Jazz and Poetry: Impacted Gems

Gordon Marshall By

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The poetry of the Beats, the New York school and the Black Mountain school, as well as the jazz poets, all share a particularly heavy rhythmic feel and an earthy, gritty imagery that creates a kind of syncopation within itself. The scenes dance and bump up against each other, cutting and rubbing up against the beat. Three of these poets, Kenneth Patchen (1911-1992), Paul Haines (1933-2003), and Robert Creeley (1926-2005), receive jazz treatments on a recent release, a re-release, and an a a now-historical back-catalogue gem, respectively, on Cuneiform Records. Each effort brings about qualities in the poetry that in turn brings out qualities in the music.

The Claudia Quintet

What Is the Beautiful?

Cuneiform Records


The Claudia Quintet has released What Is the Beautiful?, with Kenneth Patchen's poetry. The quintet is a disciplined, pitch-perfect ensemble. It can master with grace styles ranging from classic and classical to hip, retro-West coast reenactments, sometimes veering towards a chilly academicism. The blissfully naïve and optimistic poetry of Kenneth Patchen has an Americanized surrealist quality, so the limits and openings of music and poem (spoken and sung by Kurt Elling and Theo Bleckmann, respectively) work together in a mutually corrective and complementing way. It's like the poetry is a gooey, swirling substance and the quintet fits it into nice, geometric boxes.


Beautiful Western Saddle

Cuneiform Records


Curlew's Beautiful Western Saddle features Paul Haines's poetry. Haines never made a great mark with the poetry establishment but he befriended and was beloved by many jazz musicians, writing poems of praise for them and inventive liner notes. He is best known for providing the lyrics for Carla Bley's 1971 masterpiece Escalator Over the Hill (JCOA). This album has a more songlike quality than the Claudia. Haine's poetry is more sophisticated than Patchen's, with a more subtle vocabulary, but it shares the gritty urban and emotional quality. The music (poems sung by Amy Denio)is like a funky, swirly cone of earthy flavors—jazz, rock, funk, avant- garde—and the two fit together like a glove.

Robert Creeley

Have We Taught You All You Thought to Know?

Cuneiform Records


The great Robert Creeley is typically known for a concise poetry of casual precision, with cheeky humor and sparkling images that crop up randomly. Have We Taught You All You Thought to Know? is a concert recording of a Creeley recitation from 1998 featuring Chris Massey (drums), Steve Swallow (bass), David Cast (saxophone), and David Torn (guitar). The poetry here has a sad, resigned quality with imagery stripped down, reflecting on aging. Sometimes the music provides a thick, hazy mood behind the poems. Other times it is as funky and electric as trumpeter Miles Davis, emphasizing the fear but at the same time encouraging the nerve that defeats that fear.

It is a courageous and sensitive decision for an ensemble to take on a poetry project. In the classical world such an endeavor has a cool cachet and the poets are often established and retread names. In jazz, poetry is much more than a vehicle. Jazz plays with the words. Words and notes work against each other, creating tension and humor. The artists on these CDs have fully invested themselves in their efforts. Each line, each phrase is carefully considered and folded into or contrasted with the chords and improvisation. What it gives us is a human experience that goes even beyond the two mediums themselves.

Tracks and Personnel

What Is the Beautiful?

Tracks: Showtime/23rd Street Runs into Heaven; The Snow is Deep on the Ground; Mates for Life; Job; Do Me THat Love; Flock; What Is the Beautiful?; Beautiful You Are; Peace of Green; The Bloodhounds; Limpidity Of Silences; Opening the Window.

Personnel: John Hollenbeck: drums, percussion, keyboards; Ted Reichman: accordion; Chris Speed: clarinet, tenor saxophone; Drew Gress: acoustic bass; Matt Mitchell: piano; Kurt Elling: voice (1, 4, 7, 10, 12); Theo Bleckman: voice (2, 5 ,8, 11).

Beautiful Western Saddle

Tracks: Let's Sit Right Down/The Passing; Such Credentials as Have Become; Poem for Gretchen Ruth; All's Well That Ends (excerpt); Peking Window; The Prince; What is Free to a Good Home?; Still Trying; Breakfast; Today; Song Sung Long; Human Weather Words.

Personnel: George Cartwright: alto sax, tenor sax; Tom Cora: cello; Ann Rupel: bass; Davey Williams: guitar; Pippin Barnett: drums; Amy Denio: vocals.

Have We Taught You All You Thought to Know?

Tracks: Introduction; What's Heart to Say; Blunted Efforts As the Distance; I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud; It Seemed Your Friend; Upon Reflection; I Was At the Door; I Like the Way; We're Here; Words Scattered; Mon Frere.

Personnel: Robert Creeley: spoken word; Chris Massey: drums; Steve Swallow: bass; David Cast: guitar, live loops, oud, microcassettes.

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