Posted by jeff on Aug 30, 2013 in Jazz
, Song Of the week
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,
…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
Posted by jeff on May 13, 2011 in Brazilian
, Song Of the week
Here we are, SoTW 99, and we’ve avoided until now dedicating a post to our very favorite artist of recent years. So before we add a digit, let’s correct that historic injustice. Ms Luciana Souza, this one’s for you. I only hope that I manage to do credit to the most courageous and wondrous music I’ve heard in the past ten years.
In the mere 12 years she’s been recording – 8 CDs under her name released in North America since 1999, in addition to dozens of prestigious guest spots – she’s worked in four distinct idioms. Chronologically: two CDs of vocal jazz (“An Answer to Your Silence”, “The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop”); two of Brazilian songs accompanied by a single acoustic guitar (“Duos I & II”); one of musical poetry (“Neruda”); and three of more commercial ventures, American bossa nova (“North and South”, “The New Bossa Nova”, and “Tide”).
Posted by jeff on Dec 25, 2010 in Song Of the week
Our Song of The Week is ‘The Pretty Road’, by Maria Schneider. Here’s a teaser of the recording, from the CD “Sky Blue” (2007).You can and should purchase this CD (and all her others) from her official Website or from ArtistShare or another vendor.
While you’re reading about Ms Schneider’s airborne music, you can listen to samples of it here, from her official Website.
Over the last four or five years, my musical tastes have become more eclectic, roaming far afield, exploring some rather arcane corners (Scandinavian Neo-Trad, Minimalism, Newgrass, a wide range of Brazilian styles, A Cappella Jazz), places where most boys weaned on Motown and The Four Seasons don’t go walking at night. But there have been four artists that I’ve encountered over the past five years who stand out in my mind as rising above the field, four artists who make worthwhile this constant, compulsive searching for interesting new music.
They are Kurt Elling (b. 1967) of Chicago, the best male jazz vocalist ever, period; Luciana Souza (b. 1966), a Brazilian singer, who turns to gold everything she touches; Esperanza Spalding (b. 1984), hailing from Portland, Oregon, a jazz-bassist/singer/composer prodigy; and Maria Schneider (b. 1960), a bandleader/composer of music residing somewhere between avant-garde jazz and modern classical, and the lady we’re button-popping proud to say a few words about in this week’s SoTW.
As I write these four names together for the first time, it occurs to me that they have much more in common than I’d previously noticed. Obviously, they all make (to my mind and ears) great, great, great music, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about them. But they all happen to be great innovators.
Not all great artists are innovators. There are plenty who are content to dig their own groove, conservative though it may be. Think of Bill Evans. Think of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. No revolutions there. Heck, as far as I understand, JS Bach dealt almost exclusively with existing formats.
The least adventuresome of my four, generically speaking, is Mr Elling. He is ‘merely’ reinventing what a jazz singer can be, expanding the boundaries that have been observed since people like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald invented jazz singing in the 1930s.
The other three, the ladies? What a remarkable three they are. Each one of them has invented an entirely new mindset, her own new genre. These are explorers on the level of Amelia Earhart and Pocahontas, aural aviatrices, creative artists on a par with—well, sorry, I’m not going to compare them to anyone. I’m not sure I could. They are fine, fine, fine artists, each of the three.
I’ve been writing SoTW for close to two years now, and I’m very much aware that I’ve shied away from these, the greatest artists I know of now at the height of their powers. (although I did dedicate a post to Esperanza Spalding; Kurt and Luciana, I promise I shall do my best to give you the unbounded credit you deserve). I guess I’m daunted, afraid I won’t be able to do them justice. Well, tough, Jeff, that’s why you’re here. And if there are some people out there who are serious about music and who read your ramblings and listen to your links, you’re damn lucky, and you have an obligation to tell them about an artist like Maria Schneider.
Well, sportsfans, there is this lady who hails from rural Minnesota and lives in New York. She studied under and worked with the great Gil Evans, whom we’ve discussed in SoTWs via his collaborations with Miles Davis in “Birth of the Cool” and “Sketches of Spain“, as well as his behind-the-scenes impact on the modal jazz of “Kind of Blue“.
(Just to clarify things, if the name Maria Schneider is ringing some deja vu bell, it’s also the name of the French actress who played with Marlon Brando in “Last Tango in Paris”. For my money, Ms Schneider the composer holds a much more subtle and enticing sex appeal.)
To talk about Gil Evans and Maria Schneider, we need to explain what they’re not. And to do that, we need to define the term ‘Big Band’. The standard format for a Big Band is 17-pieces: five saxophones (most often two altos, two tenors, and one baritone), four trumpets, three or four trombones (often including one bass trombone) and a four-piece rhythm section (composed of drums, acoustic bass or electric bass, piano and guitar). The first incarnation of The Big Band was Swing, a melodic, ebullient dance-styled music which captured the world’s ears and feet from the mid-1930s till after WWII. The most famous Swing Bands were white, led by bandleaders such as Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, with vocalists such as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. A number of black Big Bands were less dance hall, more jazz oriented, and continued working into the 1950s and even 1960s, most notably Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
Gil Evans arranged for the Claude Thornhill big band during the 1940s, providing dreamy, slow, rich charts, as opposed to the swinging dance sound more prevalent among the white bands. Throughout the 1950s his best work was by, for and with Miles Davis. He was the musical spirit behind the Birth of the Cool grouping (his apartment was the meeting place for all the adherents). In fact, he’s often credited for being the spiritual father of Cool, an aesthetic that has dominated much of the arts for the last 60 years. He made three great collaborations with Miles (“Porgy and Bess“, “Sketches of Spain” and “Miles Ahead“, as well as one very much in the same vein under his own name, “Out of the Cool”. During the 1960s he made several very fine albums with smaller ensembles (10-piece), planned a collaboration with Jimi Hendrix till the latter ODed, and in the 1970s continued to explore the use of electric instruments within the context of his big band.
