Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Book review: Edward D Wood, Jr., Selected Poems, Unexpurgated Edition


Originally published in Sensitive Skin magazine, February 2021

 The Literary Odyssey of Ed Wood: Beyond the Notoriously Bad Films, Here’s the Unearthed Poetry  

Edward D Wood, Jr., Selected Poems, Unexpurgated Edition (Black Scat Books, 2020)

  by John Pietaro

Yes, it really is that Ed Wood. Recalled in cult movie circles as the bizarro planet’s Orson Welles, Wood was writer-director-producer of Plan 9 from Outer Space, Glen or Glenda? and Bride of the Monster among other Golden Turkey recipients. Yet, there is more to Edward Davis Wood Jr than the mere obvious. Beyond the movie infamy, Wood is probably best known for his cross-dressing, but within a filmmaking and fiction-writing career, latent credit is due for his bold introduction of a once secret drag society to a conservatively fearful America. The fact is Glen or Glenda?, which featured Wood in the titular role(s) and included others from the L.A. trans community, premiered in 1953—the year of the Rosenbergs’ executions--as the Hollywood Blacklist, loyalty oaths and whitewashed conformity raged on. The seventeen years leading to the Stonewall uprising was, in effect, a lifetime away.

 Wood’s output through the ‘60s focused on horror, crime and the supernatural, increasingly incorporating lurid sexual imagery (i.e. - Orgy of the Dead). At baseline bizarre, these films often walked the line between pseudo-experimental and merely exploitative. Into the 1970s, suffering from major depression and alcoholism, Wood earned a meager living writing porn and taking the odd role in X-rated films. He died in 1978, just 54-years-old.

 A review of Wood’s rather sordid writing life clarifies that he was a kind of prodigy, even if largely of the bad, having completed at least one work of non-fiction, engaged unsuccessfully in authoring drama for the stage, and penned multiple articles, numerous screenplays, and some 80 pulp novels (occasionally under the pseudonym Ann Gora) including Take It Out in Trade, Raped in the Grass, Necromania and Death of a Transvestite. Somehow overlooked, though, was the poetry. According to legend, Wood in 1968 decided that these poems were worthless and released the chapbook manuscript into the La Brea tar-pits. Posthumously, Selected Poems was published in a limited edition in the 1990s, followed by a brief run by Black Scat Books that has since fallen out of print, leaving very few with the knowledge that this work even existed. However, on November 7, as per the publisher’s announcement: “In honor of Donald Trump‘s historic election loss we’re bringing back an out-of-print classic from our Absurdist Texts & Documents series”. Certainly seems timely.

 Unexpurgated as it is, the title page shows a photo of the author’s original cover, handwritten in fountain pen. Also included is the image of one of his typed interior pages decorated with corrections, deletions, blotches and even a line of poetry, long lost. Far from deeply artistic, the work remains a fascinating document. Some of the poetry is grown from screenplay synopses and science-fictional visions, while others are based on the author’s wider musings and ideals, much of it leaving the reader with only more questions. Opener “There is No Here There, Either” (page 11) is dedicated to Gertrude Stein, yet his focus remains on the supernatural. Or does it?

                          There’s something out there/out there in the cemetery/that’s too near/for comfort there

 The piece begins with a seeming renunciation of fantasy escapism, committing to only the “you” cited herein; as per the dedication, the subject is Stein, the celebrated author and fully out lesbian of a still earlier, even more groundbreaking time. The symbolism seems of particular import (and I’m locked up here/not there), though far too brief a gaze into Wood’s personal struggles. Unfortunately, there is no indication as to when these poems were actually written. He offers more insight with “The Woman Thing” (pp 16-17) which was composed “for Glen and Glenda”, perhaps a challenge to those refusing to accept the trans lifestyle. Later in the book, Wood responds with more overt militancy in “Screw You, Mistress Crowley” (page 24):

                                   Can your heartthrob stand/my shocking corset/the mink straitjacket/

I’m a pretender in the nightlight/and there’s no pretender!

 The poems, however, which directly relate to his 1950s films are, as expected, bizarre enough. See “Poem Nine from Outer Space” (page 20) and “Second Thoughts” (page 15), both of which appear to be stage direction excerpts from the script of Plan Nine, the latter actually having been read aloud on screen to the footage of Bela Lugosi, that which was shot briefly before the actor’s death.

 So much of Wood’s work, in every media, was riddled with conflicted sexual concepts, often of a violent sort, so a piece like “Paula” (page 18) opens with generally erotic imagery that is soon realized as the rape of a sleeping or drugged woman. Halfway through the poem, the rape is ironically attributed to Eros, the Greek god of love, but it ends hauntingly cold:

                                            Paula running/Paula running/running beside the road.

