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


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