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.

Animals & Giraffes, Text & Music

Animals & GiraffesJuly (Edgetone, 2017)

animals-july.jpgAnimals & Giraffes is a project combining the poetry of Claudia La Rocco with sound-based improvisations by Bay Area musicians. It’s music for thinking, with La Rocco’s deadpan delivery as a central point, orbited by the stillness of the music.

That’s music in an abstract, sound-based vein most of the time. There are some tones, such as Evelyn Davis’ prepared piano on “Night Harbor,” but most tracks are closer to the slaps, scrapes, and clacking of John Shiurba’s guitar on “Grammar.”

The project is the brainchild of saxophonist Phillip Greenlief, who was looking for an avenue for mixing text and music. He appears two tracks, and he was at the remixing board for a few others, but his real contribution is the shaping of the overall project, recruiting Bay Area musicians to contribute — different players and different sounds for just about every track.

 
Tim Perkis was a inspired choice. His electronics create the perfect punctuation around two shorts: “A Partial Philosophy of the World” and “Instruction Manual.”

He also appears on “The Ferry Is Turning Course Now, Away From the Sun,” pitting small scribbles against Karen Stackpole’s muted bells and gongs. At the song’s peak, the music builds patiently against La Rocco’s traffic jam of run-on sentences and tiny bits of repetition.

 
Public Access” is an interesting departure. It appears to be a straight conversation between David Boyce and La Rocco, couched as a two-way interview. The backing of Boyce’s saxophone and electronics starts at an innocuous level but intensifies as Greenlief, at the mixing board, warps it into more sinister shape by the end of the 7-minute piece.

The poetry itself is inscrutable to me, a patchwork of mostly immediate images: settings and actions taking place now or in recent memory. But it doesn’t follow a linear flow, feeling more like stream-of-consciousness. Jennifer Krasinski summarized it well for Bomb magazine:

“One of the many things I love about her writing is how it records the particular flicker of her synapses, swerving between subjects, veering in many directions in order to find the sharpest views, no matter if fractured or fleeting.”

For me, Animals & Giraffes works better as an experience than as a document. The lingering atmosphere could be captivating in a live performance, as in the video above. The text’s shifting landscape takes a kind of concentration that I’m having trouble latching onto in CD form — but I do enjoy the variety of musicians on the disc, and the “Public Access” experiment works well.

More from Outsound: Poetry, Saxes, Fire

Robair, Harryman, Raskin. Photo courtesy PeterBKaars.com, (c) 2012 Peter B. Kaars

I managed to attend just one night of the 2012 Outsound New Music Summit, but of course, there are ways to get a flavor for how the rest of the concerts went.

Amar Chaudhary — @catsynth on Twitter and publisher of the Catsynth blog — attended the Outsound nights that were devoted to poetry and to jazz-influenced improvising.

The “Sonic Poetry” program naturally featured a few poets with one or two musical improvisers, small settings meant to cede center stage to the words. I’d already mentioned Carla Harryman‘s set with Jon Raskin, who played sax and helped recite some of the poems; they were joined by Gino Robair, playing prepared piano among other things. Read the full Catsynth review of the three poetic acts (the others being rAmu Aki of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district and Ronald Sauer, part of the North Beach crew) here.

Amar might also have a review of the free-jazz night (titled “Fire and Energy“) posted soon. He was certainly there, posting some updates and photos on Twitter.

I really wish I could have made it to that show. A few of the @catsynth comments that I found particularly intriguing:

  • “I appreciate hearing solo performances. Jack Wright‘s featured a lot of timbres an techniques in a compact space.”
  • “Now that was a real jazz set fron Dave Bryant. All the rhythms chords and cadences. and bass.”
  • Vinny Golia as usual has quite a collection of wind instruments.”
  • “The Thin Air Orchestra is looking Thick as the cover the whole stage. … It’s a big funky and slightly weird orchestra. With scat singing.”
  • “I think the Thin Air Orchestra just had their Miles Davis moment.”
  • “A big chaotic chord concludes this set, tonight’s concert, and the entire Outsound Music Summit for 2012.”

Language As an Open Box

Raskin and Harryman appear Weds., July 18, at the Outsound New Music Summit, and they’ve got a KFJC appearance Sunday night, July 15. Details below.