 This theme is also evident in “Nothing from This World” (page 13) which vacillates between the other-worldly and the brutally guttural:

                                                         It’s getting dark/where she is pointing/                  

His awful wife/buried in the ground/

Pointing up while he/lies down sealed in a vault

 Within this mix of emotional upheaval and splintered symbolism, Wood closes the chapbook with a particularly notable piece, one indicating his inclusion in both the literary underground and the LGBTQ community as well as the sorrowful reality of unsuccessful arts careers. It is dubbed “Howl” (page 25) and opens with a sharp, possibly satiric awareness of Ginsberg:

                    I saw the best flicks of my generation destroyed/by critics/ranting hysterical mutants/

Dragging directors in drag through the mud like/blood-thirsty bullies

 Here, Wood deems himself “the angel-headed genius in the orange neon dusk of Hollywood”, and observes his audience both laughing at and cheering him in the cinema before

                                                    They staggered off into the sunset strip/

Leapt off the Hollywood sign into the bliss of the curvaceous cult-womb/

That wrapped them forever in its loin-lit angoric embrace

 For more information on Selected Poems of Edward D. Wood Jr.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Jazz/Poetry: Phillip Levine, Yusef Komunyakaa, Elliot Levin


Originally published in the NYC Jazz Record, May 2018

Phillip Levine
Phillip Levine (NPR)

Benjamin Boone/Philip Levine, The Poetry of Jazz (Origin 2017)

Yusef Komunyakaa/David Cieri/Mike Brown, White Dust (Ropeadopa 2017)

Elliot Levin/Gabriel Lauber Duo, Yu (Dimensional Recordings 2017)

The tendency of poets to break out of the two-dimensional boundary is often seen as a post-War phenomenon, yet poetry was oral long before written language emerged; this lineage extends back to the oldest of folk forms. The African American jazz tradition, begotten from a brutal melding of divergent cultures, cast a certain boundlessness. The music’s central swing and bop allows the poet to emote and embellish with shifts in meter, stress, dynamic, repetition and, surely through improvisation.

The fusing of verse and music is exhibited quite classically on the Poetry of Jazz. This encounter pairs Philip Levine, Pulitzer Prize recipient and US Poet Laureate, with alto saxophonist and composer Benjamin Boone. The two collaborated while teaching at Cal State, Boone being a musician constantly drawn to words, and Levine a perpetual jazz fan who grew with the music. The album was recorded in 2012, three years before Levine’s death, documenting the moment and the movement. The poetry flows through Levine’s lips most fluidly. Of special note are homages to jazz heroes backed by charts embracing the honorees and poet alike. But the album opens with the poet’s musings on drinking gin in youth and its symbolism of adulthood’s challenges. Boone’s music effortlessly captures the vibe of the late ‘40s-early ‘50s, particularly the West Coast sounds. Arrangements are clean, sumptuous and driving and the album boasts an array of musicians including Greg Osby and Tom Harrell (on a gorgeous piece dedicated to Clifford Brown). Karen Marguth’s vocalization tops off the melody on two cuts recreating the era anew. Oh, this is hip. But on “Making Light”, Levine calls on “the blue light like no other”, describing summer in the west within a cool waltz that ends abruptly, only to land upon “the Unknowable”, a piece dedicated to Sonny Rollins’ quest for a higher musical truth on the Wiliamsburg Bridge. “Singing through the cables of the bridge that were his home” recites Levine as Chris Potter’s tenor obbligato becomes a solo flight, and the poet wonders “how he knew it was time to inhabit the voice of the air”. While most of the journey is a celebratory exercise of Levine’s poetry of (and through) jazz itself, the album closes with a somber recollection of “What Work Is”, here the struggle for dignity among the unemployed in painful expectance, and those lost in toil.

White Dust, the project of poet Yusef Komunyakaa, however, focuses on the subtlety of emotion within this chapter of the author’s cultural- and self-awakening. The CD opens with the words: “I love how it swells into a temple where it is held prisoner, where the god of blame resides” and affirms his individualism as well African heritage. Komiunyakaa states: “A ghost hums through my bones like Pan’s midnight flute” and later, speaks of “West Africa’s dusty horizon”, where it seems he may have composed this piece. A Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Komunyakaa was a correspondent during the Vietnam War and his works are politically aware and interwoven with the soaring of jazz and the blight of the unconscionable. If James Baldwin had sought a career in spoken word, this is probably what it would sound like. Masterful.

The quietly prideful improvisations of pianist David Cieri, bassist Mike Brown, and alternating percussionists Sam Ospovat and Shahzad Ismaily carefully lures the poetry, read in a dark baritone, static but never unmoving. Drawing on the legacy of blues as much as an ethereal timelessness, the music embraces the atmosphere as much as the words. “Dolphy’s Aviary” makes artful use of space to build tension and then colors it with the waterphone and distant, Eastern-sounding vocalization of Cieri. The mix is magic. And yet the pianist, who created the score for Ken Burns’ outstanding “Vietnam” series, leans into a raw, almost rural blues just as cannily (ie-“Letter to Bob Kaufman” and “More Girl Than Boy”). Brown, Ospovat and Ismaily appear to welcome the ambience like it’s another improviser. Ospovat’s brushes tell the story as do Ismaily’s use of found metals, percussives and Moog. Take special note of bassist Brown’s probing, searching counterpoint to all spoken and left unsaid.

