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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 Gotrich 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!

Tony Adamo said...

Spoken Word Jazz/Tony Adamo
By CHRIS M. SLAWECKI/Allaboutjazz
Some African cultures preserved their history not by the written but by the spoken word, kept by oral cultural historians known as griots. On Was Out Jazz Zone Mad, vocalist Tony Adamo aspires to serve in this same role, as a verbal historian of both official and unofficial African-American jazz and blues culture. This type of jazz jive might wear quickly thin but Adamo writes about jazz and jazz musicians with such detailed intimacy and vision that his words snap, crackle and pop. More often than not, the heart, mind, and soul of Was Out Jazz Zone Mad prove genuine.

It helps immeasurably that Adamo regales such tales in the company of musicians expert in organ-guitar combo, small-club, greasy instrumental funk, led by drummer Mike Clark of (Herbie Hancock and) the Headhunters and featuring drummer Lenny White, organist Mike LeDonne, percussionist Bill Summers, guitarists Elias Lucero and Jack Wilkins, and saxophonist Donald Harrison. Their grooves are low-down and for real funky in the best possible way.

Thus inspired, Adamo's lyrical material is often magisterial. His description of saxophonist Joe "Sonic Henderson" cuts as sharp and bright and quick as lightning, and crosses from writing about jazz into writing that IS jazz: "Always diggin' into the hot-cool vocabulary of jazz to come up with notes that aren't always obvious but always fit...floating, thought-provoking sounds that were at times hard liquor jazz mixed with mad sex music..." All the while, this set's core trio—drummer Clark, LeDonne on organ, and guitarist Wilkins—twist up the accompaniment in thick rhythmic knots, with Wilkins playing Melvin Sparks to LeDonne's Charles Earland in their respective solos.

"Gale Blowin' High" honors jazz activist and trumpeter Eddie Gale. Saxophone and trumpet help create a fuller, larger ensemble sound very much like late-1960s recordings by Sun Ra and his Arkestra, Pharoah Sanders or like-minded wayfarers. Exploratory solos by Harrison (suggesting Sanders on alto), Wolff (suggesting Ra on piano) and White (suggesting no one but himself) pull and poke at the edges of this tune alongside Adamo's restless vocal.

In "Too Funky to Flush," Adamo unravels the best jazz tale of them all—the story of the city of New Orleans. Standing hip deep awash in a trio groove that's as deep and broad and powerful as the mighty Mississippi River, he sings the praises of Dr. John, Professor Longhair, Irving Mayfield and other denizens of the Crescent City's musical pantheon. (A local soul food kitchen's lunch and dinner menu specials make surprisingly good lyrics, too.)
Track Listing: Rain Man; Sonic Henderson; B.B. King Blues Oh Fire; Birth Of The Cool; General T; Boogaloo The Funky Beat; Card Dealer; Gale Blowin High; To Funky To Flush; Jax Bulldog Priest; I'm Out The Door; Let The Devil Pay My Way; Fly Jump Or Die.

Personnel: Mike Clark: drums; Donald Harrison: saxophone; Bill Summers: percussion; Lenny White: drums; Michael Wolff: piano; Richie Goods: bass; Tim Ouimette: trumpet; Mike LeDonne: organ; Jack Wilkins: guitar; Delbert Bump: organ; Wayne Delacruz-Hammond Organ, Chris Pimentel-guitar Elias Lucero: guitar; Roger Smith: keyboards; Kyron Kirby: drums.

Title: Was Out Jazz Zone Mad | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Ropeadope Records