Robert Creeley

So There: Steve Swallow with Robert Creeley, with Steve Kuhn and the Cikada Quartet, ECM/WATT Works Inc., 18 tracks, 2006, $17.98

This spoken word-music project, which began as a collaboration between Steve Swallow and Robert Creeley (born 1926), became a homage when Creeley passed away in ‘05. Opening with the two quatrains of “Oh No,” Creeley’s craggy voice is front and center:

If you wander far enough
you will come to it
and when you get there
they will give you a place to sit
for yourself only, in a nice chair,
and all your friends will be there
with smiles on their faces
and they will likewise all have places.

After that last syllable, pianist Steve Kuhn plays a run of bright notes while underneath him, the Cikada String Quartet (Henrik Hannisdal and Odd Hannisdal, violins; Marek Konstantynowicz, viola; Morten Hannisdal, violoncello) weaves musical figures that “house” or “welcome” Creeley’s spoken verse. When Swallow walks the bass, strange, haunted and beautiful sounds emerge from strings and piano to create a sonic rapport with Creeley’s terse lyric.

It’s not a question of framing Creeley’s language, which stands alone, in any case; it’s not even a matter of who plays what on which track but how words and music combine to deliver a unique performance that triggers associations, suggests new meanings and develops a more intuitive kind of listening. Moreover, it swings. The blues elements are rich and vital. Composer Swallow and pianist Kuhn, both monsters of the jazz avant garde, really stretch out with a lyrical intensity that makes for quite the tribal love fest, bigger and brighter than the sum of its parts.

What more could a projective poet like Creeley, steeped in be-bop (he often wrote to Bud Powell), ask for? Swallow’s been on to Creeley’s unique voice and line since Don Allen’s New American Poetics antho first appeared in 1960. In fact, Swallow is a Creeley fan. In the late Seventies he brought Kuhn on board with a krewe of heavyweights, pianist Lyle Mays, saxophonist Dave Liebman and the magnificent singer Sheila Jordan, to collaborate on his first Creeley project for ECM, Home. Kuhn chose work from Creeley’s oeuvre based upon on how sing-able they were; it turns out they were unanimously love poems.

For So There, his next shot at Creeley, recorded in West Shokan, NY, and Kunsthogskolen, Oslo, he said, “The poems kept showing me how to approach this. Not just the rhythms in Bob’s speech, but the colors and atmospheres implicit in the poems as well . . . an aural landscape gradually emerged . . . and it kept suggesting string quartets to me.” What a way to compose: to let the emerging score do the suggesting. Swallow and Kuhn have that rapport that comes from playing together over many years as well as with the Cikada musicians. Because everyone’s got big ears for the quirky delivery of a Creeley, it’s heaven. Even the booklet is a beauty, nothing but eighteen killer poems and two goofy head shots.

(from “Getting Trane in Our Souls,”


Amiri Baraka

Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka, published by University of California Press, Berkeley, 2009, 436 pages, hard cover ($26.95) ISBN 978-0-520-25715-3

Amiri Baraka is a brother on a mission, but which mission has been the question over the years. In Tonight at Noon: A Love Story, Sue Mingus recounts that Allen Ginsberg, having just “married” Sue and Charles at a Manhattan party per the composer’s request, expressed concern that Baraka had brought very young children to the stage after his reading to chant “We hate whites” and raise their arms in a black power salute. Mingus mentioned that Baraka had no army and no guns. Ginsberg retorted that Baraka had a voice; Mingus said for letting off steam.

That happened in the mid-Sixties, around the same time the photo of the cover of Baraka’s new book, Digging, was taken. Ever since, it seems Baraka has been met by an unsettling either/or: moral outrage at his (ab)uses of language (Ginsberg) or a knowing nod to a cat letting off steam and maybe blowing some “out” notes in the heat of his solo (Mingus). In Digging, however, Baraka's lifelong mission has never been clearer: 1) to expose troublesome either/ors, from the basic think-feel split (Descartes) to the double consciousness (du Bois) which makes being black and American two things; from writing about jazz (critic) to writing that is jazz (performer); 2) to celebrate a spiritual wholeness that exists in the music beyond the wrath of a jealous theocrat, the poison of a colonial mind, the greed that drives the music and lit industries and the exploitation of talent in late XXth century-to-now capitalism.

The method of his mission couldn’t be clearer. He opens Chapter 1 with a very defined model, “... Afro-America is inextricably bound not only to Africa, but to the U.S., Pan-America (the Western Hemisphere, the actual ‘Western World’), and, through its Pan-African diaspora (pre and post and always, right now, modern), international culture. So the word Griot, the poet, musician, historian, story teller, is getting known all over the world. Though ‘French’ as transmitted ‘symbol,’ it is the best-known term for the West African Djali (or Djeli, but Djeli ya also means the Djali’s act, his ‘getting down’ to take us up and out), the Central and South African Imbongi, the East African Mshairi or Ngombe (rapper), the Yoruba Iiala, all carry the same general meaning….” (p 5) With its emphasis on expression, humor and improvisation, “Another name for the Djali is the Gleeman …not a ‘Town Crier,’ he’s a Town Laugher” (p 6), the griot-djali is the vehicle by which Baraka seeks to restore the oral as the primary mode of our literary and musical heritage just like it used to be for most of our human history and will be again.