Jon Raskin and Carla HarrymanOpen Box (Tzadik, 2012)

For Open Box, Jon Raskin wrote music to frame the poems of Carla Harryman. It sounds artsy and serious, but the album starts with a sucker punch: the searing metal of electric guitars.

That track, “Fish Speech,” isn’t typical of the rest of the album, but it serves to upend your expectations, setting you up for a variety of music and moods.

You’d expect Raskin, the “R” in the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, to back Harryman’s abstract word collages with equally abstract music, maybe something improvised or driven by a graphical score. And you’d be right — but he applies other ideas as well, putting to work different combinations of Bay Area and former Bay Area musicians in a total project that took three years to complete.

“Fish Speech” dangles sharp-edged guitar and bass over bleak verbal images of the nothingness before time. The words alternate between power and whimsy. (“There were no stories or bones … no lizards, pelicans, or fish.”) But the music sticks to the “power” side, conjuring an empty, chthonic universe — a “nothingness” that’s writhing and explosive, like the near-infinite heat in the microseconds following the Big Bang.

That piece gets an extra edge early on, when the vocals shift from Aurora Josephson’s silkiness to a harsher voice that I’m guessing is Roham Sheikhani. His accented, staggering voice arrives stern and biting: “Silence was neither dominant nor peaceful nor silent. There was no sound or smell.”

But the album spends longer stretches on improvised music — a suitable backing to the work of Carla Harryman, a teacher at Eastern Michigan University and Bard College whose work is categorized with avant-garde language poetry.

Harryman’s work is indirect, as you’d expect. We’ve all been exposed to that kind of poetry, but in listening to Open Box, I tried to pay particular attention to the words. Sometimes, I tried immersing myself in the language, the specific syntax; other times, I could let the words flow through my ears, like a kind of music, a language not intended for directly semantic interpretation.

The two-part title track is built of fragmented and purposefully incongruous phrases, like the framework of a framework, delivered in plain-fact style by Raskin and Harryman. Ideas appear in long expositions such as: “The psyche of the poet exceeds the poem without the poem disappearing into an exterior world in which the poem cannot survive / The poem is therefore a representation of an edge performed in other worlds, not this / Once /”

It’s during the closing minutes of Part 2 that Raskin and Harryman diverge, reaching completely separate parts simultaneously. Even with their voices reading calmly, the tension wells up quickly as their non-thematic lines shove one another out of the way. I found my ears hearing one, then the other, as if the words were two colors of ribbon spiraling in front of me. It’s a good effect, creating a coda without having to superficially punch up the music.

The music follows a similar path, free improvisation in small motions, like construction activity going on in the background: sparse, rattly sounds from percussion, guitar, and electronics, and the occasional sweetness of Raskin’s sax or, in Part 2, the crinkle of Liz Allbee’s trumpet.

I find myself being drawn back to “A Sun and Five Decompositions,” which somehow feels like more of a narrative flow, maybe because of the balletic and criss-crossing among the three speakers (Josephson, Sheikhani, and Harryman) and the music’s interplay with the words. Blips of sax, guitar, and percussion build and release tension in time with the moods of the intertwined spoken parts — three speakers calling-and-responding, sometimes repeating one another’s phrases or meeting in unison briefly. You get the sense of the voices having been orchestrated, a foreground scored to sit with the musical improvising.

It’s serious, and yet … there’s a passage where “Don’t be silly!” appears right after someone says “potato head.” Josephson does a particularly good job changing voices throughout the piece, ranging from poetic seriousness to flighty dingbat.

But I’d started off talking about variety: “JS Active Meme” closes the album with blistering guitars, a psychedelic sunburst. “Song for Asa” is an actual song, crooned by Aurora Josephson against long tones of sax, then it turns into a quietly bubbling improvisation, with small, popping vocalizations and crackling electronics sounds. The singing, coming up in the middle of the album is an odd sensation after an half our or so of spoken word.

Raskin and Harryman, will be participating in the “Sonic Poetry” night of the annual Outsound New Music Summit, on Weds., July 18 in San Francisco. Their set will include Gino Robair on piano.

And Harryman and Raskin will also be on KFJC-FM on Sunday, July 15, sometime between 8:00 p.m and 10:00 p.m., to discuss their collaboration.  Details on Facebook.