*This article originally appeared in the Megaphone section of All About Jazz in June 2007.
When most people think of jazz and poetry coming together, they immediately think of the jazz tradition of poems being read over a musical background, the famous image of the quintessential beatnik (you know, the beret, striped shirt, funky glasses...) fronting a band that plays a cool cool blues behind him. Though limited, this spoken-word tradition has helped to highlight the common ground that exists between jazz and the mostly beat (sometimes freestyle) poetry that accompanied it. However, its' prominence in jazz has too often overshadowed the art of actually basing composition on poems, which has long existed in other genres and is relatively uncommon in jazz.
Basing a composition on a poem presents a multitude of challenges artistically and musically. A poem, regardless of form or verse, exists on its own, its own entity, possessing a rhyme, rhythm, and a music within. I constantly ask myself whether poets actually want this done to their work. It can often feel like clothing a great nude sculpture or framing an unframed work of art, and thus must be approached with great delicateness.
After selecting a text (sometimes the most difficult part of the process), the composer must dig to find the essence of the poem, the unshakable, immovable aspects of the work that transform it from a collection of words or ideas into a work of art. This is deeply connected to a musician's art, bringing creativity and vitality to a work without ignoring the intents of the composer, much like an actor brings himself to a character without compromising the script.
In setting the poem, the composer must pay careful attention to preserving the clarity of the work, its flow of ideas and subtle manipulations. He/she must caress each word, each line, as if the poem were being read to an audience hearing it for the first time. Balance is key, as music can easily distract from the poem, especially if the work is dense and abstract to begin with. No matter how much I wrestled with them, some of the greatest poets, such as Hart Crane (whose poetry is so full of references and has to be read almost backwards to be understood) and Sylvia Plath (who wrote some of the most powerful and evocative lines of the English language) were unappealing candidates due to the density and sheer intensity of their work (though I could not resist writing a spoken-word setting of Plath's beautiful poem to the child being conceived inside of her, "You're"). Conversely, works that have too literal of a tone, especially narrative poems, did not contain the aura of mystery that I like for a composition to have. Poems with too simple a rhyme scheme felt constricting musically, and length was also critical, since my goal was to create songs with simple forms for improvisation rather than any extended works. Much like great music, ideal poems for settings, though they can be enjoyed on the first encounter, leave room for re-imaginings and reinterpretation, and may leave one conflicted with what the subject or message of the poem is, or perhaps wondering there is one at all.
I must confess at this point to having never been a serious reader of poetry before starting The Words Project, nor do I tend to even listen to song lyrics attentively. I have always had an analytical mind, sometimes rather impatient, one that first tries to discern the meaning of what I read before appreciating its more visceral or sensual aspects, always hungry to get to what is next. Poetry teaches us to slow down, to quiet the mind, to enjoy the subtleties of language, its' sounds and minute expressions.
The deeper I have gotten into poetry, the more I have found it shares with jazz. Though many people have tried to define jazz over the years, its' definition remains murky and unattainable, leading me to think that its closest definition is its precious indefiniteness. The most sure way to ignite controversy in the jazz community has always been to try to rigorously define it. Similarly, what defines a poet, or a work of poetry? Many passages of literature are considered "poetic" but are not classified as poetry, while William Carlos Williams' sixteen famous and simple words about a red wheelbarrow (The Red Wheelbarrow) stands as one ot the pillars of modern poetry. As a novice to poetry, I am not qualified to delve into this topic nor I am the least bit interested in an objective definition of jazz. However, this sense of indefiniteness intimately weds jazz and poetry as art forms.
I am certainly not the first to use poetry as a vehicle for song, and am much indebted to a great tradition of combining words and music. Hymns, opera, folk song, art song, musical theater and popular song, have been doing it for years, and a number of jazz artists have preceded me, most notably Steve Lacy (listen to his version of Herman Melville's "Art" or his settings of Lao Tzu), Fred Hersch (his recent Leaves of Grass CD, which is quite programatic in scope, is a marvel), and Frank Carlberg (his numerous recordings for Fresh Sound New Talent are extraordinary). Certainly the lyrical depth and inventiveness of people like Patricia Barber, Bjork (whose own setting of an e.e. cummings poem on her album Medulla was an initial inspiration), and Monika Heidemann (one of four singers on the Words Project ), as well as singer/songwriters like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, can be considered poetry itself and is certainly advancing modern song.
The use of words in music can provide a much needed entry point for the average listener and an interesting challenge for composers. Despite the complexities of the process, I hope my music can be enjoyed with or without taking in the content of the poems. After all, it is a vehicle for some of my favorite musicians as well as four distinctive, beautiful voices (Monika, Heather Masse, Becca Stevens, and Noam Weinstein)... Skillfully used, jazz and poetry can complement one another, especially when the complex meeting of the two does not overshadow the truest and deepest components of jazz: creativity, interaction, and spontaneity.