At his best Baraka blows beautifully long-limbed, blue-black, ancient-to-the-future prose choruses from a deeply lyrical place of great mother wit and be-bop charm: funky, nutty, then bird-like in flight. It’s at once in the music, a commentary on the music and a key to the music’s spirit and root. His deepest and most memorable passages are tone poems of Ellingtonian elegance: intimate, knowing, insightful; a tune you knew that you now know better. Check his word solos on “The Great American Songbook,” “Rhythm,” Newark’s “Coast” and “Influence,” his addendum to Blues People, his knock-out “When Miles Split!,” his double takes on Trane (re reissues and why his legacy continues) and his eye-ear-memory to Art Tatum, Max Roach, Sarah Vaughn, Albert Ayler, Monk, Duke, Nina Simone, Bill Cosby and Abbey Lincoln. He mixes musical critique, personal anecdote, behind-the-scenes confessional, fan notes, the cab ride over and “bopera theory” to create that you-are-there sense just as it’s going down, son.

Divided into three sections, Essays; Great Musicians; Notes, Reviews, and Observations, Digging is theory, scholarship, autobiography, criticism, historical perspective, journalism and free verse in continuum. Its intent does not seek “the myth of objective consciousness” (Theodore Roszak) but to swing trope-a-dope vibrant like a jazz hang. The writing style is riff-driven, far-fetched, contrary, multi-dimensional, etymological, signifyin’, unnerving, outrageous, pun goofy, spirit-talkin’ spooky and connected to song, dance, movement. He’s not summing up like a dead lecturer; he’s in the momentum invoking the living spirit of the music (as he does on stage), stirring the alphabet pot in order to re-view-re-new figure and ground as an interactive Gestalt that challenges our given notions of black, brown and beige, fact and fantasy, art and artifice, time and space.

Digging, however, also serves up some unnecessary challenges as well. For one thing, this “talking book” is “crying out” for an editor. Forget words! Entire sentences, paragraphs and arguments repeat verbatim more than twice. Granted, many of these 84 chapters first appeared somewhere else as liner notes, reviews, poems, interviews or magazine features, and like any improviser, Baraka pulls out some stock riffs, beats, runs, honks, hooks and alternate fingerings in his flight gear to get us up and out. But left unedited, these knee-jerk repetitions of inventive language become one-note clichés. When he quotes the same lines of his own poetry in different essays, however, he needs more than an editor. At its worst the book reads like a garage sale with his meandering asides promoting unrelated projects of his own as well as his family members’.

In addition, a few of the musicians in Part Three happen to be leading bands that AB’s sitting in with on the gig or record date he’s reviewing! Call it an honorable hustle or a lagniappe, but more perplexing, from a reader’s point of view, is what’s missing. Some chapters end with a date, but some don’t, particularly his vexing views on Springsteen and Wynton Marsalis. Too bad the UC Press (this is their thirteenth volume in Music of the African Diaspora), didn’t put some shade on these inconsistencies and excesses or at least include an acknowledgments page or an index in the back for reference. This jazz elder and gifted performance poet who this reviewer has seen blow so many audiences away, from school kids to the square and cynical, deserves more editorial rigor in print, especially to celebrate his thesis that poetry is music.

For those who already know, go right to the last entry, dated 4/10/06, “Jackie Mc, Coming and Going,” which reveals an autumnal side to Baraka, the man and the mission. While Gil Noble reminisced at McLean’s funeral about growing up with JMc in Sugar Hill to the sound of Bird and the message of Bop, AB realized, “… that Jackie and I are of the same generation, me about to be 72 by the time this comes out.” (p 408) His mind wandered back to his days with Jackie and Dolly on the Lower East Side and the song Jackie wrote for his daughter, “Little Melonae,” on Let Freedom Ring, how that cry rang throughout the world and the free jazz that followed. “Alas,” he writes, “it is no more today, which is why the superpowers run amuck throughout the world and Greenwich Village looks like Coney Island and hip Soho resembles nothing so much as Tiffany’s garden.” (p 411)

Nevertheless, Baraka is still out there, on the scene, on the bandstand, on the one, writin’ like he’s talkin’ to ya and running that voodoo down.

(published in American Book Review, 2008)


John Sinclair

It’s All Good: A John Sinclair Reader by John Sinclair, published by Headpress,, suite 306, The Colourworks, 2a Abbot Street, London, E8 3DP, UK, second edition, April, 2009, 298 pages, ISBN: 9781900486682; US $19.95 and UK $12.99; with free music-spoken word CD download 

Don’t sweat the tautology in the title. It’s All Good: A John Sinclair Reader is a transcendent, philosophically tough-minded journey forged from one writer’s mating the New American Poetics, especially the Beat Generation, with America’s blues-jazz tradition and its rock-soul-funk-punk permutations. Published by Headpress (their motto: the gospel according to unpopular culture) the collection celebrates Sinclair’s 44 years on the culture scene with 22 of his poems, 22 of his essays and the ultimate lagniappe: thirteen works in performance with a variety of bands and great musicians from a free CD download.

For those disheartened by the plethora of Sixties-inspired memoirs that are but advertisements for oneself, “It’s All Good” is powerful medicine. Sinclair (born 1941) is a force of nature, a high-minded, principled Midwestern talk-walker with the hipster code of a viper like Mezz Mezzrow in one brain’s hemisphere and the political agenda of a leftie like Saul Alinsky in the other. How’s this for chutzpah: while locked up for handing a couple of joints to a narc who infiltrated his poetry class, Sinclair does a lot of his time in the hole for his efforts in organizing black prisoners to advocate for better education programs. Such racial solidarity may seem inconceivable in the slammers of the twenty-first century, but check Sinclair’s roots in “I Wanna Testify,” “I came to Detroit in 1964 as a refugee from white American society attracted to this teeming center of African American culture … the birthplace of the Nation of Islam and the hotbed of bebop, the place where you could hear jazz all night long and cop weed or pills whenever you wanted to. The plight of black Americans was known to me from the street level, as I had the honor of spending a number of my formative years in Flint, Michigan, under the direct tutelage of some of the fastest young hipsters on the set, intense young men and women who held Malcolm X and Miles Davis in equal esteem and who introduced me to the wonders of daily marijuana use as a means for dealing more creatively with the terrors of white America.” (p 42)

A tale of such enthusiasms needs historical context and Headpress has wisely arranged the material chronologically which allows Sinclair’s various responses to unfold their own logic. The first essay opens with John Lennon’s 1971 lyrics, “It ain’t fair, John Sinclair / In the stir for breathing air,” (p 12) and a celebration of Sinclair’s release from prison after serving twenty-eight months on a ten year sentence, thanks to the Michigan state legislature re-classifying pot possession as a misdemeanor only days before John Lennon’s sold-out concert brought attention to his cause.

