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.”





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