The Claudia Quintet + 1 featuring Kurt Elling and Theo Bleckmann: What Is The Beautiful? (2012)
Poetry has always been the libretto of jazz music. Even before epic works of the late Gil Scott Heron like "H2O Gate Blues" or "Winter in America" (which inspired the nations of rap and hip-hop), there was Langston Hughes with bassist Charles Mingus on Weary Blues (Verve, 1958), the great Amiri Baraka, and A.B. Spellman. Then there was Kenneth Patchen, one of The Rebel Poets of America, an enigmatic legend who, if he chose, might have laid claim to creating special arias in the realm of jazz. Not only did they pulse the meter of their verse around the beat of jazz (especially bebop), but sometimes they even cut up or shred words like the melodic lines of the musical idiom of jazzchopped like pianist Thelonious Monk's own pianism. Whole verses meandered like rampant improvisations, dallying before or after the shuffle and swing of the musicwords strung like short or long necklaces bejeweled with augmented and diminished notes/words sung like wicked, twisted and brilliant arpeggiosnecklaces snapped and beads running around like words rambling around the music. The jazz arias of Kenneth Patchen...
Mingus often talked of his unrecorded work with Kenneth Patchen. He did record with poet Jean Shepherd on The Clown (Atlantic, 1984), and with poet Melvin Stewart on New York Sketchbook (Bethlehem, 1986). But Patchen was on hiatus; his oeuvre was already legendary by then. It has taken decades for percussionist John Hollenbeck to create something as exquisite as What Is The Beautiful for his Claudia Quintet +1. Here, Patchen is sung or recited by vocalists Kurt Elling, in his inimitable baritone, and Theo Bleckmann, who brings to life the dreamy earthen landscapes the poet fashioned like complex tapestries, knitting and weaving his narration as, hitherto, only Patchen himself has. Here, however, the two vocalists conjure the spirit of the poet as they re-imagine the beautiful dreamscapes in their own singular manners.
The lyricism of the poetry is sublimely captured by John Hollenbeck in his music. Long, dallying notes meander as they are squeezed out of the bellows of the accordion, plucked from the bass, smelted by the hammering on the anvil of the drums, and, of course, caressed out of the ebony and ivory of the piano keyboard. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, especially when Theo Bleckmann narrates "Limpidity of Silences" barely above the limpid notes coaxed out of the piano, barely above a whisper. Somehow this chart becomes a virtual doorway that is opened for the ghost of Patchen to grace the proceedings. That this chart is followed by "Opening the Window," with Elling reading in something of a drunken voice, appropriately suggests Patchen himself closing out this amazing odyssey.
Track Listing: Showtime/23rd Street Runs into Heaven; The Snow Is Deep on the Ground; Mates For Life; Job; Do Me That Favor; Flock; What Is the Beautiful?; Beautiful You Are; Peace Of Green; The Bloodhounds; Limpidity Of Silences; Opening the Window.
Personnel: John Hollenbeck: drums, percussion, keyboard; Ted Reichman: accordion; Chris Speed: clarinet, tenor saxophone; Matt Moran: vibraphone; Drew Gress: acoustic bass; Matt Mitchell: piano; Kurt Elling: voice (1, 4, 7, 10, 12); Theo Bleckmann: voice (2, 5, 8, 11).
Record Label: Cuneiform Records