Philadelphia’s Elliot Levin is a monster of the tenor saxophone and flute, a musician of unique command who plunders his instruments’ histories in a manifest of experimentalism. His early work with Cecil Taylor notwithstanding, Levin has left an indelible mark in the annals of the underground. But he’s also a studied poet with several books of verse to his credit. On Yu, his new duet CD with drummer Gabriel Lauber, Levin makes judicious use of both his musical and spoken word skills in this tour de force of free jazz. Lauber, a Swiss musician residing in Mexico, founder of the Dimensional record label, flawlessly reflects and expands via a barrage of skin and metal. The album is comprised of nine varied selections, with opening and closing pieces “Yu” parts 1 and 2, respectively. The first is a sonic blast, a joyously manic conversation which leads into the more subtle “Be Tasty, Be Poetry, Be Fado”. Here, Levin blows and then moves into spoken word, initially at a whispery tone which feels Ginsburgian. Then with full-voiced, Kerouac-like jazz phrasing under Lauber’s post-post-bop accompaniment, the spoken word serves as another lead line, colored with neologism and vocalization. There is an enduring magic in this art. “Some Are of Sadness” and “Berlin Mystic Dawn” put Levin’s voice at center, under which Lauber’s breathless improvisation speaks to the ages.

The Poetry of Jazz:

Gin/Making Light of It /The Unknowable (Homage to Sonny Rollins) /Yakov/ They Feed They Lion/ I Remember Clifford (Homage to Clifford Brown)/The Music of Time /Soloing (Homage to John Coltrane) | Benjamin Boone/Arrival/A Dozen Dawn Songs, Plus One/Our Valley/Call it Music (Homage to Charlie Parker)/By the Waters of the Llobregat/What Work Is

Philip Levine - poetry and narration

Benjamin Boone -alto/soprano saxophone 

Tom Harrell - trumpet

Branford Marsalis - tenor saxophone 

Greg Osby - alto saxophone 

Chris Potter -tenor saxophone 

Stefan Poetzsch - violin 

Karen Marguth - vocals 

Max Hembd - trumpet 

David Aus - piano 

Craig von Berg - piano 

Spee Kosloff - bass 

Nye Morton - bass 

John Lauffenburger - bass 

Brian Hamada - drums 

Gary Newmark - drums 

Atticus Boone - French horn

Asher Boone - trumpet


White Dust:

Andodyne/Letters to Bob Kaufman/Charmed/Dolphy’s Aviary/Jumping Bad Blues/Loneliness/More Like a Girl Than Boy/New Black Yoga/Ode to the Qud

Yusuf  Komunyakaa- poetry

David Cieri=keyboard, piano, waterphone, voice

Mike Brown- contrabass, looping

Shahzad Ismaily- percussion, MoogSam Ospovat-percussion



Yu/Be Tasty, Be Poetry, Be Fado/Wam Warn Awning/some Are of Sadness/Under Cover Army of Salvation/Berlin Mystic Dawn/Prayer for the Ancestors/Like When We Were Young/Yu

Elliot Levin-poetry, tenor saxphone, flute

Gabriel Lauber- drums


Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Book review: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson: Ballad of an American


Originally published in Truth Out, January 5, 2021

Graphic Biography Highlights the Life of Actor and Activist Paul Robeson

A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson: Ballad of an American, Art and Text by Sharon Rudahl, Edited by Paul Buhle and Lawrence Ware (Rutgers University Press, 2020)

 Book review by John Pietaro

Paul Robeson, born in 1898 to a father who understood the pains of slavery firsthand, rapidly developed into a renaissance man the likes of which this nation had rarely imagined. Scholar, vocalist, athlete, actor and fearless activist, he was practically disappeared by his own government in the decades leading to his death when he was all but neutralized at age 76. This story has been told before, but never in such a visceral manner. With the latest graphic biography in the Paul Buhle pantheon, A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson: Ballad of an American, artist and writer Sharon Rudahl (a civil rights activist, writer and political cartoonist of many years) offers the tale of Robeson to a new generation. Rudahl displays the influence of the young Paul Robeson’s father, William, who fled north to escape slavery. William fought in the Union Army and then studied at Lincoln University to become a church pastor and raise a family. His youngest child was Paul, whose life seemed to have been built of equal parts liberation, education and self-expression. Robeson’s story is not only moving, particularly when told in such a manner, but deeply inspiring to people of color, the working class and oppressed people of any race.

One gripping fact made evident in this graphic biography is that Robeson’s mother, who was legally blind, died in an accidental fire when he was but 6 years old, the flames catching onto her skirts; Robeson apparently never recalled this traumatic occurrence. The struggle continued as Rev. William Robeson was fired from his initial employment due to the incorporation of early liberation theology into his sermons. Rudahl effectively displays the young Paul’s fights for equality in New Jersey schools and Rutgers University, including the brutal attempts of white students seeking to injure him on sports fields where he was an All-American football player. His tenacity in those areas, as well as during his move into the theatre, with the lead in Simon the Cyrenian followed by Eubie Blake’s Shuffle Along and then a tour of England for another theatre work, are movingly part of this biography. And while Robeson completed his law degree and became an attorney, the racism he encountered in this profession forced him to recognize the opportunities awaiting him within a full-time career as a vocalist and actor.

From 1915, the Provincetown Players -- a Greenwich Village theatre troupe founded by Eugene O’Neill, John Reed, Susan Glaspell and George Cram Cook (later additions included Edna St. Vincent Millay and Floyd Dell) -- were writing and producing vitally important works of a decidedly progressive nature. Robeson soon became an actor of note within this organization, making an initial statement in O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun and then, most famously the Emperor Jones. These roles led to celebrity status for Robeson who then, in 1925, had a starring role in Body and Soul, a film built around Black spirituals. The experience led Robeson to focus on this music as important African American repertoire, and he toured these songs widely, something he maintained throughout his career as he shared culture and art internationally.

