“What Is the Beautiful?” in Best Downtown Music of the Year – Vocal Edition

Beat poetry accompanied by jazz has a much-maligned reputation. It seems terribly self-indulgent for someone to go up on a stage and say whatever and then some musicians play whatever and somehow insist that it’s profoundly meaningful and if you don’t get it, it’s your own fault. There is a bit of truth to this stereotype, but what it really reveals is how hard it is to marry poetry – with its own internal rhythms and sounds – to music, which attempts to impose new rhythms and sounds on top of it. When it works though, it can be really special, like on pianist Fred Hersch’s magnum opus jazz oratorio, Leaves of Grass, based on Walt Whitman’s poetry.
Drummer John Hollenbeck and vocalist Kurt Elling were on that record, and the two have again teamed up with Mr. Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet (the + 1 being pianist Matt Mitchell) for another successful marriage of poetry and jazz, featuring the work of the under-known Beat forerunner Kenneth Patchen. Elling’s garrulous spoken-word baritone shares the vocal duties with the wistful falsetto of Theo Bleckmann. Unavailable for a recording session with the rest of the band, Mr. Elling recorded his readings separately, and Hollenbeck then composed music around it, dressing the alternating jocular and poignant words in lush textures of accordion and bowed vibraphone. Bleckmann performs a more traditional role, singing Hollenbeck’s musical settings of Patchen’s poetry with pinpoint intonation and aching understatement – the setting of “The Snow is Deep on the Ground” feels so natural as to suggest an otherworldly collaboration between the living composer and deceased poet.

The album’s title track features Elling spilling incantations, telling the band to “Pause./And begin again.” As the members of band spin layers of lines around Elling, he intones lines of simple idealism:

It would take little to be free.
That no man hate another man,
Because he is black;
Because he is yellow;
Because he is white;
Because we are everyman.

The music here is simple, yet unfamiliar. It perks up your attention, but forces you to concentrate on the clear words, making them hit home in new, powerful way.