While keeping eye and ear on the Big(ger) Picture, Sinclair candidly reports, looks back, updates and muses upon his various tenures as a community organizer, arts advocate, cofounder of the White Panther (later Rainbow People’s) Party, manager of the rock band MC5, director of the Detroit Jazz Center, producer of the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Fest, editor of altie newspapers, reviewer of music, well-loved disc jockey at WWOZ in New Orleans and presently an ex-pat in Amsterdam.

That’s a lot of hats to wear to a revolution, and Sinclair has equal but separate gifts in prose as well as in verse. So kudos to Headpress for wisely taking a triple-headed approach: the matching poems enrich the essays and vice versa, and the spoken-word-with-music selections are so real deal alive as oral expression that they add another meaning to the written verse. For example, these lines in “everything happens to me” may read maudlin on the page, “race traitor & renegade, / beatnik, / dope fiend, / poet provocateur, / living from hand to mouth / & euro to euro / sleeping on the couches / & extra beds of my friends, / a man without a country” (p 105), but with Jeff Grand and the Motor City Blues Scholars hunkered into a groove underneath him, Sinclair’s gravel voice bends those vowels so ironically, one can’t tell if, like double-masked Papa Legba greeting you at the crossroads, he’s laughing or crying. That’s Sinclair’s true identity: he’s a signifyin’ bluesman, not a village explainer.

Unmetered, mostly unrhymed (free) verse does not lend itself easily to the American songbook, but Sinclair, with his mind on Monk and Muddy, half in bop and its touch of Sunday, half in the Delta and its electric children, has timing to spare. On “Monk’s Dream,” he emits such joy, wit and wisdom in a manner all-of-a-piece with his accompanists Luis Resto, piano, and Paul Nowitzki, bass. On the upbeat blues, “Fattening Frogs for Snakes,” his variable American foot fits like an old brown shoe as he references Sonny Boy Williamson’s lyric to tell the story of the music coming up from out of the Mississippi fields and juke joints traveling north upriver from spooky acoustic to an even spookier electric sound. With Rockin’ Jake’s encyclopedic harmonica work shading the same unfolding and Kirk Joseph’s sousaphone playing the bass line, the band underscores Sinclair’s lament: “nothing would be returned / to the people of the Delta / … this is what the blues is all about / ‘fattening frogs for snakes’ / & watching the mother fucking snakes / slither off with the very thing you have made.”

He produces such oracular momentum and incantatory brilliance (he “sounds” like William Blake draws or like the Book of Jeremiah reads) that on “brilliant corners,” with just a single repeating guitar phrase from Mark Ritsema, he held this listener in rapt attention through six pages of verse celebrating the bebop experiments in Harlem meeting the writers around Columbia, especially a “hip football player / & would-be sportswriter / from Lowell … so well known at minton’s / … that the musicians on the set / named a song after him, ‘keruoac.’” Weaving in the lives and works of Ginsberg, Cassady and Burroughs, Sinclair concludes, “& a road out of the stasis / began to open up / & out / in front us / & we followed it,” repeating the last line in a haunting shout. Nothing against the cottage industry that has grown up around these writers, but their actual story is indeed rooted in the music and no one swings that tale harder than Sinclair. Ditto “We Just Change the Beat.” Hearing the song as it changes tempo (genre) is worth a thousand pages of musical essay.

As for Sinclair’s musical essays, they are documents of respectful brevity, especially his eye to Iggy Pop, his “audience” with Irma Thomas, his love of the MC5 and his manifesto in “Getting out from Under.” Moreover, the range of the musical material the essays cover in It’s All Good, the quality of his poetry and his remarkable gifts as a performer reveal his immense value to us. He is a national treasure, a vital link in a postbeat literary-musical lineage that might be America’s greatest cultural export ever, and it’s about time we brought this griot back home where he belongs.

(published in American Book Review, October, 2009)


Barry Wallenstein

Tony’s World by Barry Wallenstein, published by Birch Book Press, Delhi, NY, 2010, 64 pages, letterpress soft cover ($16.00) ISBN 9780978997489

Tony’s World, Barry Wallenstein’s sixth book of verse, delivers a probing, jazz-inflected wit wed to a loosely measured form that develops an intriguing persona while reading like a narrative. Regarding this literary sleight-of-hand, Marilyn Hacker observed, “…Tony could be a Pynchon character in a novel by Philip Roth, or vice versa, but the linguistic imagination that summons him is a poet’s, creating enigmatic balances of sound and shape while refining a dramatic voice.” (back cover)

Fond of extended metaphor and innuendo, Tony’s dramatic voice conveys warmth, insight, paradox and double meaning while shaping the individual poems whose collective momentum is reminiscent of John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Just as Berryman’s sonnet-like form can have a reader deep in Henry-speak long after closing the book, so too for Tony’s blues-like, elliptical understatements. For example:

Further Talk from Tony

Believe me this time,
the curse that runs its course
and comes back to singe the sender
is my idea of health, good fortune;
a lesson learned from heat
is blazed forever.
I’d like to learn a lesson
and recover.
As for putting the sign on someone,
less and less would I do so,
racing as we are to the same post,
bitten by the same fly.
Recovered, I could melt into a doorway. (p 10)

The rhythm of the first six lines sets up a strong forward motion that the softer “sender-forever” rhymes on lines three and six work against, slowing things down before another slant rhyme, “recover,” appears two lines later and is echoed by “recovered” on the last line, so that the wish to “melt into a doorway” sounds like it’s actually happening. The clipped and circumspect language, while part of the music and charm of the narrator’s voice, tunes our ear to nuance, not end words allowing Wallenstein to work a palette of subtle sounds, using the equivalent of negative space to tell a larger tale by saying less. The idiosyncratic jumps in narration with its asides and returns suggest that these tone poems are Tony’s thoughts or habits of mind rather than an actual conversation. To thicken the plot many of the nicknames, proper nouns and place names that Tony mentions have a coded, shaded or underground meaning often opposite from their meanings above ground.

There is a shadow of Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Circular Ruins” as well. Two poems earlier, in the prose introduction, “Tony Talks about Himself,” the narrator states, “My age is 33 and since I inhabit a fiction, it never changes. I’ve been here a long time.” (front matter) The suggestion that Tony’s World is a fictional urban landscape and the book in the hand the actual transport proves dead-on. Hard truths like “‘Tony’s Dad’ / carried him across a river of blood” (p 33) meet an alternate logic like ‘Tony’s Blade’ … imagines it has memories” (p 14), a twist on Borges’ knife as a living thing in Doctor Brodie’s Report. To make matters even more indeterminate, Tony not only speaks in first person but in second and third person as well. Other narrators appear throughout the 44 poems in the collection and relate their experiences, too, some sounding like a master of ceremonies or an eyewitness to the kinds of details Tony might not notice. For example:


Never remind a gangster of his pulse, unless you want to lose yours fast.
––Mezz Mezzrow

I come to this page not to tell a story
but to escape the tangled tale I’m in
with its plot puffy as a tick on a fat-assed steer
& too many characters like Big Boy Billy,
Sally Gene, Tommy Trout, Tony from the city,
and the dangerous and young Baltimore Slim.
They never swim the same pool
but the secrets of their criss-cross lives,
leisurely laid bare at gatherings, disclose one fact:
their love for each other, selfish and sacrificial,
is a cloak of safety in their world;
they watch over each other’s pulse
as if the watching would keep things going;
they never speak about their chances,
and things are going
and not too slowly with Sally Gene
moving up out like a riptide
and she just might take Tommy too.
Tony, the older soldier not yet tired,
makes certain both Tommy Trout and Sally Gene
obey the rules of speed. He’s a comfort to the community
including Billy and Slim
who’ve lately made a pair of themselves;
my own part is admiration and how to get out of
or up from this tremulous insinuation. (p 48)

Thanks to this keen-eyed co-participant and citizen (“I come to this page not to tell a story / but to escape the tangled tale I’m in”) a wider angle of Tony’s world can be gleaned. The lines in the second stanza (“their love for each other, selfish and sacrificial, / is a cloak of safety in their world;”) sharply contrast with observations Tony delivers yet these lines deliver Tony as powerfully as any Tony persona poem. Seeing him as “comfort to the community,” a character among other characters in a human tribe, shifts the perspective and reveals an ethic (cave of inner being) working within Tony, “the older soldier not yet tired,” an ethic that has earned the narrator’s admiration.

This gradual turn “to be less acquisitive and less selfish in various ways, in short to wake up to the world,” as the author tells us in the Afterword (p 61), is the true narrative arc of the story. A journey begun on page one in which “Tony Upbraids Himself” with the lines, “you’re a dull toad, Tony, / in a left-over stew,” (p 9) reaches its climax in “The Day of Withholding.” Instead of focusing on what didn’t happen, Tony relinquishes his cares “… his cart wheeled as easily / uphill as on the level or down” for he learns, “Oh, sweet miracle of dream / to not miss what was not given!” (p 47) This loosening of bonds opens Tony to a deeper engagement with others, a victory especially celebrated in the last three coda-like poems, “Tony’s in Love,” “Tony’s Inventory,” and “Tony to His Creator.”

If the formal element of Wallenstein’s blues-sonnet suggests the Dream Songs, his social concerns recall another member of that Berryman generation, M.L. Rosenthal, of whom Wallenstein wrote in memorial, “From the very beginning of his writing life he drew on the relationships between poetry and politics .... I’ll never not hear his voice correcting and guiding, a gift I’ll have as long as I write poetry.” In Tony’s World Wallenstein has conspired to sing a consciousness of moral awakening into being through lyrics well crafted, humanly connected and of enduring value in an era of instant everything.

(published in American Book Review, Nov-Dec 2010)


Janine Pommy Vega

Across the Table, Janine Pommy Vega with musical guests, distributed by; 1604 River Road, Guilford, VT, 05301; phone: 802-254-4242; e:; 2007, signed, first class shipping, $25.00

Janine Pommy Vega’s latest CD, Across the Table, finds her in excellent company with a variety of musical guests on both sides of the Atlantic. Readers of Vega may recognize these poems, some which are among her best, and fans of her readings may recognize her signature shaker keeping time, but in Across the Table she pops her verse off the page and into our minds not by way of reading but by way of the heart via the sound in the ear. The result is not just music accommodating or dramatizing verse but a wedding of word into song, an alchemy elicited by her remarkable performance. The sounds she emits, hums, prays, chants, shouts, whispers, laughs, weeps and repeats cause us to confront our more essential or Indio nature, one not split between the rational and the dream.

