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178: The Claudia Quintet +1 feat. Kurt Elling, ‘Showtime’ (“What is the Beautiful?”)

Posted by jeff on Aug 30, 2013 in Jazz, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Thanks to the very talented young musician Eyal Amir for his provocative thoughts about spoken language and music.

What is the beautiful? Well, there’s a stumper of a question for you. Some people would say Mona Lisa, others might go for Courtney Love. We’re going to look at a different model today, that of galvanizing poetry into jazz. Say what?

Soon It Will

Be showtime again. Somebody will
paint beautiful faces all over the sky.
Somebody will start bombarding us
with really wonderful letters…
letters full of truth, and gentleness,
and humility
…Soon (it says here)…

That’s a poem by Kenneth Patchen (1911–1972), an experimental poet, a guiding light for the younger Beat poets (Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Snyder & Co).
I’ll bet it didn’t move you.

Here’s what it sounds like as read by the poet.
I’ll bet that didn’t knock you out of your chair.

Here’s what it sounds like as performed by The Claudia Quintet+1 featuring Kurt Elling.
I’ll bet you that will keep your neurons reeling for a while.

Poetry (and Jazz)

What is poetry? According to Archibald MacLiesh (in Ars Poetica), “A poem should be palpable and mute/As a globed fruit”. According to my father, it was “When the hell are you going to stop wasting your time with that drivel and prepare yourself for The Real World?”

I spent a lot of years (and a couple of academic degrees) trying to get some sense of what poetry is, to no great avail. I did achieve one understanding, though. Poetry is made of words. Poetry is the art of crafting words precisely. A poem is an artistic construct made from words.  Most of the people I know would call Bob Dylan the Poet Laureate of Our Generation. Well, I don’t think so. He’s a songwriter, and his lyrics are a thing of beauty and craft and profundity. But his creations are songs, and they have melody and rhythm and production and performance built in to their being. A poem is made from words.

One of the iconic images of the Beat Generation (see SoTW 065 for some of my musings on Beat), was a goateed/sweatshirted/sandaled guy (watched by a skinny girl with long black hair and a long black formless dress with lots of black eye-liner) reading incomprehensible verse to the accompanied by but unrelated to an incomprehensible free-form jazz trio.

Astonishingly, some things have changed since the 1950s. Three of my very favorite contemporary jazz musicians have been caught with their hands in the poetry jar, with some pretty earopening and mindbending results that I greatly enjoy and value and am pleased as punch to have the opportunity to share with you here.

Luciana Souza – “The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop” and “Neruda”

Luciana Souza (b. 1966 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, residing many years in the US) is the only singer I’ve flown halfway around the world to hear. She’s released a dozen albums in the US in almost as many distinct styles, each one a unique work in and of itself. Her second album, “The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Other Songs” pays homage to Ms Bishop (1911–1979), a New England proto-lesbian poet laureate and compadre of Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. Luciana wrote the music for the album, singing Bishop’s poetry as lyrics, mixed with (non-word) vocalese, as a front-line instrumentalist together with the sax. It’s a very fine album, cut from the same cloth and almost on a par with her tragically underappreciated “An Answer to Your Silence”. Here’s ‘Insomnia’ (the poem, the song). (“The moon in the bureau mirror/looks out a million miles/(and perhaps with pride, at herself,/but she never, never smiles)/far and away beyond sleep, or/perhaps she’s a daytime sleeper”). And just for fun, here’s a non-Bishop cut from the same album, ‘In March, I Remember’.

One of Luciana’s most intriguing albums is “Neruda”, in which she sets the poetry of the Chilean communist Nobel laureate (in English translation) to her own music – here only the very fine Venezuelan-born pianist Edward Simon and herself on percussion. Much of the material is Neruda’s (1904–1973) highly-charged love poetry. As performed by Luciana with impeccable restraint and precision, it’s one of my very favorite albums.  Try, for example, ‘House’ (here’s the poem). Or, and I’m just so honored to share this with you, ‘Sonnet 49’ (here’s the poem, from “100 Love Sonnets”). This video shows Luciana recording the song, accompanying herself on the kalimba. To my taste, this video/song/poem is divine, one of the most perfect works of art I’ve had the fortune to know and love. “No one can stop the river of the dawn.”

