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There's a recurring argument about whether the marriage of jazz and poetry can ever be properly consummated, with strong opinions on either side, but the majority of adherents in the naysayers camp. Partly it's to do with the inflexibility of the words, which can't respond in the moment to the musician's whim, forcing the music to take a subservient position, and partly it's that words struggle to withstand repeated listening with the same robustness as such an abstract art form as jazz.
Both of these problems are overcome to a degree on Maison Hantee (Haunted House)a collaboration between French poet Alexandre Pierrepont and hip-hop MC and producer Mike Ladd, perhaps best known to AAJ readers for his associations with pianist Vijay Iyer. Firstly, some of the musical accompaniment was recorded separately from the recitation, and avoids any desire to enter lock-step with the strut of the poetry. Secondly, much of the recitation is in French which, for those less than fluent, means that there are fewer obstacles to the appreciation of the words as sounds, and can more comfortably sit alongside the abstract qualities of the music.
Lavishly packaged, with a booklet containing both the original French and English translations bookended by short essays from Henry Threadgill and Greg Tate, this project is clearly a labor of love for the RogueArt label. Much thought has also gone into the content, whereby three distinct layers interact on each piece. First are the "Inhabitants & Outhabitants," comprising the words and visions of Pierrepont and Ladd, the voice of Stephane Gombert, who declaims Pierrepont's words, and the sound manipulations of French producer Gymkhana. Next is "Currents & Undercurrents," an ebbing and flowing world music rhythm track improvised in a single session by William Parker's guimbri and Hamid Drake's frame drum, which underpins virtually the whole 72 minutes. Finally there are the extemporized contributions, including the staggering range of "Guests & Ghosts," recorded at a different time and places and integrated into the finished construct, in line with Pierrepont and Ladd's conception.
There's also a formal arrangement of rooms in the Haunted House, with the Chambers increasing in sonic density until they reach the Antechamber, followed by a mirror-image decrease. With the exception of Parker and Drake's funky drum and bass backing for Ladd's rapping on the second "Chamber 8," the musical backdrops don't explicitly relate to the style or content of the recitations, other than adding yet another layer to their opaqueness of meaning. While Roscoe Mitchell's swirling alto saxophone sermon on "Chamber 12" and Evan Parker's serpentine soprano saxophone outpouring on "Chamber 21" particularly grab the ear, elsewhere words and music transmute into a singular hypnotic dreamlike experience, helped by some subtle electronic sampling and manipulation on occasion.
While Pierrepont and Ladd don't clinch the argument, they have come up with a compelling statement which withstands repeated listening and should appeal to more than just those who savor the intersection of free jazz and poetry.