The confluence of poetry or spoken word with improvisational music goes as far back as the Harlem renaissance, became synonymous with the Beats, figured heavily in proto-rap music (Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets) and continues to flourish. Along the years, there have been many recordings of poets reading their work to jazz accompaniment. Some of it was great, some mediocre, most atrocious. Poet/visualist Kenneth Patchen (1911-1972) was no stranger to filtering his artistic mien through music with better-than-average collaborations with Allyn Ferguson, Al Neil, John Cage and unrecorded live performances with Charles Mingus (what a pity that was not taped).
One hundred years after Patchen's birth, composer/drummer John Hollenbeck and The Claudia Quintet +1 have released the celebratory hour-long Patchen tribute, What Is the Beautiful?, which reimagines Patchen's texts in a unique musical setting. Most of the material was commissioned by the University of Rochester, which held the largest-ever exhibit of Patchen's graphics artwork (scheduled to run until January, 2012). Hollenbeck admits he was not overly familiar with Patchen's body of work and thus immersed himself in the iconoclast's achievements.
The result is a mixture of poetry and jazz which veers from sublime accessibility to keening experimentalism and includes music with the same kind of intimate intensity found on The Claudia Quintet's previous outing, Royal Toast. Hollenbeck includes his working group (accordionist Ted Reichman; Chris Speed on clarinet and tenor sax; bassist Drew Gress; vibraphonist Matt Moran) with guest pianist Matt Mitchell (a member of Tim Berne's Adobe Probe). Taking on vocal responsibilities is long-time associate Theo Bleckmann (who sings on four tracks) and Kurt Elling (who supplies spoken word on five other pieces). Some compositions mimic Patchen's innate rhythmic sensibility, such as the opening number, "Showtime/23rd Street Runs into Heavenâ€ and the somber love ode "Do Me that Love.â€ These cuts do not push the envelope but rather render Patchen's words into flowing arcs of music and lyrical temperament.
The truly outstanding tunes are bold statements which transform Patchen's lines as they converge with Hollenbeck's compositional ideas. The philosophical title track is an example of this union of imagination. Elling's rich enunciation is pointed and precise while the band provides apropos backing which swings with finesse and authority. Elling is wholly convincing when he intones, "I believe in the truth/I believe that every good thought I have/All men shall have.â€ When Hollenbeck was in pre-production planning, he immediately thought Elling would be a perfect fit, not knowing Elling was already a Patchen aficionado. Instead of offering his typical singing style, Elling populates Patchen's poems as an actor would a stage role. Elling takes on the persona of a television emcee in the opener and communicates the dark and surreally irrational quality of "Jobâ€ by utilizing dueling voices: Elling's own mellifluous timbre against his blue-collar Chicago accent of the narrative's main character. Later, he staggers and teeters his way through the Tom Waits-meets-William S. Burroughs intoxication soliloquy "Opening the Window.â€ A tall cold one might be best to have at hand when hearing this one. Based on these, Elling may find a new venue of employment in the voiceover department.
Bleckmann is impeccably cast as the singer for the impressionistic material, such as the dreamy "The Snow Is Deep on the Ground,â€ where Bleckmann's lithe voice is balanced subtly against Moran's graceful vibes, Gress' nuanced bass and Reichman's delicate accordion. He whispers from a far distance during the quasi-classical "Limpidity of Silences,â€ where his voice is covertly hidden beneath Mitchell's minimalist, single-note piano which has some much natural echo he attains a sort of elusively quiet background rhythm.
Filling out the album are three instrumentals, two of which were commissioned by the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival. The contrapuntal undertaking "Flockâ€ is the most tumultuous presentation, a deeply rhythmic avant-garde outlet which evokes Harry Partch or Louis "Moondogâ€ Hardin. More traditional is "Mates for Life,â€ inspired by the Scottish island of Islay, famous for its wintering geese. The title also reflects Patchen's penchant for romantic poetry which was often a tribute to his life-partner, Miriam, his constant companion through many life struggles. Both Speed (on tenor sax) and Reichman are given lots of solo room. The brief "Peace of Greenâ€ marries the rhythmic inclinations of "Flockâ€ with a jazz disposition: its only flaw is its rather short timing.
Engineer Andy Taub is also a Patchen admirer and brought stimulating suggestions to the recording process. It was Taub's proposition to alternate Elling's voices into two personalities in "Job.â€ He also furnishes a fitting audio backdrop to the arrangements, putting emphasis on instruments to highlight emotive moments and in other instances layers vocals and instruments in unconventional ways to stress Patchen's intentions.
John Hollenbeck â€“ drums, percussion, keyboards, producer; Ted Reichman â€“ accordion; Chris Speed â€“ clarinet, tenor saxophone; Matt Moran â€“ vibraphone; Drew Gress â€“ acoustic bass; Matt Mitchell â€“ piano; Kurt Elling â€“ vocals (tracks 1, 4, 7, 10, 12); Theo Bleckmann â€“ vocals (tracks 2, 5, 8, 11)
Four stars: * * * *