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Nicholas Urie

My Garden

(Red Piano; US: 15 Mar 2011; UK: 15 Mar 2011)

To read Bukowski has always been, to a great extent, to hear Bukowski. Such was the conflation of art and man in his poems and prose that, whether their narrator was called Charles Bukowski or Hank Chinaski, you felt like you were on the receiving end of a highly personal confession. Sure, it was a heavily mythologized and ultimately unreliable autobiography, but that only served to heighten the sense of direct communication between the man and his readers. Age, experience, and the joys and anguishes of the flesh were the mainstays of Bukowski’s oeuvre. These, and hard-bitten, hard-won philosophy, truth refracted through the bottom of a bottle, moments of rare beauty when the clouds parted to reveal a burning clarity. 


Bukowski’s voice became an even more familiar sound for those who had the fortune (or misfortune, depending on the poet’s mood) to witness his notoriously rowdy readings. A safer, more selective experience could be had by sampling the numerous official and unofficial recordings of such events that circulated amongst his many fans. Hearing him read confirmed the presence of a voice that could be easily imagined when reading his books: a laconic, husky drawl that alternated between slurred confusion and razor-sharp brilliance. For a self-confessed dirty old man, Bukowski sure had a way with a clean, new poetic line. At his most concisely eloquent he could have you in 10 words or less. And when he had you, he had you for good.


Bukowski has already provided inspiration for a range of popular music artists, from direct references such as Rheinhardt Rowlands’s album Charles Bukowski to indirect associations, such as Tom Waits’ beat-referencing, booze-soaked early albums (and no, Bukowski didn’t want to be thought of as a beat writer, but few popular music artists have combined lowdown bo-homily and tender perversion as well as Waits). Tom Russell brought homage and vocal style together brilliantly on his 2005 album Hotwalker, a poetic recreation of the glory days of Bukowski, Kerouac, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Dave Van Ronk, and other fellow travelers.


Jazz composer and arranger Nicholas Urie adds to this tradition by putting a number of Bukowski poems to music, repeating the mixture of big-band dynamics, free-jazz experimentalism, speech, and song used on his inspired 2009 project Excerpts From an Online Dating Service. For that work, texts from actual online sites were set to music and sung by Christine Correa, resulting in a hybrid language that mixed deadpan banality with unexpected lyricism. The sometimes bathetic mixture of the sublime and the absurd is something that links Extracts to My Garden, with the notable difference that, this time, Urie and co. are dealing with work written deliberately as poetry. Correa provides the vocals for most of the pieces, thus providing both a link to Urie’s previous work and a neat solution to the problem of giving voice to a poet whose own voice is so familiar. What’s more, the use of a female voice to articulate the words of a defiantly male writer brings a critical, gender-aware fidelity to the project.


At the same time, the various jazz instruments (all played by men) also provide variations on the poet’s voice. Frank Carlberg’s Rhodes and Kenny Pexton’s tenor sax flesh out “Round and Round”, the swinging track that circulates around the repeated lines “You have my soul / and I have your money”. “My Garden” finds John Carlson’s trumpet giving way to Alan Ferber’s trombone in a long, muted midsection that gives mournful resonance to the lines “pain is flowers / blooming all the time”. The horns take a more dissonant turn on “For Crying Out Loud”, offering a rich array of textures to this hymn to weeping and giving a sense of the “droning malaise and chronic unrest” that Urie identifies with Bukowski and Los Angeles in his liner notes.


All in all, this is an album that stays true to the spirit of Bukowski while offering a new way of hearing his words. Like the gloomy laureate whose work is re-sounded here, Nichloas Urie is not afraid to walk on the dark side. Equally like his subject, he is able to find fragments of beauty in the gloom. Pain may be a flower but it can grow away from the dirt in its search for the clearer air.

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Richard Elliott is a writer, university teacher, and journal editor based in Newcastle upon Tyne. He is the author of the book Fado and the Place of Longing: Loss, Memory and the City (2010), as well as articles and reviews covering a wide variety of popular music genres. Richard is currently working on a co-authored book on ritual, remembrance, and recorded sound.


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