Jazz and poetry have a long history together, perhaps most notably around the Beat writers of the 1950s. Less explicitly, too, their forms are intuitively complementary to one another. This is especially true when poetry is unconstrained by set form or rhyme. Words and music, each unbound. Free verse, free jazz. So, as a notion, the pairing of jazz bassist Steve Swallow and poet Robert Creeley makes perfect sense. As the latter states: “Writing is the same as music. It’s in how you phrase it, how you hold back the note, bend it, shape it, and then release it”.
In the execution of So There, however, the combination of these artists feels a little awkward. A big part of this comes from Creeley’s contributions. I hate to speak ill of the departed (Creeley died in 2005), but his reading style, at least in this context, is so often without rhythm and groove that his delivery can feel mechanical. At other times, his staccato syllables dart and jab in the rather unpoetic oratory style of Christopher Walken (which is kind of funny; which shouldn’t be the case). Occasionally, though, as on “Miles”, Creeley’s words ride Swallow’s music beautifully. Steve Kuhn’s buoyant, West Coast piano vamps prove the perfect environment for the lines: “Simple trips / Going Places / Wasted feelings / Alone at last”.
In Creeley’s defense, his performances are a mixture of whole poems and isolated fragments that were set to tape before the music of So There was even written. How was he supposed to know what sort of inflection to use, and on which line? In that sense, what you get on this disc is close to a true poetry reading, which is then overlaid onto music. We’re more accustomed to a smoother integration of these elements, like lyrics sung with a pop song or, in some ways closer to the spoken sound of poetry, the rapping of hip hop. Our ears trained thus, this album feels a little off-kilter.
The music itself is quite accomplished. Without question, Swallow and Kuhn are terrific veteran players, and their dialogues on bass and piano are lush and expressive. Accompanying these two jazz greats is Norway’s Cikada String Quartet. Like Creeley’s words, this foursome drift in and out of the works on this album. Their contributions almost always reframe the stylistic feel of the music. “I Know a Man” begins in the manner of a 20th century classical composition, the strings stating a jaunty-yet-prickly theme. Then the jazzmen enter, pushing the quartet into the background, and suddenly the track becomes bebop. When Creeley pops in, another stylistic layer is added; now it’s Beat jazz ‘n’ Bartok. So, limber up your ears, because it’s a little challenging to take all of this in at once. To be sure, So There is active listening.
That’s okay, though. Even catchy pop music can quickly recede into the background, simply because our brains are so accustomed to its structure. With all its layers, this album works terribly as ambience. The music is generally pretty good-natured, but it does demand attention. Whether or not the CD actually rewards that attention is a little more hit-and-miss. I would guess that Swallow achieved his artistic goals in blending his fairly conventional jazz with the more avant arrangements for the Cikada, while also adding in the words of his old friend Creeley. But does that make the effort a success? I’ll concede that a certain subset of jazzheads out there will be perfectly suited to this genre blending. And I’m all for stylistic mashups in general. In this particular instance, however, I’m not wholly won over. Swallow more successfully fused jazz and classical textures together on his prior effort, 2004’s L’histoire du Clochard, which was performed by a sextet that included violin.
Frustratingly, Robert Creeley’s contributions are the least winning element here. Like Steve Swallow, I’m a fan of his poetry. He’s a wonderful, modern minimalist, capable of capturing moments in a way that is never precious. “If you wander far enough / You will come to it / And when you get there / They will give you a place to sit”. Those are the opening lines on the album, from the short track “Oh No”. Simple, Zen-like, the words are more enjoyable typed than when burdened with discordant string tones. I will return to Creeley’s words, in the large volume of his poems kept on my bookshelf. And I will return to the music of Steve Swallow. But, despite a number of fine moments and plenty of risk-taking, the balance of reward versus effort on So There doesn’t quite pay off enough for the album to retain permanence in my collection. Perhaps your more adventurous ears will find more here to love.