The first seven cuts feature Nina Sheldon on piano, Michael Esposito on bass and the project’s “guiding spirit,” Betty MacDonald, on voice, violin and kalimba as Vega elects to join the band rather than to limit them to mere accompaniment. The opening track, “Habeas Corpus Blues,” welcomes us into that other America, the one that ain’t never gonna get on the cover of the Rolling Stone. Having taught a poetry workshop in Sing Sing over the last thirty years, Vega doesn’t need to dream up any of these Bill of Rights violations; nor does she have to remind us that what we do to the least of us in the slammer is we do to all of us sooner or later in the nation; she only has to report on her own eyewitness to bring the bite to these blues.

Piano and bass lay out in the next track as Vega incants while Macdonald sings and weaves in violin. “Madre di Tavolieri” follows with just Vega and her shaker, and in the stillness it becomes clear that she is calling out the luminous hidden in the ruins Vesuvius reveals, hidden in our most every-day activities, a catalogue which leads into “Food Song” with Sheldon matching on the piano’s lower keys the lyrical riffs Vega runs. Here is an excellent example of the use of a chorus. Instead of boring us with repetition (as it might when read), the refrain makes its point over and over anew while giving spoken stanzas and instrumental solos a body and context.

When Esposito switches to electric bass on “Mean Ol’ Badger Blues,” the band swings hard with tongue-in-cheek good humor. Macdonald gets down to some earthy fiddling which fits the mood just right for this call-and-answer account on how “Arthur Eyetis,” or the mean old badger, comes a callin’ on the mountain-climbing poet. Like the tradition of the blues, it’s funny and tragic at the same time. However, nothing that came before can prepare us for track six, Vega’s “The Green Piano” meeting Chick Corea’s gorgeous rehearsal for eternity, “Crystal Silence.” From the first note, Sheldon’s piano work is expert, a fountain of cascading serenity buoyed by Esposito’s solid bass and MacDonald’s sympathetic violin. Indeed, there are hidden worlds inside this melody. Meanwhile, Vega’s timing and rhyme flow is impeccable; she slips in and out among the soloing musicians with ease and precision. The execution feels so inspired that the entire four minutes of the tune seem to float in an occult realm all its own. This is no longer poetic invocation; this is deliverance.

Track seven, the title song, weaves Jeffrey Eisenberg’s waltz-like “Mediterranean Balcony” into Vega’s community of seekers for “there is something about the cavernous heart, where all songs gather,” which provides us with an introduction to the other bands who are not just Across the Table but across the sea. “Mad Dogs of Trieste” features Vega in a recorded concert in Naples with Ferdinando Gandolfi (flute) and Maurizio Carbone (percussion). The tune develops around a simple melody that actually becomes the poem’s title spoken aloud. “Ode to Slippers” is about getting strip-searched in Walla Walla Airport, but the context is the message. A jazz quartet plays “Stella by Starlight” while Vega recites. Gaspare Di Lieto shows plenty of finesse, comping under Giovanni Amato’s muted trumpet intro before adding sparkle to the humorous excesses Vega notes in her baggage handlers. Gianluigi Goglia on bass and Stefano Tatafiore on the drum kit keep it swinging and Vega responds in an animated, improvisatory fashion.

“Bird Mother of Caligari” brings back the flute-percussion team of Gandolfi and Carbone, now with Carmela Cordone on harp, as Vega literally role calls the names of the divine mother from Iran to India to Italy as one syllable slips into another, a brilliant act of embodiment. “The Draft” returns her to the blues and her observations on prison but this time from a concert in Sarajevo. Marco Collazzoni on sax fills and jabs and shouts and bends notes in his bare hands. With Ricardo Morpurgo on piano, Luca Colusi on drums and Almir Nezic on bass, this quartet invites Vega to let it all hang out, and that she does with a skill that, in spite of the MFA-ification of the art, the oral tradition has never left us. In the finale, a duet with Carbone on conga, Vega demonstrates the primacy of the drum as she salutes the mystery of melody and lyric becoming one.

(from “Riffs on the Avant Garde,”


Bob Holman

The Awesome Whatever, Bob Holman with music by Vito Ricci, 9 tracks,

Bob Holman’s The Awesome Whatever is another brilliant reminder that poetry has not lost its ear or its wit or its spirit of collaboration. Accused of being “the ringmaster of the spoken word” (New York Daily News) on one coast and “his generation’s Ezra Pound” (Poetry Flash) on the other, Holman is more like a poet looking to marry his form with other forms and see what offspring arises. For example, he produced for PBS The United States of Poetry which reached across the battlefields of the poetry wars to commemorate the range of our voices.

His most recent recording, a duet with guitarist-composer Vito Ricci, is excellent proof of the gestalt Holman builds, one that provides us with more insight into the marriage of form and content. The opener, the only track without Ricci, acts as prelude. It’s Holman’s hypnotic end-of-the-world voice over and under a repeating bass line with bits of cocktail piano, synth-strings and assorted sound effects thrown in to keep it nutty and ever-clever. Entitled “She Never Called Me Back,” it’s a stoney parody in the tradition of Lenny Bruce or Firesign Theatre. Holman captures the sinister-deep intonation of mock omnipotence that plays like a Dada phone message repeating in the Twilight Zone. It’s pleasantly unsettling and creates a mood of anything-can-happen anarchy, which is a tip-off to the rest of the CD: the poem or text is up for grabs; that is, one can’t be sure what’s on the page and what just occurred to Holman to say on the spot. In a phrase, “It’s rollin’, Bob.”