Another powerful component of Robeson’s life was the role played by his wife, Essie, a writer and photographer. Even early on she was his adviser and confidant, acting as his agent for years. Rudahl displays Essie’s importance in Paul’s attaining an initial recording contract and wider stage and film roles. Robeson’s involvement in the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, and of course, his role in Hammerstein and Kern’s Showboat, are also keen points in this book.

While Robeson was an artist of the highest order, he was always aware of the racial injustice in his midst. Rudahl offers vivid details of Robeson’s maturing recognition of the machinations of racism within capitalism, starting with his Welsh tour of Showboat and his solidarity with a local miners’ strike. His commitment to international labor was maintained from that point on, often placing Robeson into a boldly activist role. More so, his studies of African heritage, the various nations and languages of the continent, allowed him to recognize the great contributions Africa brought to the world. He would of course make a study of various cultures, focusing ultimately on linguistics and using this skill to not only speak to the peoples he came into contact with on tour, but learn their songs as well, thereby reaching audiences on a profound level.

Much of this book is dedicated to Robeson’s political maturity and actions on behalf of the earliest civil rights movement. Also, beautifully depicted in the book is his 1934 visit to the Soviet Union following an invitation from Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein. Rudahl tells and shows the reader how Robeson stared down and confronted Nazi guards in Berlin as he, Essie and friend Mary Seton anxiously boarded their train into Russia. Though Lenin’s great vision of the Communist revolution was already becoming torn by Stalin, the advances for the poor, people of color and women so impressed Robeson, who famously stated, “Here I am not a Negro but a human being. I walk in full human dignity.” The Robesons chose to have son Paul Jr. remain in the Soviet Union to attend school for two terms where he’d be free of racism. And by 1936, Robeson became a pivotal supporter of the left during the Spanish Civil War, traveling through war-torn areas and performing for the International Brigade wounded. During World War II, he became a major anti-fascist voice, working almost exclusively within the Popular Front and debuting “Ballad for Americans,” composed by CP Earl Robinson, on national radio.

At the height of his fame, Robeson lived by his ideals, refusing to perform in segregated theatres and singing a wide array of works both live and on radio, including Spanish and Chinese revolutionary material. He also took on the historic role of Othello in a smash Broadway run. Following the war, Robeson worked for Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party campaign and was a featured guest at the Paris World Peace Conference. His bold comments at the Conference, denouncing that Black people, living within institutionalized racism, were potentially drafted to fight in a segregated Army against the Soviet Union was all of the material that the right-wing U.S. reactionaries needed in a campaign against Robeson. After being openly blacklisted on these shores, his passport was revoked, and Robeson was unable to travel for performances as his films and recordings were taken from circulation. His initial bout with major depression began in this period. Robeson was called before the brutal House Un-American Activities Committee, powerfully depicted by Rudahl, where he refused to comply, offering legendary responses to the Committee. Ultimately able to travel to Europe, he had a massive breakdown and was in London as the 1963 March on Washington occurred. Robeson desperately wanted to return home to be a part of what he had helped found decades earlier. He was largely forsaken by the younger generation of activists and, with declining health and diminishing performances, he retired and experienced a slow, sad eclipse. Robeson died in 1976

The book concludes with a text Afterword by editors Buhle (renowned historian and author/editor of some 40 volumes) and Lawrence Ware (a professor of Africana Studies and writer on race and culture for The New York Times). This section encapsulates Robeson’s vast significance in history and offers summary of his re-emergence in recent years, including Rutgers University dedicating a “Paul Robeson Plaza” last year. Martin Duberman’s sweeping yet equivocal biography of 1989 is acknowledged in the Afterword while also contemplating the relevance of volumes published since. More so, Buhle and Ware examine Robeson’s leading role within the Popular Front as well as the fading memory of this movement in recent decades. Happily, their depth of knowledge is imparted in this “extended scholarly footnote” for any reader unfamiliar with the Popular Front’s vital role in global anti-fascism.

The text closes with a quote by C.L.R. James, a figure Buhle has written on with passion, proclaiming Robeson as “a man of such magnificent powers and reputation (that) he gave up everything…such is the quality which signalizes a truly heroic figure.”





Monday, December 14, 2020



John Pietaro

from UltimateClassicRock

It would be a fool’s errand in a covid-damaged society to attempt a peaceably gathered year’s end “Best of” list, in jazz or any other genre or medium. But artists of jazz and all avant gardes have been especially susceptible to the considerable financial ebbing and health concerns of this period. Discussing this concept with my wife (and best critic) Laurie, I was caught by her knowing response: “It’s not so much a Best of”, she said, “but a TEST of 2020”. And with so much challenge about us this year, arts implosions being but a skimming of the national surface, I wholeheartedly agreed to offer my “Test of 2020”. It’s one founded on survival and resilience. It is also founded on the power of creativity, whether there is a market or not, as a model for the thriving of us all.

This year, in addition to watching beloved venues shutter (including Café Bohemia where my poetry/jazz series West Village Word was housed oh so briefly), seeing great byways of life and commerce silenced and feeling the struggle and pain of so many, I had to contend with the death of my mother and the rapidly progressing dementia which has leveled my father who is residing in a nursing home. The tremors cross-country were played out in the streets after glaring, violent police murders and the rise of the BLM movement, along with the slow, laborious onset of the election and ensuing insanity spewing from the White House and all walks of the right-wing. And of course, the fight-back against such insanity has too been happily on the rise.

