Poetry & Jazz has a checkered history. When combined, the two art forms are not so much a marriage made in heaven as an obstacle course. The biggest danger is that one of them is verbal and the other is non-verbal and at its best transcends words. The second danger is that the better the poetry and/or the jazz in question, the more intrusive may be their competing demands for the listener's attention.
Notespeak 12 is top-end poetry and top-end jazz, so poet Lisa Marie Simmons and composer Marco Cremaschini set themselves a high bar. But they have succeeded, just like they did on the earlier album Notespeak: Amori e Tragedie In Musica (Ropeadope), a succès d'estime and something of a cult hit following its release in 2020.
This time out, Simmons concerns herself with the number 12, which has significance in various religions, in astrology, in musical harmony and elsewere. Sometimes on the (12-track) album, the connection of Simmons' verse to the number is not immediately obvious, as on the closing "The 12th Thing," which is a salute to the great Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen. But this is poetry, not a user manual for a hair dryer, and if one stops trying to make sense of a verse, its meaning usually emerges.
Cremaschini's compositions, meanwhile, touch on the 12-note scale pioneered by Schoenberg and Stockhausen. That is not immediately obvious either, for Cremaschini's tunes and arrangements are warm and lyrical rather than "difficult" or "challenging." The band is, as on the earlier album, outstanding. Fleet-fingered alto saxophonist Manuel Caliumi is a joy throughout, so too Cremaschini's keyboards and Federico Negri's drums. Four of the tracks have additional horns, and two of them a violin.
Something rather special is happening here and if, to quote another poet in "Ballad Of A Thin Man," "you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Jones," the mystery is intriguing rather than frustrating (and the YouTube clip below provides some useful signposts).
1. Blaze 5:50
2. Can We Agree? 6:10
3. The Last Supper 7:18
4. I Gotta Hunch 8:32
5. Individually One 2:11
6. Transcend 6:12
7. I Think I Understand 6:19
8. Another Strings Pulled from the Theory 6:42
9. The Longest Night 5:34
10. Elegy 3:11
11. Sparkler 5:11
12. The 12th Thing 2:51
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Chris May is a senior editor of All About Jazz. He was previously the editor of the pioneering magazine Black Music & Jazz Review, and more recently editor of the style / culture / history magazine Jocks & Nerds.