In the lovely “Love Lake,” which Ricci keeps spare and acoustic underneath, Holman improvises not just on the words but on his delivery, turning his voice to a funky gravel as he sings-talks-‘n’-fingerpops his way in and through these easy-goin’, soft-shoe, down-home blues. But in “The Meaning of Meaning,” from the opening moment when Ricci asks him, “Yes?,” Holman launches into extemporaneous bits about clues and readiness that dovetail into the tune’s first stanza. In fact, except for the chorus that they sing together, the entirety of Holman’s manic spiel has a shiny sense of being electric-live and improvised with a rhyme on the two and the four. Once again, as with Vega, so with Holman: the chorus is there not to dumb down the poem but to breathe “structure,” returning a stanza’s meander back to its source. But if the source for Vega is the Vedas, the source for Holman is laughter. He seeks the cosmic via the comic.

“Pasta Mon,” for example, features Holman as a crazed Caribbean dub-meister and dope-rhyme-sayer singin’-‘n’-swingin’ his “toast” in iambic pentameter sounding like Bobby “Boris” Pickett of “Monster Mash” fame. Ricci reaches into his synthesizer and drum machine to get the background right and then adds some tasty guitar as Holman jives, jokes and jests his way into an appreciation of how revolutionary culture gets flipped into the same old catastrophe. In “For Paul, and Everybody Else,” Ricci uses his drum machine and his guitar’s repetition of a James Brown riff (by way of Talking Heads) to get a slow funky burn working under Holman as he tosses off commentary about art and justice. The remarks slowly become “Night of the Living Dead,” which narrates a dream of Holman’s in which he hangs out with writer friends Pedro Pietri and Spalding Gray, both recently deceased. Ricci keeps the eight minute song lively, and Holman manages to fit his yaks deftly into the spaces Ricci provides. “On the Street Named Pedro Pietri,” a coda of sorts, follows. Behind the one-liners and the gallows humor and the Manhattan skyline, Holman signifies on the futility of having a street named after a poet who is too dead to walk on it.

“sweat&sex&politics” is an inspired manifesto on the value of self-expression. With only the drum machine underneath him, Holman lets loose a barrage of rhyme: “Communicate, reciprocate, conversate, don’t hesitate: in the beginning was the rap.” The poetic lines are simultaneously precise AND over-the-top, the style of delivery simultaneously an appropriation of hip hop AND a nod to its audacious rap-rap-rap-ability. “Picasso in Barcelona,” the last track, gets a very Iberian feel thanks to Ricci’s flamenco-like guitar passages that follow each of Holman’s free verse stanzas. Making effective use of the dramatic monologue, Holman assumes the voice of the painter in all its oversized, cubist self-regard to deliver a disquieting meditation on how art and commerce and fashion and fame are made, culminating in the killer last line: “All I paint is death.”

The hidden treasure is “January” (from which the CD’s title is taken). Ricci and Holman are solidly hooked up and become one instrument, guitar and voice two halves of the whole story. Credit Ricci for delivering a most mysterious and haunted riff which anchors Holman’s chatter-chops on the I Ching, the Seven Dwarfs, football, horniness and various existential gumbo. The mood is warm, at once absurdly funny and tender insight, and the timing delicate and unhurried with the repeating musical phrase from Ricci in all the right places.

(from “Riffs on the Avant-Garde,”


Mikhail Horowitz

The Blues of the Birth, Mikhail Horowitz with special guests, 9 tracks, Euphoria Jazz at, PO Box 85, Coxsackie, NY, 12051

For jazz fans with a sense of history and a love of comedy, Mikhail Horowitz’s The Blues of the Birth is a tribute to the more enduring and endearing aspects of our American classical music. Produced by Artie Traum and Bob Irwin for Euphoria Jazz, the nine “tunes” on this CD are really well-structured improvisational duets between Horowitz spewing mouthfuls of Mezz Mezzrow-like hoo-doo and a great band featuring Gilles Malkine on bass, Joe Giardullo on talking drum, alto sax and bass clarinet, Jim Finn on tenor and flute and David Arner on piano.

Horowitz doesn’t sing so much as lay down this incredible bop-driven patois that is equal parts hip cognoscenti and jazz dinosaur parody. But talk about schtick! He’s so deadbeat, deadpan and dead-on tsoris-cornball that you gotta laugh. He never loses sight of his accompaniment, which for a poet who fits more notes in a blues phrase than Bird, that’s saying something. And unlike many spoken word poets these days, he’s not locked into a historical footnote or head rest, he’s expanding the jazz poetry tradition. Yes, there’s a lot of Lord Buckley and Jack Kerouac and even Lenny Bruce in his phrasing, but his view is more playful and less claustrophobic than those Fifties’ icons who begat the freer world Horowitz celebrates in these witty routines.

The revolution, to paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron, may not be televised, but it walks with a dip in the hip and it chimes on the downbeat. Horowitz’s gift to us is to bring us back/forward to a time when lyric and note weren’t separate, when laughter and insight ran together in one continuum of recognition.


George Wallace

Swimming through Water by George Wallace, poetry, La Finestra, Trento, Italy, 406 pages, 2002, $36 Euro; CD in back cover sleeve

JONATHAN PENTON: I love the variety on this CD. It's one of those discs with a consistent, unifying set of themes, but huge deviances from track to track. There's a wide variety of instrumentation, and the flute on "When I Am Old," a track featuring George Wallace reading the poem of David Ignatow, is particularly haunting, striking the right balance between kind and creepy that's essential for such a theme. This track is in contrast, stylistically, to the jazziness of "Contest of the Electric Flowercars," but there's still a steady stream of sensibility and aesthetics that gives the disc a clear focus.

