The recent slew of recordings that pair jazz musicians with poets are enough to bring Jack Kerouac back from the grave, to raise the specter of Allen Ginsberg and singer Mark Murphy above the horizon.
But what’s going on today is even better, with Jane Ira Bloom interpreting Emily Dickinson in interesting ways and David Murray working with spoken word maven Saul Williams. The integration of powerful American word-art with our great musical form now feels less like any hipster gimmick and more like a joining of two powerful but subtle forces. Sure, neither jazz nor poetry is a mainstream popular taste these days, but that’s all the more reason for them to join forces. Art needs all the help it can get, all the time.
Composer and clarinetist Ben Goldberg came up with a brilliant idea for collaborating with a hero poet of his, Dean Young. Goldberg wanted to write tunes based on a set of poems by Young and record them with an improvising band. Then Goldberg would play the tunes for Young (without his knowing which tune matched which poem), inspiring him to write new poems reacting to the music. Young said, YES, and the result is Good Day for Cloud Fishing. If you are going to buy one jazz album (the physical thing itself) this year, this is the one, as you get not only the music but also small cards containing the “Entry” poem on one side and the “Exit” poem on the other. This is multimedia stuff that lets you touch something made of cardboard—and made of your heart and brain too.
The music itself is a sheer joy, a dozen tone poems performed by a trio of musicians who are capable of intimacy and orchestral sweep at the same time. Goldberg plays both clarinet and the deep contra-alto clarinet, giving himself a wide range of possible colors right there. He adds trumpeter Ron Miles, known for his own cinematic composing as well a range of brilliant collaborations with guitarist Bill Frisell, and guitarist Nels Cline, whose guitar goes from simple undistorted lines to synthesized/sequenced patterns, to craggy acoustic jangles or fuzz-toned excitement. The span of colors the trio can achieve seems to have no end.
Which is good if you are trying to keep up with Goldberg’s layered compositions and the ambiguities and specific images of Young’s poetry. “Parthenogenesis” (I looked it up: “a natural form of asexual reproduction in which growth and development of embryos occur without fertilization”), for example, evolves across episodes of sound. First is a solo for B-flat clarinet. Second is a simple vamp pitting single guitar notes and lazy clarinet arpeggio against a highly vocalized trumpet improvisation. The third is a hopping little jazz tune for brass/clarinet counterpoint over acoustic guitar but recorded through a telephone filter. The fourth is an impressionistic collective improvisation for brass and clarinet over an evocative one-chord guitar line. The band can shift and shimmy in a way that makes all these pieces feel at home with each other.
The band can mix a groove into this kind of approach as well. “Corpse Pose” is a funky rocker of the kind that Frank Zappa used to enjoy. Cline sets up a rock feeling that Zappa or John McLaughlin would have recognized, and then he overdubs a squealing but quietly mixed improvised line. Contra-alto clarinet and trumpet then enter with a hip and syncopated blues line. You want them to jam this thing out for ten minutes. But it is cut short to make way for a contemplative tone poem section, with Goldberg playing a set of beautiful arpeggios over a wave of gorgeous chords as Cline and Miles hum beneath him.
“Ant Head Sutures” similarly grooves upfront, the contra-alto clarinet like a tuba beneath a funky march, until the band takes one phrase from the melody and starts to tease it out slowly, with no groove, Cline milking it through synth-guitar and chordal washes, Goldberg repeated it and transforming it, Miles laying out at first and then joining the clarinet in a written line that becomes a beautiful ballad theme. “Sub Club Punch Card” also uses an episodic structure with varying tones and textures, mostly through-composed (or so it seems), with the players reading a score that carries them across landscapes both spiky and smooth.
Not all the performances here are such transformations. “Someone Has to Be Lowered” explores one idea, with each member of the trio mainly playing a single-note line that weaves and bobs around the others, sometimes written and sometimes improvised but all circling around a bopping theme that can shift from whimsical to angular and strange. “A Rhythmia” is a strutting ditty with a pop song format from start to finish, with Cline playing layers of surf guitar sounds while Goldberg takes care of the contra-alto bass line. “Because She Missed a Test” is happy to build a series of orchestral textures on top of a single-note guitar line in the lower register: mysterious and ominous, with no improvising.
The variety of sounds continues across the other tracks—beguiling in every case. The connection to the poetry is never entirely obvious, but that’s no criticism, with instrumental music always being a bit of an abstraction. But some rhythms and moods clearly slip from poem to song and back to poem again. It is, perhaps, the variety of moods from a relative paucity of tools that most clearly connects the two art forms. Young has only words on a page with which to paint his canvasses. Goldberg has 12 notes and three players. So, each artist leans on the area where he has great variety. Young has the vocabulary of the English language, with all the rhythms and forms that such music makes possible. Meanwhile, Goldberg has the vast expressive range of these creative musicians, their sonorities and textures, their colors and ability to bring their personalities and spontaneous composing to the moment.
There is another connection too. Both Young’s poems and Goldberg’s music comes from an American tradition with shared roots. Young writes with the plainspoken clarity of Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch—a second-generation “New York School” poet whose work derives its artistry from American sources and styles. Goldberg, of course, emerges from some kind of “jazz” tradition, with its focus on individual voice and the sound of U.S. voices in their incredible mixture. In both bodies of work, there is an unfrilly focus as well as a richness of feeling.
Both artists represent the state of the art in this nation, or at least one state of the art, and a fine one. What a joy when artists get together to become more than they could have been alone.