Maria Schneider – “Winter Morning Walks”

Maria Schneider (b. 1960) kept us waiting for six long years for the release of her brand-new CD, “Winter Morning Walks”. It’s no small departure from her six previous albums, in which her compositions were written for her orchestra of about 20 instruments. Technically it’s a big band, brass with a small rhythm section, but the sound is all the ephemeral, dreamy aural cloud of her mentor Gil Evans. Here Ms Shneider (from rural Minnesota) has composed works employing the poetry of Ted Kooser (rural Nebraska) and Carlos Drummond de Andrade (rural Brazil, translation by Mark Strand) sung by Dawn Upshaw (also b. 1960), a MacArthur-fellow soprano who works in both opera and contemporary classical music.

Maria Schneider: “In setting poems to music, the poems themselves speak the rhythm, etch the melodic contour, and emotionally elicit the harmony.”  Here’s her beautiful composition of Kooser’s ‘Walking by Flashlight’: Walking by flashlight/at six in the morning,/my circle of light on the gravel/swinging side to side,/coyote, raccoon, field mouse, sparrow,/each watching from darkness/this man with the moon on a leash.

The Claudia Quintet +1, featuring Kurt Elling

John Hollenbeck (Photo ©Tomas Ovalle)

The Claudia Quintet (bass, drums, vibraphone, accordion and clarinet!) is the brainchild of progressive percussionist/composer John Hollenbeck (b. 1968). Here’s his pretty darned funny story about the group’s name. The “+1” here is a piano, a large, keyed percussion instrument occasionally employed in jazz settings. He’s worked with such luminaries as Bob Brookmeyer, Fred Hersch and Meredith Monk.

In his obscure (even for him) 2011 album “What is the Beautiful”, nine of the twelve cuts feature a vocalist singing Patchen’s poetry – four by Theo Bleckmann, five by Kurt Elling. The other cuts are ‘simply’ inspired by it. ‘Showtime’ is a tour de force creation, both in Hollenbeck’s conception and composition as well as in Elling’s over-the-top head-spinning knockout performance (what he calls ‘enlarged reality’). Just for fun, here’s another Patchen/Hollenbeck/Elling, the riotous ‘Opening the Window’ (can you imagine how much Tom Waits would enjoy this?).

Kurt Elling (Photo ©Adrian Korsner)

I think ‘Showtime’ is a real lesson in how to work poetry into music. If poetry is charged language, this cut is a model of extracting every last drop of meaning out of the source – not adapting the poem, not riding on its back, but honestly and humbly eliciting its very essence. It reminds us how much poetry demands from the reader. It’s not prechewed, it’s raw and autonomous and challenging. Hollenbeck and Elling, I believe, here do the work for us of interpreting or grasping the poem, and thereby demonstrate a truly innovative approach to exploring what the human voice is uniquely capable of.

I recently tripped over a truism: ‘The best things in life are acquired tastes’. Boy, do I subscribe to that.

I can’t help juxtaposing this material with Kurt Elling’s last album, “The Brill Building Project” – lyrics by Hal David, Mike Stoller, Gerry Goffin, et al. That album will hopefully sell a trillion copies and should have won a gaggle of Grammies. “What is the Beautiful” has probably sold two copies so far – to Hollenbeck’s mother and me.  Lest you think I’m being a snob here, I’ll readily admit that I’ll probably listen to “Brill” more than to Patchen/Hollenbeck. But if you catch me at my best, at my most curious and my most energetic, and you ask me: “Hey, Jeff, to your mind, what is the beautiful?”, I know what I’ll answer.