KIRPAL GORDON: One reason for the range is poet George Wallace's command of his craft. Nothing is outside the breath of his heart's vision; he knows no boundary because he travels where his lyrics take him! It's all there in his warm baritone voice, his jazz musician's sense of time, his surrealist leaps and his emphatic understatements. Like Willie Nelson, you can hear the nicks and crannies of his whole life in his phrasing: he's not hiding anything. He's also quite adept at employing an opening phrase or line that repeats throughout the poem. Sure, that's a trope that many in the Whitman lineage use, but he "makes it new" and with startling results.

The other big reason it's so steady and clear yet varied in its instrumentation is that it's David Amram accompanying Wallace on piano, tabla and flutes. For folks who have only seen Amram on the spoken word circuit remembering Kerouac's Pull My Daisy antics, he's been around a few blocks as a player, conductor and composer, classical and jazz both. Really, the guy's been investigating and synthesizing musical traditions long before the term World Beat came into coinage. Check out Amram's autobiography, and note that this has been a central pre-occupation for him from Day One. I've seen him play flutes from North Africa to Japan and there's no mood he can't evoke. Like so many jazz folks of his generation, he knows how not to get in the way of the words, whether sung or spoken. That's de rigueur for those old cats who came up in big bands that accommodated vocalists for part of the set. Amram started his career on French horn, a majestic, warm and round sound, so you know he knows when to hold and when to fold 'em. He's got that haunting Navajo-like flute in the poem you mentioned for David Ignatow: spooky, arresting, long-toned. Wallace’s last line, "I will ask for red roses, in remembrance of the first loss," locates the balance you’re talking about between fear of aging and joy of celebrating. Once again, the poem really finds its home in the melody. It's much more moving than when simply read to oneself. Along this line, check out the sixth track, "The Wave," because Amram really plays inside this haunted beauty of a poem. It's only a minute and a half long, but it's magical proof of how music and lyric are one fabric, just like ol' Ez told us. Moreover, it's up to the task of revealing how "great wardrobes of light drape the ancients, dark mending waters after all."

JP: It's real clear that Amram gets what Wallace is trying to do with the poetry. The poems and instrumentation are deeply integrated and highly complimentary; the themes and issues are congruent throughout. And what themes and issues! These are extremely original poems, tackling the quotidian from the most remarkable directions. Consider the opening lines of the second track: "God makes a note to himself / things to permit to occur without interruption." Or that track you mentioned, "The Wave," with its brilliant and moody imagery. What we've got here is a true affection for life in all its parameters, revealed by an absolutely expert pen, delighting in its own words and what those words signify. This is an extremely sophisticated and beautiful book, and Amram gives it additional power in a way that only someone who really "gets it" can.

KPG: You've nailed it and this is the toughest thing of all, that the whole is larger than the sum of its parts. No question, that second track is a gem and truly written in heaven. Here are some typical lines and notice how smartly he spaces his syllables while Amram plays a thoughtful, spacious chord progression on piano underneath: "a bird in flight a child in prayer oceanspray windsong / the progress of the sun through day" or "old men shaking hands with each other / death cheated vengeance denied / hope luck second chances / good advice freely offered / headlights on an empty road / the reappearance of fireflies in july" and that killer last line that would make a James Wright fan smile: "any soldier who desires to lay down his weapon / and turn his face in the direction of home." Wallace, a former reporter for The Long Islander, a newspaper founded by Walt Whitman in 1839, is also a former poet laureate of Suffolk County and well known all over Long Island as well as the five boroughs of NYC. So when Cindy Sheehan took the dis from President Bush, Wallace's comrades flew him to Texas to represent peace, poetry and democracy. So that last line really packs a political punch which to my ear is as inseparable as the music of Amram to the poetry.

For a favorite track, I vote for the title piece, the first track on the CD, "Swimming Through Water," which, by the way, is also the title of Wallace's poetry collection, published by La Finestra Press of Italy, in English and with Italian translations by Anny Ballardini who also interviews Wallace at the back of the book and that’s a real treat, by the way. Amram has great reach on the piano and in this song he reminds me of Edgar Meyer-Yo Yo Ma-Mark O'Connor's collaborative evocations of Appalachia. Amram blends these pianistic kernels of Kentucky and the Mississippi River a la the Gershwin of Porgy and Bess and mixes in a quiet, Impressionist reach of Rhapsody in Blue. He sprinkles these clusters to great effect in and around Wallace's well-timed and repeating phrase, "some folks." The piano water-dances through rain pools, and if you check the track against the printed version you will see how much improvising with the text Wallace is doing as well. It hangs so smartly together and it's got lyrical wings!

(from Unlikely Stories,


Steve Dalachinsky

Phenomena of Interference, Steve Dalachinsky with pianist Matthew Shipp, 22 tracks, Hopscotch Records, 2005, $14.95

JONATHAN PENTON: The first track on this CD is "Myth," seventeen seconds of Steve Dalachinsky simply reading a poem. He does so with a strength, assurance, and confidence that gives you a pretty good idea what you should expect from the rest of the disc. It's a ballsy and bold album, filled with grand themes and fierce inflections. Consider "Blue #3," where the simple, sharp piano competes with Dalachinsky's firm and argumentative voice, underlying the argument implied by the poem. There's a freedom in this album, expressed in simple things, like the highly variable length of tracks, as well as the words themselves.

