Surrealist Poet Jazz

Sheldon Brown GroupBlood of the Air (Edgetone, 2018)

brown-bloodoftheairNate Chinen’s excellent book, Playing Changes, devotes a chapter to the many innovations of Jason Moran, including his visual art and his business model post-Blue Note. Among them is Moran’s practice of transcribing spoken word into melodies based on that fluctuating pitches and emphasis of the voice.

I can understand the fascination with exploring the necessarily melodic qualities of speech. I always appreciate the results even if I don’t fully enjoy them — as with many types of art, the process sometimes interests me as much as the final output.

Anyway, I doubt Moran was the first to try setting music to speech, and plenty of others have done it since.

But here’s Sheldon Brown doing something I don’t think I’ve heard before: He adds swing. On “Oraibi,” the two-part opener to Brown’s Blood of the Air, he sets a clarinet melody in step with Lamantia’s recital and gives it a bounce that creates the illusion of Lamantia himself swinging.

(Love the soaring Tyner-esque piano chords after the intro, too, and the feathery sung vocal — that’s Lorin Benedict‘s vocalese.

Blood of the Air is a tribute to Lamantia, and I admit, I dreaded the thought of an overbaked poetry-music casserole. But creative touches (such as a moody theremin introducing “First Star”), along with the bursting enthusiasm and spinning inventiveness of Brown’s band, keeps the mix fresh and intriguing.

Here’s the theme from “To Have the Courage,” built from another of Lamantia’s readings and sped up into a punchy ensemble line. The vocal here is Benedict again, inserting vocalese into the melody of Lamantia’s speech patterns. There’s something very meta about that.

A San Franciscan by birth who would later hang out with the Beat movement, Lamantia is described as “surrealist,” but he wrote in normal English phrases and sentences, not the random word clusters I was expecting. His recital voice is homey, less stern than I expected, with an affected accent, equal parts Oxford and Brooklyn.

Here’s a full Blood of the Air set from the group, performed at the 2017 Outsound New Music Summit, with Lamantia contributing via recordings. You can sample much of the album on Bandcamp.