Perhaps the one strength grown of this year from Dante’s fifth circle has been self-contained boldness. Artists of every stripe have poured themselves into practice and expression born of the lockdown and in spite of it. Musicians, dancers, spoken word artists and actors have premiered remote performances across the globe while increasing amounts of visual artists and non-performing writers have made grand use of the internet to present works recent and vintage. And a most welcome shift has been the numbers of remote performances encompassing all of the above. Critics, relying on this advanced viewry, have sought to find fresh means to convey our perceptions, including criticism of the connection’s sound and visual clarity, which reminds us of the shifts in quality of recordings in each epoch, from acoustic to electric recording processes, and 78 RPM to LP, Hi-Fi to stereo, CD to download and back to disc and “vinyl”. Here’s just one more demarcation and the technology has quickly kept up with it.

I’m happy to report that during the lockdown I completed a full poetry collection, The Mercer Stands Burning, published in November by Atmosphere Press, wrote numerous pieces for journals and magazines, completed much of a new short story collection and laid the ground work for And I Became of the Dark, a new album by my poetry/free jazz ensemble the Red Microphone. It was finally recorded on the cusp of December by an expanded line-up that I’m very excited about. Hoping this will be available via a noted underground label soon. It has been a tumultuous and memorable time.

So, in memory of those lost this year as well as the surging need for survival on every level, here is THE TEST OF 2020…

Album of the Year

Anne Waldman, Sciamchy (Fast Speaking Music)

Album, Duet:

Ran Blake and Christine Correa When Soft Rain Falls (Red Piano)

Ran Blake and Andrew Rathbun, Northern Noir (SteepleChase)

Album, Small Group:

Steve Swell Quintet Soul Travelers w/special guest Leena Conquest, Astonishments (RogueArt)

GRID, Decomposing Force (NNA)

Album, Large Group:

William Hooker, Symphonie of Flowers (Org Music)


Miles Davis, The Complete Birth of the Cool (Blue Note)

Unearthed Gem:

Oneness of Juju, African Rhythms (Strut)

Gray, Shades of…Anthology (Plush Safe)

Tribute Album:

Paolo Bacchetta, Yerkir, The Storytellers (Avand)  tribute to Paul Motian

Record Label:


577 Records

Radical Documents

Jazz Performance Video:

Liberation Music Orchestra, “Time/Life, We Shall Overcome”

Jazz Documentary:

Motian in Motion (Aquapio Films Ltd)

 Indie Performance Series:

Brackish Brooklyn

Remote Concert:

Gil Evans Project, Sketches of Spain, “Concierto de Aranjuez”, Jazz Standard at Home, Aug 6

 Pre-Covid Live Concert:

Vijay Iyer Trio with Wadada Leo Smith, Jazz Standard, February 1

Lenny White 70th Birthday Celebration, Made in New York Jazz Café & Bar, January 4

“Jazz From Hell”: Kilter, ir, Titan to Tachyons, NuBlu 151, March 10

Covid-era Live Concert:

Composers Concordance, “We, the Whole People”, Michiko Studios, November 14

 Biggest Heartache:


Harold Budd’s and Blue Gene Tyranny’s deaths

Keith Jarrett’s health

 Small Band:


 Large Band:

Sun Ra Arkestra

Liberation Music Orchestra



Up and Coming Musician: Devin Brahja Waldman (alto saxophone)

Multi-Instrumentalist: Daniel Carter, J.D. Parran

Trumpet: Wadada Leo Smith, Nate Wooley

Trombone: Steve Swell

Flute: Nicole Mitchell, Cheryl Pyle

Clarinet: Don Byron, Ben Goldberg

Soprano Saxophone: Sam Newsome

Alto Saxophone: Gary Bartz, Rudresh Mahanthappa

Tenor Saxophone: James Brandon Lewis, Ras Moshe Burnett, Ingrid Laubrock

Baritone Saxophone: Claire Daly, Dave Sewelson

Violin: Sarah Bernstein, Gwen Laster

Viola: Melanie Dyer

Vibraphone: Joel Ross, Bill Ware

Guitar: Bill Frisell, Mary Halvorson, Eugene Chadbourne

Pedal Steel: Susan Alcorn

Piano: Ran Blake, Vijay Iyer, Kris Davis

Double Bass: Ken Filiano, William Parker, Luke Stewart

Electric Bass: Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Steve Swallow

Drumset: Hamid Drake, Tyshawn Sorey, G. Calvin Weston

Percussion: Warren Smith

Vocals: Fay Victor

Spoken Word: Anne Waldman

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Album review: Eve Fowler, Words Doing as They Want to Do and Have to Do


-Originally published in Sensitive Skin magazine, October 2020-

Eve Fowler, Words Doing as They Want to Do and Have to Do (Radical Documents, 2020)

Album review by John Pietaro

Speakers: Litia Perta, Rachelle Sawatsky, Celeste Dupoy-Spencer, Bobby Jablonski, Kate Hall, Dylan Mira and Jess Arndt. Recorded by Sam Sparro

