[Dixielandjazz] Jazz & Poetry & OKOM

Charles Suhor csuhor at zebra.net
Wed Mar 16 10:13:17 PST 2005

Thanks, Steve--I find this a really literate review of an interesting  
attempt. As Ratliff says, it's way more in the realm of jazz-influenced  
composition than improvisation but it would be fun to hear how it comes  
off. Yes, the 50s stuff of Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and the other Beats  
& be-boppers started it off, and improvisation was at the center.

Since then, a wide range of approaches, from all-improv to partly  
rehearsed to partially scored to totally scored have been used. I think  
the jazz & poetry forms are durable and will be around as a subset of  
art and entertainment for a long time.

The Jazz and Poetry Connection group I've worked with has one rehearsal  
that sets the concept for each poem/jazz combination, and we work from  
there. (All of our poems are written, not spontaneous as in "spoken  
word" performance). I like this idea of a grounding from which the  
players can take off. Someone once said, "You can plan an event, but if  
it goes exactly as you planned, it isn't an event." Or as Monk once  
said, if you make a mistake it should be one that doesn't sound wrong.  
We try to have events and make mistakes that sound right.

I've never heard an OKOM jazz and poetry combination. Has anyone out  
there done or heard it? Is this absence because J&P isn't part of the  
culture of OKOM musicians? I did use Alvin Alcorn once playing great  
moody stuff behind a poem about the blues for a school project in New  
Orleans, but a modern group led by the Turbinton brothers did most of  
the jazz. I might get slapped around for suggesting this, but it does  
seem that the wider range of chordal exploration in modern jazz improv,  
the accesibilty of high-speed technique as well as classical  
simplicity, and the common use of things like off-the-horn  
squeaks--these things make for a larger palate to draw from when  
interpreting poetry musically.

Headin' for the hills,

Charlie Suhor

On Mar 16, 2005, at 9:33 AM, Steve barbone wrote:

> Well, I know Charlie Suhor is going to love this. The combination of  
> Walt
> Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" and music, some of which is jazz.
> Hey Charlie, weren't we there in Greenwich Village 50 years ago when  
> this
> approach was very popular? Or has that Smokey haze clouded my mind?
> Let's see, how can we adapt OKOM to poetry? Maybe with poems like the
> Midnight Ride of Paul Revere? Suggestions?
> Cheers,
> Steve Barbone
> ----------------------------------------------------------------------- 
> -
> Whitman's Magnum Opus, Unfurled for a Jazz Breeze
> Extended works of jazz composition, especially those based on a theme,  
> rev
> up grant agencies, theater bookers and critics. It is just the  
> automatic
> logic of the culture business: good or bad, they are something to talk
> about. But it is rare to find a long piece of jazz that really  
> validates its
> bulk.
> The pianist and composer Fred Hersch has done it with "Leaves of  
> Grass," an
> oratoriolike piece for octet and singers based on Walt Whitman texts.  
> All
> the evidence of its craft is on the album version, just released by
> Palmetto. Its first complete performance in New York, on Friday night  
> at
> Zankel Hall, made clearer how strong and balanced a piece of work it  
> really
> is.
> Having said that, let's be clear that "Leaves of Grass" is only partly  
> jazz.
> Of its 20 discrete pieces (to go by the album's track divisions), many  
> are
> in the vein of sophisticated musical-theater composers like Adam  
> Guettel;
> some tilt more toward Aaron Copland. A smaller group of them really are
> jazz, with little pockets of improvising.
> But on a more basic level, "Leaves of Grass" demands a leap of faith  
> that
> basically only classical music audiences are used to: hearing  
> venerable old
> poetry set in through-composed, nonrepeating streams of modern music.
> Two singers were drafted to serve the text: Kate McGarry, a  
> fresh-voiced
> singer on the divide of jazz, pop and folk whom we will be hearing more
> about soon; and Kurt Elling, who has a decade of work in jazz behind  
> him.
> But Ms. McGarry was used mostly for changes of pace. There was much  
> more
> here specifically written for Mr. Elling, who is well suited to the  
> run-on,
> repetitive, incantatory Whitman: his baritone heats up quickly and  
> keeps
> pushing ahead on its own wave of momentum, rather than constantly
> readjusting its own dynamics. "Leaves of Grass" brought the best out  
> of Mr.
> Elling, who sang with superb pitch, a sense of responsibility and
> understanding toward poetic text, and a lot of different smooth and  
> serrated
> shadings in his voice.
> Mr. Hersch has clearly thought hard about the cadence of Whitman's  
> lines,
> and very little in his adaptation sounds forced. Mr. Elling, for his  
> part,
> gracefully handled the shifts from singing to poetic recitation,  
> especially
> in the long sequence taken from "Song of Myself." Within that  
> sequence, he
> read one passage as prose. It begins: "These are really the thoughts  
> of all
> men in all ages and lands, they are not/ original with me." Read it  
> out loud
> yourself: it is a conversational voice.
> Every once in a while I felt Mr. Hersch had thought too hard. A lot of
> Whitman's images evoke voices or music, and in certain places Mr.  
> Hersch
> literalized them. "The faint tones of the sick" - woozy tenor saxophone
> notes. "The slow march play'd at the head of the association" - a  
> snare-drum
> march. "Hark, some wild trumpeter" - well, you know. And just before  
> Mr.
> Elling recited, "I hear the violoncello," the cellist Greg Heffernan  
> struck
> up the opening bars of Bach's cello suite No. 1, to lead back into  
> more of
> Mr. Hersch's original writing. That's cute, but Whitman was the  
> opposite of
> cute.
> The work had symmetries and a few well-timed pauses from the singing;  
> one of
> them, "At the Close of the Day," a jazz trio piece, came with  
> fascinating
> harmonic movement, in the vein of some of Wayne Shorter's or Bill  
> Evans's
> ballads. Mr. Hersch has been playing it as a stand-alone tune in  
> clubs, and
> it works in that setting as well as it did here.
> At a little more than an hour total, "Leaves of Grass" is a manageable
> length. I have often experienced audiences palpably losing interest in
> long-form jazz pieces well before the finish. This one brought a full  
> house
> to its feet.
> _______________________________________________
> Dixielandjazz mailing list
> Dixielandjazz at ml.islandnet.com
> http://ml.islandnet.com/mailman/listinfo/dixielandjazz

More information about the Dixielandjazz mailing list