no background will hear it and be taken away with it. When Phil Hey and I made our duet record [Let Them All Come, 1977], I gave a copy to my grandmother, who only listened to Johnny Cash. After listening to it, what she said was, “You boys really feel all that, don’t you?” She understood what was important about the music right away.

The quintet performing in early 2010. (Kelly Rossum has since moved to New York and there’s a guest trumpeter, Michael Attias. Video by Don Berryman.)

Related performances: The Ellen Lease/Pat Moriarty Quintet will perform “Insurgent,” free improvisations by Pat Moriarty, Ellen Lease, Phil Hey, and Adam Linz, on May 1 at 8 pm in Studio Z (275 East Fourth St., Suite 200, St. Paul).


Pamela Espeland writes about jazz at Bebopified and keeps a Twin Cities live jazz calendar. On most Friday mornings at 8:30, she previews upcoming jazz events on “The Morning Show with Ed Jones” on KBEM radio. …   read more