The troublemaking output of the Radical Documents record label regularly reaches forward even as it recalls an earlier time, the somewhere between Paris 1920 and New York 1980. But as it turns out, this is a West Coast label brandishing a truly boundaryless vision in our currently disturbed times. In addition to releasing albums and singles (yes, actual records) by latter-day punk rockers and artists of free jazz, the discography includes this fascinating L.P. Words Doing as They Want to Do and Have to Do, a series of readings of Gertrude Stein by contemporary female creatives. Visual artist, photographer, LGBTQ activist and creative conceptualist Eve Fowler brought together this disparate group of voices-- Litia Perta, Rachelle Sawatsky, Celeste Dupoy-Spencer, Bobby Jablonski, Kate Hall, Dylan Mira and Jess Arndt--in celebration of Stein, a vital creator of poetry, fiction and drama who emigrated to France in 1903, just shy of thirty years old, and helped forge the avant Parisian artscape uniting genres over several decades. Residing with her life companion Alice B. Toklas, Stein’s home became a noted salon which included Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Joyce, but even more than these literary modernists, the visual art advances and virtuosity of Picasso and Matisse, frequenters of the salon, greatly influenced Stein’s rhythmic and expansive approach to writing. And vice versa; it was Stein who named the “Lost Generation”.

Eve Fowler is an artist whose use of language and text is uniquely realized in and as art itself. This recording was the soundtrack to her first large-scale European exhibition (the Dundee Gallery, UK, in 2018) but it stands well within the pantheon of recorded poetry. Fowler’s works have often used of the words of Stein, herself a strong, proud and out lesbian. Fowler has followed suit and her feminism has been used continuously to expose and break male hierarchies in society, advertising and the arts. The exhibition included Fowler’s artistic visions of text as well as a film footage and the recordings herein, but how resolutely the words of Stein ring out now in this time of oppressive rule, particularly when read by young women of the arts in light of the imminent Election Day. Stein’s “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene” is heard on side A. Side B is occupied by excerpts of her “Q.E.D.”, a 1903 piece describing the relationship of Stein and another woman that was not published till 1950, several years following her 1946 death. Both works are bold in their pronunciations of LGBTQ life some 120 years past. Note the former’s almost continuous use of “gay” in this excerpt, its purposely repetitive, tirelessly stated use:

Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene lived together then.                                                              

Georgine Skeene liked travelling.                                                                                              

Helen Furr did not care about travelling, she liked to stay in one place and be gay there.       

They were together then and travelled to another place and stayed there and were gay there. 

They stayed there and were gay there, not very gay there, just gay there.                                 

                                          They were both gay there, they were regularly working there.  

                                                Both of them cultivating their voices there, they were both gay there.

Stein’s masterful use of repetition wreaks of the jazz age to be, a flowing, colorful rebellion of formal rhythm outlining the story as it moves along. The various speakers here capture this quality by the simple nature of the writing. There is no use of dramatics in their approach and the readings are delivered unaccompanied. While the use of musical instruments would add layers of emotion within the inherent polyphony, the intended subject—the prose of Stein—is unmistakably front and center in this format.

Words Doing as They Want to Do and Have to Do is available in a limited pressing of 250 hand silkscreened copies, signed and numbered by the artist. This album and all of the Radical Documents recordings are available via

Album review: B.C.F.W., barragemirage megamultifurcation


-Originally published in the Wire magazine, Dec 2020-

B.C.F.W., barragemirage megamultifurcation (Radical Documents, 2020)

Album review by John Pietaro


To denizens of New York’s music underground, the name Daniel Carter conjures images of a downtown that was and, as far as he is concerned, will never cease to be. Carter, the saxophonist, multi-instrumentalist, poet, activist, and free jazz guru, has been growing this scene since the early 1970s, in a career spanning the decades and in the company of many of the music’s beacons. As of the 1990s, he’s recorded some 50 albums as a leader and many more as a supportive player, through a dizzying array of performance with Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor. Sabir Mateen, Roy Campbell, David S. Ware, William Parker, Thurston Moore, Yoko Ono, Jaco Pastorius, Anne Waldman, Matthew Shipp, Test, Cooper-Moore, DJ Logic, Other Dimensions in Music, Gunter Hampel, Dissipated Face, Yo La Tengo, and Medeski, Martin and Wood. Approaching his creative journeys as spiritual growth, Carter makes little distinction between roaring free jazz, primal scream poetry, meditative explorations or the avant gardes of post-punk rock or performance art. In fact, he’s happiest when ensconced in an amalgam of all.  

B.C.F.W. is one of many ensembles Carter has been central to and surely one that rates with his most intriguing. In the opening selection, “Butter Boots”, the ensemble casts a soundscape with his tenor saxophone out front, emoting in the comfortable language of both film noir and ‘shock of the new’. But throughout, electric guitarist Pat Foley and synthesist/cellist Andrew Barker paint the aural ground with the care of art-house cinema scenarists, while drummer Fritz Welsh uses his expansive set of percussives for color and shading as much as accentuation and drive. This is a unique quartet within our rapidly aging New Thing. Even when the band stretches out, moving through four-way contrapuntal segments (“Planet Escape” or “the Veil of Lights Obscure”) the music never turns too heavy for the ear to carry. Carter tends to bring a variety of winds to sessions, though here only saxophones and trumpet. No flutes or clarinets for this recording, but fully unleashed, he is as likely to move to piano or percussion as he is a horn. For barragemirage megamultifurcation, his improvisations whirl and dance poetically and in union with every sound crossing his path. By side two, his muted trumpet sings softly over “Re-Ghoster” as Foley’s blue-tinged guitar drops chords and languid fills.