Maria Schneider is very much Gil Evans’ pupil. She worked on a number of projects with him as his assistant, and very much carries his mantle stylistically. The ‘sound’ of the two is very close–dreamy, floating, cloudy, rich, infinitely intricate.
But Ms Schneider has gone so much further. Evans was primarily a promulgator of an aesthetic. His major achievements were brought to fruition in collaboration with Miles, and indirectly on generations of artists from all fields. Maria Schneider has opened up entirely new vistas. There are a number of contemporary big bands working today. It’s a genre I’m quite fond of, large-palette, orchestrated jazz, and there are some fine artists working in this medium. But none has reached the breadth of context or the heights of musical achievements that Ms Schneider has. No one in the jazz or contemporary classical media has found such a relevant, thoroughly contemporary mode for expressing such a large, ambitious vision. This is the big-time, folks.
Maria Schneider recorded six full CDs from 1992-2007 (where’s a new one?), despite all the financial and logistic difficulties of maintaining a large ensemble. Her band, by the way, has remained remarkably stable. It is said that the members don’t just play her music–they would take a bullet for her.
Her last two albums have been released via ArtistShare, where musicians finance their projects outside the traditional recording industry via “fan-funding,” with supporters directly contributing to the project invited in to follow the creative process (how far depending on the level of contribution–give enough, you’re even invited to the recording session).
Maria Schneider is managing reasonably well financially in this way, artistically even better. In 2005, her “Concert in the Garden” became the first album to win a Grammy without being available in retail stores. She’s been nominated for and won many more since. The critics adore her, as do the lucky fans who’ve discovered her.
But we’re neglecting the music. It’s been called “evocative, majestic, magical, heart-stoppingly gorgeous.” It defies genre-categorization. In format, it’s standard Big Band, but the music exhibits a symphonic palette, broad and complex and rich and intriguing. Her compositions are often compared to those of Mahler and Copland. They’re ephemeral, transcendental and melodic, often simultaneously. Not impressionistic, but carefully thought out and planned and considered. Incorporating the vast, open, airy Minnesota landscape where she was raised. Thoroughly modern, thoroughly American, thoroughly personal. She’s even been called Nabokovian! A brainy romantic, passionate, an aural aviatrix.
Her music is a wonder to me. Take for example her sense of pulse. Often there’s a drum playing straightforward rhythmic riffs. But there’s never a beat. You’ll never tap your foot. Your soul will soar with the music, not bounce around the dance floor. I don’t know how she does it. The drums don’t provide a beat, they provide a pulse. They propel it without anchoring to the ground. The music moves, but it floats. Can you dance to the wind propelling a cloud?
Or her use of the human voice as an ensemble instrument. The voice is frequently that of the divine Luciana Souza. Listen to ‘The Journey Home‘. The human voice, the only instrument made by God. Why isn’t it ever used in an orchestral context? What brilliant, beautiful colorings it can provide!
Listen to the first part of our Song of The Week, ‘The Pretty Road’, with Luciana’s vocal. Then hear the same piece in concert, with an accordion playing the same line. Then you can listen to a segment of the same composition in a remarkable ArtistShare collaboration, “Vertical Voices“, in which two vocalists, Julia Dollison and Kerry Marsh, perform most of the parts of Ms Schneider’s scores vocally, accompanied by the rhythm section from the original band.
Here’s Ms Schneider describing the project. This is groundbreaking stuff. And it’s beautiful. But still, the original, for my money, is the sublimely exquisite music.
Maria Schneider’s music may be deceptively light at first. It’s very easy on the ear. It’s beautiful and gentle on the ear. But I’ve been listening to it for several years now, a lot. And I’ve yet to plumb its depths. I listen to it over and over, always discovering new nuances and colorings and shadings. I never tire of it, and it never fails to make me feel as though I’ve been airborne.
In addition to her exceptional talents, Maria Schneider also seems to be a charming person. Here she is talking about her CD “Sky Blue“. And here’s a fascinating interview about her creative process.
Maria Schneider is a passionate bird-watcher. She often incorporates bird songs in her compositions. If you ask me, there are many birds who could learn a lot from her about how to fly.
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:
SoTW 020: Esperanza Spalding, ‘I Know You Know’
SoTW 035: Miles Davis, ‘Boplicity’ (“Birth of the Cool”)
SoTW 041: Miles Davis, ‘It Never Entered My Mind’
SoTW 055: Miles Davis/Gil Evens, “Sketches of Spain”
SoTW 079: Miles Davis, ‘So What’ (“Kind of Blue”)