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Book Review

Steve Dalachinsky: Weaving Poetry with Jazz


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Poet Steve Dalachinsky occupies a unique place in the jazz firmament. Actually, he occupies several places: he writes poetry inspired by jazz, he performs and records with jazz musicians and he has supplied liner notes for numerous artists including multi-intrumentalist Anthony Braxton, drummer Rashied Ali and pianist Matthew Shipp. Dalachinsky is an avid supporter of the music, one of those people who needs jazz like they need air. In fact, if you go hear avant-garde music in New York City and see someone writing intently in a corner, it's probably Dalachinsky.

The past decade has been very good to Dalachinsky. He published almost 20 books of poetry and collage, and he won the 2007 PEN Oakland National Book Award for his book The Final Nite & Other Poems: Complete Notes from a Charles Gayle Notebook 1987-2006 (Ugly Duckling Press, 2006).

A prolific artist whose work has only strengthened over the decades, Dalachinsky's newest offerings—two excellent books of poetry and an innovative music/poetry CD— are reviewed here.

Steve Dalachinsky

The Mantis

Softcover; 55 pages

ISBN: 1-877968-46-3

Iniquity Press & Vendetta Books


The poems in The Mantis—subtitled For Cecil Taylor: The Collected Poems 1966-2009—were inspired by pianist Cecil Taylor, both the man and the music. Most were written while Dalachinsky was listening to Taylor in different New York City venues between 1966 and 2009. He adds the disclaimer that the poems "do not necessarily reflect the music." Which is what makes this collection so interesting: the poems are a gorgeous blending of literal descriptions and flights of language, offering a true depiction of the listener's internal dialogue. In short, this is what listening sounds like.

The poems contain vivid descriptions of Taylor in action—"i stretch limbs / to watch those wild hands, / fingers, elbows, fists / whisper, punch & push the keys"—as well as insights about Taylor's music: "there are a lot of guys / who play the piano great / but there are very few great piano players / mt. climbers white water rafters." Sometimes Dalachinsky comments on the jazz venues themselves, often displaying his trademark humor: "boy / this place has everything / music dancing breath mints." He's also honest about the fact that although club patrons may seem to be following the music, quite possibly their thoughts are elsewhere: "interesting / to catch myself looking down her blouse / seeking out a little patch in the hot crowded room / the space between her buttons."

Dalachinsky also offers clues on the art of listening: "though listening is good, listening too good is not so good." He even shares his experience of writing to music: "it's crazy to write to this music it thunders the brain a bomblike strapped to my I-lids romancing the ending so sudden not abruptly." Yet writing to this music is exactly what Dalachinsky loves to do; he is entranced by the mixing and mingling of language and sound: "if i were a writer & you were a bird / i'd write what you spoke."

The book ends with a prose piece that describes an encounter Dalachinsky had with the man himself at the Blue Note in November 2001, after one of Taylor's legendary duets with drummer Elvin Jones: "Later in the smoke filled dressing room I ask Cecil how he's feeling. He answers with the simple but perplexing sentence, 'Too soon to tell.'"

Steve Dalachinsky

Long Play E.P.

Softcover; 40 pages

ISBN: 979-10-90394-07-0

Corrupt Press


Most of the poems in Long Play E.P.—subtitled The Complete Evan Parker Poems—were written in October 2009 during saxophonist Evan Parker's residency at The Stone, a New York City performance space with the distinction of having saxophonist John Zorn as artistic director. The title refers to Parker's renowned circular-breathing techniques, a skill Dalachinsky captures in the lines: "the breath / again the breath / then somewhere inside / the skillside of the skull."

Parker's run at The Stone was clearly full of magical moments, including sets with musicians such as drummer Milford Graves, bassist William Parker and saxophonist Joe McPhee. Dalachinsky succinctly captures the interaction between Parker and McPhee: "One hears the other before the other's spoke. These duly respectful, maturely offered off'rings breathing circles 'round their selves." Commenting on Parker's duet with keyboardist Richard Teitelbaum, Dalachinsky sings: "to phrase a coin much speculated pinging / & the cracking opens wider / & the strings detach themselves from / their fingers & 20 fingers jubilate the sliding."

As with the Cecil Taylor poems, this book also contains astute insights into listening and writing: "but first i must listen to the sound of the music / (the music in the words) / & bring that sound closer to my heartbeat." Writing about avant-garde jazz can be extremely challenging, but Dalachinsky offers an eclectic map for his fellow writers: the poems themselves are inspiring examples, and nestled within the poems are intriguing signposts: "no formulaic formulas / creating immediate solvable theories / that need not be solved immediately."

Dalachinsky's language flows beautifully, and at the same time his words are crisp and exquisitely honed: "rhythmic pitted against arrhythmic multiples / & there go those birds again / meeting dense air with their clatter & chatter / blood that flows thru the dreamer's cheeks." It's a great pleasure to experience such delectable language; you can savor the lines word by word, like allowing the finest chocolate to melt in your mouth and carefully tasting each molecule.

Dalachinsky also includes a personal encounter between himself and Parker, capturing one of those happy moments when you suddenly see a friendly face in a crowded street: "it was good running into you on the bowery today while the light was changing & us right in the middle of the road & me passing you the poem i was carrying like we were doing a clandestine drug deal."

Steve Dalachinsky and The Snobs

Massive Liquidity

Bam Balam Records


Described as "an unsurreal post-apocalyptic anti-opera in two acts," Massive Liquidity is a collaboration between Dalachinsky and the Snobs, a French art- rock duet comprised of brothers Mad Rabbit and Duck Feeling. Dalachinsky reads six poems backed by a fascinating musical mix, an amalgam of wide-ranging strands including trumpeter Miles Davis' free-funk period, the post-industrial group Einstürzende Neubauten, psychedelic soundings, not to mention smatterings of singer James Brown and composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Combining poetry and music is a delicate affair that requires sensitivity to both elements, and happily Massive Liquidity is a highly successful collaboration. Certainly it helps to work with a poet like Dalachinsky, who has decades of experience working with musicians, not to mention a gift for phrasing and emotive expression. In addition, the Snobs create exhilarating music that supports Dalachinsky at every turn. The music varies immensely while slipping smoothly from one idea to another, including sudden bursts of dissonance, distorted electronic flamenco chords, funky grooves that turn menacing, and wild wailing reminiscent of Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda's brilliant score for the movie Rosemary's Baby.

One of the best moments on the CD comes about halfway into the second act. The Snobs electrify Dalachinsky's voice, turning his words into echoey electronic syllables, then layer his voice with his voice. It's all backed by music that sounds like the Batman TV show theme song turned inside out and splintered. Eventually Dalachinsky's voice deconstructs completely, the electronic strands weaving with scorches and screeches and metallic outbursts. It's a funky electronic songfest that has a wild beauty and powerful originality.

The classic image of poetry set to music involves an overserious poet, bongo drums, and possibly berets and sunglasses. Dalachinsky and the Snobs blast that stereotype into a million pieces, creating something fresh and exciting that's sure to appeal to enthusiasts from both the literary and musical realms.

Tracks and Personnel

Tracks: Abducted/Ah Mores; The Garbage Man/Crippled Symmetry/What the Hell Is It Ethel/After Thought.

Personnel: Steve Dalachinsky: voice and words; Duck Feeling: guitar, bass, sitar, electronic organ, psychedelic effects, percussion; Mad Rabbit: producer, electronic composition; Devil Sister: trumpet and xaphoon.

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