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Take Five: A Jazz Sampler

5 Points Where Poetry Meets Jazz

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

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

toggle 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

05Home

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

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Robert Creeley Meets Steve Swallow

  • Song: Home
  • from Home
  • by Steve Swallow

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

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

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cover for Finger-Songwriter

01One Art

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

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Elizabeth Bishop Meets Jeremy Siskind

  • Song: One Art
  • from Finger-Songwriter
  • by Jeremy Siskind

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

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

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03Samurai Song

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    Song
    Samurai Song
    Album
    POEMJAZZ
    Artist
    Robert Pinsky & Laurence Hobgood
    Label
    Circumstantial Productions
    Released
    1969

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Robert Pinsky Meets Laurence Hobgood

  • Song: Samurai Song
  • from POEMJAZZ
  • by Robert Pinsky & Laurence Hobgood

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

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09Yes We Can

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

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Amiri Baraka Meets David Murray

  • Song: Yes We Can
  • from Rendezvous Suite
  • by David Murray/Jamaaladeen Tacuma

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.

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

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Jayne Cortez And The Firespitters

  • Song: There It Is
  • from There It Is
  • by Jayne Cortez

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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