KIRPAL GORDON: Yes, the first thing to hit you is that voice: Brooklyn-born, smooth-tongued, soft spoken, a teller of stories; sharp-edged yet intimate, easy going enough to render everything in double meaning; menace and assurance in a single phrase, “I am about to sell you another myth,” how upturned the corners of his innuendos; sly smiles and innocent yearning. The words in the ear from his voice stark, like simplifying one’s life, direct, engaged. Right away, when Shipp rolls in on piano, first jazzy and blue on the second track, “OK,” then haunted on the next track, “Retiring the World,” you know you’re in for a joy ride. Not poetry; not even lyrics to melody; not lines to read while you’re playing the tune, but jazz poetry, original in itself: “unrhymed free verse through a doorway into a courtyard” as he says in “Trust Fund Babies,” not spoken word and accompaniment but a jazz adventure. Mary Jo Malo writes in the liner notes, “You could read the entire lyrics booklet from this beautifully packaged CD and never come close to what you will taste and experience when you hear him bust a sound wave.”

You’re so right about Shipp on “Blue #2,” with its great line, “Twice you came to my door; two times I told you I was not home.” The piano is a prism, “a phenomena of interference” as the album is titled; as you say, “underlying the argument implied by the poem.”

JP: The voice is an interesting thing, here, and well-exemplified by that line, "I am about to sell you another myth," you quote: the voice is self-consciously seductive, which is a funny thing considering the anger in many of the poems. But like you say, the work is both smooth and sharp: playful and coy, filled with a winking sort of sexy, sexless exchange with the listener, yet very clearly expressing frustration and a demand for greater social and intellectual consciousness. This is a tightly and thoroughly layered album of work, with new meanings that reveal themselves with each listen. So it's not surprising that everything's so cleanly integrated, to produce that effect of neither jazz nor poetry, but jazz poetry, that you mention. This is the sort of very careful composition that gives the listener the pleasure of believing that everything came easy.

KPG: It’s an accomplished collaboration between Dalachinsky and Shipp that yields a sense of effortlessness and of improvisational opportunity! The poet’s careful focus: he’s got an eye for detail, a sense of pace and pathos and an ear for swinging, and he invites a delightfully carefree quality in the performance. Track Nine, “The Door Pomes,” for example, opens with Dalachinsky singing a cappella that line from an old Cream tune, “Don’t take the wrong direction passing through.” Shipp, sensing the birth and death “correspon-dance” in Steve’s opening volley, comes in on the next chorus. In a moody Mahler moment, he extends a metaphysical mystery to riffs on doors opening and closing, or as the poet says, “A window is sometimes a way out.” This is one of the pleasures of listening to the CD. You are never quite sure where it’s going to go, how many stars it will touch or how many layers of our consciousness it will reveal.

How about “Naima,” the next track? I hadn’t read the titles, so when Shipp comes in skeletal and abstract, I was caught off guard. Dalachinsky opens, “When I asked the tall thin tenor man why he played ‘Niama’ every week his way, he said, Listen,” and suddenly Coltrane’s melody finds the words and they intertwine quite nicely. Shipp shapes and sculpts soundscapes as Dalachinsky narrates this tenor man’s tale and drops lines like, “warm soft woman that she is, the opening in her name, Na Ee Ma.” Shipp’s solo at the end of the poem sends it into heaven, quite a coda.

Then, a couple of tracks later, there is “Galileo for Sonny Rollins.” This is the wildest, nuttiest, outest track I’ve heard in a long time. Unlike the straight-ahead treatment of “Naima,” here words speak and repeat into patterns that start freely associating on the names Sonny and Rollins and that soon resemble in word-sound a sax solo of Rollins. I’m not sure what language Dalachinsky is speaking a minute into his solo, but it makes its own sense, and creates a context in which words like copyright, Galileo, omit, emit, imprint, click-click, navigation, money-money and if only take on new meanings. It’s madness, synethesia, “hypnogogic-hypnopompic dream language,” as Malo called it, truly far out and in close.

He’s taking words apart, breaking down meaning like a little kid saying a phrase over and over until it’s a wiggling worm of word bits. I suppose you could say he is following in language a line that Coltrane and Rollins, among others, explored musically, but I don’t think you need to know the history of jazz to be blown away by what he is doing.

JP: Oh, absolutely, the education here is of the artists, and not one they're showing off. You don't need any sort of poetic or jazz education to appreciate the strength of the work, and the sophistication of the words. I was listening to 'Retiring the World' just now. I forgot what a brilliant and moving (and quite dark, compared to the delight and ecstasy of 'Niama') poem that was, so starkly accompanied by the piano. Such truly trippy convolutions! "In a time when nostalgia no longer exists, is no longer there to remind us to remember." Yeah, there's a lot of wild nuttiness here, mixed with the more straightforward stuff like a whirlwind.

KPG: It’s all in the incredible command of that nuanced voice which speaks to us intimately and authoritatively like a secret self. Hence, we don’t need to be educated to locate “Retiring the World,” not with lines like, “where even the godhead is still being born.”

In “The Moneyed Muse” in this week’s New Yorker, Dana Goodyear traces the Lilly endowment of two million dollars to Poetry and the rise of John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation who complains that “American poetry has a morale problem … is neither robust or entertaining.” I recommend for an antidote this CD. Instead of sitting in a chair and opening a book, lay down and put the disc in the player. The truth’s in the motion of the ocean, as the muse reminds us, where his words float in the ear, bouyed on Shipp’s 88s, and speak to us like a voice in dream. Julio Cortazar, a jazz lover, wrote in Hopscotch, “Talking about dreams, we realized almost at the same time that certain structures we dream could be current forms of madness if they could continue for a while when we’re awake. When we dream we give free rein to our aptitude for madness. At the same time we suspect that all madness is a dream that has taken root.”

That’s Dalachinsky!