As he is wont to do, Daniel Carter seeks out magical moments in the most unexpected of places. The “B” in B.C.F.W., Barker, is a free jazz drummer whom Carter has been working with in recent years, though here in a very different guise. Who knew the man also played cello and synthesizer? On the former, he rides contoured lines, as the latter splashes thick atmospherics which thread the band together. Likewise, guitarist Foley, whose career has been dedicated to straight-ahead rock music, including performance with Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and touring as an opener for names like Dave Mason, Leon Russell, Marshall Tucker Band, Bad Company and many more. Liberated from any confining standards of music theory, he offers a loose sense of tradition within his free playing, something grounding but far from simply anticipated. Bringing these disparate forces together with adventurous drummer/percussionist Welch (who has worked alongside Evan Parker among many more, and currently resides in Glasgow), is the genius of Carter. Knowing where to find such agents of sonic change is one thing, recognizing the need to pull them together to document the moment is another talent altogether. And Radical Documents, the relatively new label out of Los Angeles which focuses on “unique, experimental, and often obscure transmissions of sound” has turned out to be another surprise of the Carter pantheon. Releases of boundary-shredding L.P.s (er, that’s“vinyl” to the youth) of ensembles like B.C.F.W. and others, is very much in order in this time of fear, loathing and internet overkill.

Andrew Barker-synthesizer and cello

Daniel Carter-tenor and soprano saxophones, trumpet

Pat Foley-guitar

Fritz Welch-drums

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feature: Anne Waldman: the Poet vs. the Warring God


Originally published in Sensitive Skin magazine, Sept 2020


Anne Waldman: the Poet vs. the Warring God


by John Pietaro


photo by No Land 

"This is my vision…days on earth

    Days when the weather changed course

         When we lost our minds

                                                                     When leaders failed us

                                                                   There was no wisdom"

From the opening strains of “Extinction Aria”, the lead selection on Anne Waldman’s latest album, Sciamachy (Fast Speaking Music), the urgency of the moment couldn’t be clearer.

Waldman’s career extends through decades, from the latter years of the Beats through New York’s New Poetry literary circles. She was a founding member of the celebrated Poetry Project and co-founder, with Allen Ginsberg and Diane Di Prima, of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics of Naropa University. As a performer, she’s fused verse into the spheres of free jazz, folk, world music, electronics and post-punk, commanding stages around the world, brandishing raw political activism within demanding, commanding works which spare no conservative ideology.


Born in 1945, just two weeks shy of V.J. Day, Waldman was raised on MacDougal Street in the aftermath of the second world war. Like the Beat poets, a generation her senior, she had a deep awareness of the societal and political changes in her midst and thrived in the progression of the arts. And also like the Beats, her literature too, came to profoundly reflect such movements. Attending Bennington College, she returned home in 1966, just as the activism and outsider poetry began to boil all about downtown.


Waldman, who’d been active in downtown circles before leaving for Bennington, became vital within the second-generation New York School of poets, yet maintained the importance of their precursors. “Early on, I met Frank (O’Hara) and Larry (Rivers) and (John Ashberry). Ted Berrigan was around, and of course Diane (DiPrima) and Amiri (Baraka). We were all connected and very intergenerational”, she cites, clarifying that the stressors between the first generation and her own have been, over years, quite exaggerated. “I took an apartment on St. Mark’s Place then and was very active in the East Village. Allen Ginsberg lived nearby. He and I had met in a Berkley poetry conference facilitated by Charles Olsen, and we adored Frank. When he died in summer 1966, his death put a lot of energy into the downtown scene. We had a reading on 2nd Avenue which then moved to St. Mark’s Church for open readings”.


In partnership with Allen Ginsberg, already an icon, Waldman forged a life-long alliance which would carry them through a litany of projects and across much of the planet, not the least of which was the formal series which grew from those readings, the Poetry Project.. Waldman was its first secretary before taking over directorship from 1967-78. And the venue chosen was anything but happenstance; St. Mark’s Church held an 80-year history of bridging the arts to political activism. Over generations, the church presented Edna St. Vincent Millay, Vachel Lindsay, Martha Graham, W. H. Auden, Archie Shepp, Nam June Paik, Carolee Schneeman, LaMonte Young, Warhol and near endless stream of others.


The relevance of the Poetry Project as a force cannot be overstated. With a mission reaching well beyond art for art’s sake and formal alliances with the New School and many community organizations. Its first event under the banner occurred in September 1966 and less than a month later, the Project stage featured Lawrence Ferlinghetti in front of an SRO crowd with hundreds being turned away. Into the ‘70s, with William Burroughs’ return to New York, he became a regular at the readings and was among those who ushered in Patti Smith’s performance poetry --that which would later be called punk, complete with Lenny Kaye’s electric guitar accompaniment. John Giorno, Jim Carroll and other notables were also regulars over the next few years, changing the shape of the already revolutionary New York school of poetry and begetting contemporary visions of spoken word and slam poetry.


