Take Five: A Weekly Jazz Sampler

5 Points Where Poetry Meets Jazz

Jayne Cortez in 1996. The poet often recorded her poems to improvised music. i i

Jayne Cortez in 1996. The poet often recorded her poems to improvised music. Bob Berg/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Bob Berg/Getty Images
Jayne Cortez in 1996. The poet often recorded her poems to improvised music.

Jayne Cortez in 1996. The poet often recorded her poems to improvised music.

Bob Berg/Getty Images

Poetry and song were once the same: The first poems were recited to music played on the lyre. (It's the source of the word "lyric.") Today, poems are published in books and journals, while songs are heard but seldom read. The poet Robert Pinsky tells of a successful songwriter-singer who said, "A little poetry can really help a song, but too much poetry will sink a song."

Surprisingly, we're left with relatively few recordings of poetry sung by jazz artists. Speaking truth and emotion, sonic and rhythmic, structured and free, poetry and jazz seem like natural born partners. More often, we do hear poets read their writing to accompaniment by jazz musicians — a form of spoken-word performance. Others write poetry inspired, informed and shaped by jazz. (If you'd like to read some examples, take a look at Jazz Poems, edited by Kevin Young, or The Jazz Poetry Anthology by Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa, for starters.)

In honor of National Poetry Month, the world's largest literary celebration, and Jazz Appreciation Month, which culminates with a global concert on International Jazz Day (April 30), this week's Take Five samples the collisions between poetry and jazz.

5 Points Where Poetry Meets Jazz

Cover to Home

Robert Creeley Meets Steve Swallow

  • Artist: Steve Swallow
  • Album: Home
  • Song: Home

For poet Robert Creeley, writing to jazz became "a physical requirement." He was especially drawn to the music of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Jazz bassist Steve Swallow was likewise drawn to Creeley's terse, minimalist verse, and the two enjoyed a lengthy collaboration. Recorded in 1979, Home is a jazz album with a dream band: Swallow, Steve Kuhn on piano, David Liebman on saxophones, Lyle Mays on synthesizer and Bob Moses on drums. Because Swallow bends his music to fit Creeley's words — all nine of them, sung once at the beginning and again at the end, bracketing a joyous, soaring solo by Liebman — "Home" is both poem and song.

Further reading: The Collected Poems of Robert Creeley, 1945–1975

Purchase Featured Music

Song
Home
Album
Home
Artist
Steve Swallow
Label
ECM Records
Released
1979

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cover for Finger-Songwriter

Elizabeth Bishop Meets Jeremy Siskind

  • Artist: Jeremy Siskind
  • Album: Finger-Songwriter
  • Song: One Art

Pianist and composer Jeremy Siskind's lilting, wistful waltz is an ideal setting for his version of Elizabeth Bishop's villanelle about loss. Siskind holds a master's degree in English and comparative literature from Columbia, so he knows his way around poetry well enough to take liberties. Rather than follow Bishop's text to the letter, he "Frankensteined" (his word) the poem "One Art," paraphrasing, embroidering and highlighting a romantic subplot. Siskind's solo piano opens, followed by Lucas Pino's saxophone and Nancy Harms' cool, spacious voice, which tells the story and brings the song to its melancholy end.

Further reading: Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters

Purchase Featured Music

Song
One Art
Album
Finger-Songwriter
Artist
Jeremy Siskind
Released
2012

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cover to PoemJazz

Robert Pinsky Meets Laurence Hobgood

  • Artist: Robert Pinsky & Laurence Hobgood
  • Album: POEMJAZZ
  • Song: Samurai Song

Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky was born too late to be a Beat poet, but he would have fit right in. A former saxophonist, he's often performed his poems with jazz musicians, including Ben Allison, Vijay Iyer, Andrew Cyrille and Bob Moses. For POEMJAZZ, his first recording of poetry and jazz (a second is reportedly on the way), he turned to pianist and arranger Laurence Hobgood, who spent 20 years with the poetically inclined singer Kurt Elling. In "Samurai Song" (see text) Hobgood's elegant, expressive playing and Pinsky's incantatory words are a conversation among equals. Watch the duo perform it here.

Further reading: Robert Pinsky: Selected Poems

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Song
Samurai Song
Album
POEMJAZZ
Artist
Robert Pinsky & Laurence Hobgood
Label
Circumstantial Productions

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cover to Rendezvous Suite

Amiri Baraka Meets David Murray

  • Artist: David Murray/Jamaaladeen Tacuma
  • Album: Rendezvous Suite
  • Song: Yes We Can

An occasional complaint about poetry set to jazz is that the poem is good but the music is so-so, or vice versa. No worries here. Recorded in early 2009, "Yes We Can" — borrowing its title from Barack Obama's campaign mantra — brings two giants together: Amiri Baraka, poet, playwright, activist and cofounder of the Black Arts Movement; and David Murray, prolific master of the tenor sax and bass clarinet. Pulling lines and phrases from his "Barack Obama" poem, Baraka swings in and out of Murray's funky, popping composition. With Jamaaladeen Tacuma on bass guitar, Mingus Murray on guitar, Paul Urbanek on keyboards and Ranzell Merrit on drums.

Purchase Featured Music

Song
Yes We Can
Album
Rendezvous Suite
Artist
David Murray/Jamaaladeen Tacuma
Label
Jazzwerkstatt
Released
2011

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Jayne Cortez And The Firespitters

  • Artist: Jayne Cortez
  • Album: There It Is
  • Song: There It Is

A poet, activist, publisher and performance artist, Jayne Cortez wrote frankly and pointedly about race, sex, social problems and politics. She was the author of 12 books of poetry, and won numerous awards including the Langston Hughes Award and the American Book Award. Cortez was a natural at reading her own poems to music; she made nine recordings starting with Celebrations and Solitudes in 1974. There It Is was recorded in 1982 with her regular band, The Firespitters, whose members included Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Charles Moffett Jr. and Denardo Coleman — Cortez's son with Ornette Coleman. The title track is matter-of-fact and devastating.

Further reading: Jayne Cortez's website

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