 If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

SoTWs on Luciana Souza

SoTWs on Kurt Elling

SoTWs on Maria Schneider

 

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101: Kurt Elling, “Li’l Darlin'”

Posted by jeff on Jun 10, 2011 in Jazz, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Kurt Elling -- the best male jazz vocalist ever

Last week I had the distinct pleasure of taking my favorite singer in the world, Kurt Elling, to my favorite spot in the world, the underground tunnel that runs along the western wall of the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, and talking music with him all along the way. The day is described in exhaustive detail in the article “Going Up to Jerusalem with Kurt Elling“. For our SoTW, I’d like to try to pin down just why I think Kurt is the finest male jazz singer ever. Well, who’s competing for the title? Kurt (b. 1967) and I discussed the leading lights in the field, and by general consensus the outstanding male jazz vocalist, at least since Louis Armstrong, is Mark Murphy (b. 1932). Here’s how Kurt describes Mark: Mark recreated songbook classics and hipped up bop through his phrasing, arranging and unique vocal ingenuity. Mark shows us all that the singers’ art is never done evolving. He showed how moving and dramatic an evening of Jazz singing could be. I also became aware of Kerouac and the whole Beat/Jazz connection through Mark. He has made a lifetime of innovative, truly great vocal Jazz records.

Mark Murphy

Read more…

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Going Up to Jerusalem with Kurt Elling

Posted by jeff on Jun 7, 2011 in Writings

June 5, 2011

The Fantasy

Perhaps a person can be defined by his fantasies. There was a time when my wildest dream would have been Petula Clark asking me to come up to see her etchings. And there was a time when it was Phil Jackson asking me for advice on defensive strategy. And for quite a while (at an age I’ll refrain from admitting) I was seriously hoping to be reincarnated as Buddy Holly.

In recent years, my greatest fantasy would have been to spend the day talking music with my favorite singer in the world, Kurt Elling, while taking him to my favorite spot in the world, the underground tunnel that runs along the western wall of the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. Hey, guess what I did this week? Read more…

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007: John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, ‘My One and Only Love’

Posted by jeff on Dec 24, 2009 in Jazz, Song Of the week, Vocalists

John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman

Oh, am I excited!

A new CD was released last week by my favoritest ‘singer’ – “Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman“. So I’m just popping with anticipation.
Kurt Elling is 42, from Chicago, and this is his 8th CD in 14 years. It’s a re-recording (with a few tasteful additions) of the 1963 classic “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman”. Mr. Elling is an artist of amazing versatility, not just a singer. But he’s also a great crooner, as this CD will undoubtedly prove–when I manage to get my hands on it, here in the wholly holey Holy Land. But in the meantime, let’s revisit the source.

John Coltrane is a monumental figure in modern jazz. He started out as an untried, technically limited tenor saxophonist in Miles Davis’ first quintet in the mid-50s. Eventually Miles had to throw him out of the band for drug abuse. Then he cut his chops for a while with Thelonious Monk and got himself off drugs. Then he rejoined Miles in the late 50s for the “Kind of Blue” period, then went solo. In 1961 he started moving towards spiritual, ‘free’ jazz, developing a commercially disastrous technique of “sheets of sound” and a lot of the most astounding music in jazz ever. To appease the record company, he recorded a couple of more palatable LPs, including an eponymous 1963 collaboration with balladeer Johnny Hartman.

Ballads are to Coltrane as political protest songs are to Dylan–they constitute the backbone of his popular reputation, while actually constituting a rather insignificant place in his corpus. In subsequent years, Trane’s playing became so intense and his development as an artist so rapid that enthusiasts track his growth by the month, even by the week. He died in 1967 at the age of 40.

Johnny Hartman had a respectable though not brilliant career as a crooner contemporaneously with and then beyond Coltrane. His voice is so smooth it makes Billy Eckstine sound like Mick Jagger, Nat Cole like Joe Cocker. He recorded sporadically, and his acknowledged masterpiece is their joint venture, “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman”. Only 30 minutes long, it’s enough of a classic to warrant an homage by as fine an artist as Kurt Elling.

Of the six songs on the LP, each one a gem, I’ve chosen the lovely standard ‘My One and Only Love’. The performance here is the epitome of elegance and warmth, yet intelligent and musically substantial. So lower the lights, put on your smoking jacket, take a brandy glass in your hand, and enjoy.

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