Waldman was also central to the storied mimeographed journals of the East Village in the period predating xerox photocopies, and long, long before personal computers and printers. Of those years, Waldman stated “We were mimeographing day and night”, followed by compiling and stapling sessions and finally distributing these exciting new communiques to the region. Waldman and company produced such titles as the much celebrated the World which debuted in 1967 and which she later edited. And there was also the zine Angel Hair, created by Waldman and Lewis Warsh as early as ’65. She later came to edit several of the Poetry Project’s anthologies, among others.


Ginsberg and Waldman, by 1974, had founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Boulder Colorado’s Naropa Institute, and two years later the pair traveled with Bob Dylan’s historic Rolling Thunder Review. And as the underground downtown developed along with the reign of poverty afflicting the Lower East Side, she was among those to welcome in the next generation with fervor and Waldman continues working with such artists as Thurston Moore. Into the 1990s through the present, Waldman has often performed with her son, keyboard player Ambrose Bye and nephew Devin Brajha Waldman, a noted improvisational saxophonist. “My heart is in this for these younger musicians all over”, she remarked. Through it all, Waldman has been a committed performance poet, touching the many aspects of spoken word and regularly using her platform toward fighting social injustice.

THE IRONY OF RELEASING “EXTINCTION ARIA” DURING A HISTORIC PANDEMIC WAS NOT LOST ON ANNE WALDMAN. This breakout single from Sciamchy was actually recorded months prior to the global unveiling of coronavirus, but this fact only assures the piece’s prescience. “It draws on the Mayan and Tibetan extinction prophecies”, as a core of undiluted commentary on the Trump era. “I had been studying these past plagues. They’re devastating. The Medici period, the Roman empire. But it’s compounded this time due to the interconnection of all of us, the surveillance, the sheltering”. She is sure to clarify the prophecy’s extension into today’s politics. “The warring god realm needs to create an enemy”, she explained. Most certainly, Waldman is up for the fight. She always has been. The work’s core is an indictment of the greed, waste, division, manipulation and warmongering about us. Recorded live in a studio with the full ensemble—the poet plus synthesist Bye, saxophonist Waldman, mesmerizing guitarist Havard Skaset (of Norway where he leads experimental band MoE), My Bloody Valentine’s electronics artist/baritone bassist Deb Googe, and Norwegian upright bassist Guro Moe--the piece became more relevant than Waldman initially suspected:

"Enemy is the creation of a waffling god realm/A becoming in fact

Becoming isolated/And a kind of ghostly corporeality."

Like so many of her epic works, Waldman writes here both in overt exclamation and mystical insinuation, threading ancient teachings to contemporary struggle. “We are being prepared for another kind of lockdown, but I’ve always worked in the underground. Sometimes artists working together are connected in a way, a horizontal way, as opposed to the verticality of growing upward from the roots. You cannot always start at the beginning, sometimes you can come in at the middle. Not thinking of things in a linear way, but exploratory. This relates to the new American poetry where things may not have a title but just bursts in its description. The Beats blew the top off of it all, right down to bringing in use of breath within a recitation”. Beyond “Extinction Aria”, Sciamchy, offers gripping words and music on its every cut, often throbbing with a visceral energy. Though the band is only heard in full power on the first and fourth selections, Waldman assured that there are more quintet tracks awaiting release. “These were mainly first takes. I was leaping around my own texts making jump cuts, improvising with the band. I felt the power of what we were doing…I was 15 feet from them at most”.

Individual band members were also called in for other selections, all to excellent effect, tapping into a variety of emotions. And of special note are the pieces featuring Laurie Anderson, “Rune”, and William Parker, “Streets of the World”. On the former, the laureate electric violinist constructs a reverb-laced skeletal soundscape about Waldman’s voice. Poet as well as musician, Anderson’s connection to the words is near spiritual. And on “Streets of the World”, bassist and Arts for Art co-founder Parker plays the n’goni, a compellingly percussive African lute. Waldman explained that this session was completed in one take, an of-the-moment collective improvisation, but then the poetry was birthed in the midst of immediacy, too. “The piece was written in the heat of Trump, at various protests marching around Trump Tower, when I’d move to the side to scribble down words as the inspiration struck”. In the historic context of poetry as a weapon, Anne Waldman continues to brandish arms that are as healing as lethal, decidedly aesthetic and artful, and never concealed.

“This is the most extreme time we’ve ever lived in”, she stressed. “We’re talking about the potential destruction of everything. We’ve hurt so much of the planet, the other creatures we share the planet with. There are consequences to endless war, genocide, white supremacy. And now we are locked within and it’s extreme. All of that built up to this and it is exploding. And we are not learning the lessons. We are not hearing. We’ve been so dumbed down in an endless cycle of spectacle”. Releasing a long breath, Waldman continued. “Burroughs said that virus has to become parasitic. But it is an amazing time for meditation on this as we live in the uncertainty, taking a seat within it. Here is a test to our consciousness: we have to stay positive within our skillful means. And we must always have truth and integrity in our work.”

Sciamchy is available as download or L.P. via

Book review: Edward D Wood, Jr., Selected Poems, Unexpurgated Edition

  Originally published in Sensitive Skin magazine, February 2021   The Literary Odyssey of Ed Wood: Beyond the Notoriously Bad Films, Here...