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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Poetry and spoken word in jazz - why I don't like it ...

There are many things I don't like in jazz, but reciting poetry in a piece of music is to me one of the most conflictual combinations you can have. I hate it, actually. And I'm not too sure why it doesn't work, but let's give it a try.

1. Poetry is "text made lyrical", it means that you try to bring musical elements into plain words and sentences. You add rhythm, you add rhyme, you add repetitive elements, you play with words and letters to make sentences flow, or fly, or even halt, or shout ... you make the text sing. And this works perfectly fine as long as you read it (silently!). Great poetry can sing to you as a reader, it can move you, it can surprise, it can make you laugh. Now when you put poetry (text trying to be music) into a piece of music, you put it in sharp contrast with its ultimate ambition. And that contrast is too great to make the poetry survive. It's like making music with the brakes on. It's not good for the brakes, it's not good for the car's speed. And certainly not for the passenger's nerves.

2. The poetry used for music is often of a pitiful quality, penned by the musician, trying to sound like a poet. It's an ambition the musician shouldn't have. The words, the phrases, are often high-brow, with lots of dull cliché images, or spiritual, or romantic elements which are closer to the kitsch of the Bragolin paintings of the boy with the tear on his cheeks than to art. Just like few great poets are truly great musicians, great musicians should not assume they are great poets. Be yourself, don't fake what you aren't.

3. Writing poetry is one thing, but reciting it is still another. Sometimes professionals are hired to do that, sometimes one of the band members does it. In both instances, the reciting is almost always overly dramatic, full of misplaced pathos.

4. And then you have the bad poetry recited badly. That makes the passenger jump out of the car (at no risk, since now the brakes are more powerful than the engine of the car).

5. Singing poetry is still an option. But the odd thing is that this still does not work. You can put words to a melody, as often happens in rock music, doing the opposite is extremely difficult. It sounds artificial and musically poor.

6. What I find most perplexing is that all of the above often takes place a free jazz context. Free jazz musicians who try to find ways to circumvent conventions, to find new ways to express themselves, sometimes fall back on the most horrible conventions of poetry, as they were taught in school, as they think that they are supposed to be written and supposed to be recited or sung. Why is that?

So, hence my often negative comments on poetry in jazz. As said earlier, I re-recorded some CDs to eliminate all the tracks with spoken word or poetry on them, just to make them audible, just to drive without the brakes on.

To end in a positive note. There are some notable exceptions of excellent spoken word in music, although not in jazz specifically, but then only because they managed to get a perfect integration of music and words.

Tom Waits - What's He Building In There (from : Mule Variations - see clip below)
Michael Mantler - The Hapless Child (with Robert Wyatt, Terje Rypdal, Carla Bley, Jack DeJohnette... with weird texts from Edward Gorey, but the whole album is weird, yet worth listening to)
Laurie Anderson - many songs on Life On A String, Big Science, Bright Red, ... (she's a truly under-rated artist)

... but that's still not jazz.

© stef


luKe said...

Ken Nordine rules though!

Lars said...

I'm right with you. Spoken word has destroyed so many great albums. Most of the time, the speaker really forces his/her words to sound "free" and it falls flat every time.

I have to say, though, the Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet recording, "Be Music, Night," that features the poetry of Kenneth Patchen is stellar. I thought that album did it right.

Anonymous said...

As Lester Bowie one time aptly said: it all depends on what you know. I advise to listen to the recordings of Kerouac with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims or Cecil Taylor's poetry or the music and word interplay by the great Steve Lacy. Enough material to chew the fat on for ages.

stef said...

Thanks for all the tips. I'll check it if I can get hold of the music.

It's always refreshing to be proven wrong -- although I never claimed it was not possible for poetry to fit in a jazz context. I am not aware of any poetry good examples, but I know hundreds of bad.

I'll let you know!

Anonymous said...

"2. [...] Be yourself, don't fake what you aren't."

I recently saw a collaboration between a distinguished poet and a distinguished musician. There was no pretending.

"5. [...] You can put words to a melody [...] doing the opposite is extremely difficult. It sounds artificial and musically poor."

See Artsong

ngoh said...

What about Henriksen's Cartography??

Anonymous said...

What about Jayne Cortez and the Firespitters!