The Interlocutors: Poetry and Jazz in Collaboration

By | 1 November 2012

In the work I (and sometimes fellow poet, Lynn Hard) have done so far with musicians including Bernie McGann, Carl Dewhurst, Eric Ajaye, Jonathan Zwartz, Alex Boneham, Damien Slingsby, Jarrah Jones, Luke Sweeting, Simon Milman and Mark Sutton, I have tended to strike a different balance. In a performance Lynn and I gave with the Luke Sweeting Trio (piano, bass, drums) at The Loft in Canberra in June this year we viewed the music as a support and an intensifier to the poetry rather than the poetry’s being an addendum (or introduction) to the music. Several of Lynn’s poems were written as responses to well-known jazz standards such as ‘Whisper Not’ and ‘Milestones’ and began with a complete chorus of the tune played first by the trio, followed by the poem which was timed to take up one or two choruses. On this occasion all of our poems were about jazz in one way or another – though I have performed with jazz musicians (eg. Eric Ajaye on bass) some of my poems on other themes with, I hope, equal effectiveness.

Lynn Hard

Lynn Hard with Simon Milman at The Loft in Canberra, 17 June, 2012

Chet Baker and Me

The fingers pressed the valves of the horn
Like the long ringing of a door bell

The sound from the trumpet
Rushed past me like another weather.

Even now, 30 years after,
It’s always a cloudless blue day at the beach
When I hear Chet Baker play;

The sun rippling like water
On the hoods and trunks of the ’55 Chevy’s,
The chrome fences of bumper
Too bright to bear.

We all wanted to be Chet Baker
The looks, the voice,
The detachment that was attached,
Living a life without vibrato.

We copied him
As if this unlettered lesson could be learned.

Eventually we all learned other lessons
And Chet was left with his finger on the bell.

In Amsterdam,
A life of back against the wall
When the wall was a window.

The last flight was a fall
To lie on the film strip of the sidewalk
For careful citizens of the Netherlands
To pick their way past.

The beach at Hermosa,
The sand dinted with footprints,
Is empty;
The sky a hardtop blue, scratched with contrails;
The waves skid in
Showing white like light under a door

And I finish this
In my office in Australia
Deep in the opposite season.

(Lynn Hard)

Similarly in the concert Lynn Hard and I did at Tilleys with Bernie McGann back in the early 1990s we started and finished the concert with his quartet playing alone. In everything else we confined the musicians to a more supportive role with either short solos between the poems or short musical improvisations in response to the previous stanza and so on.

For improvising musicians this may have been slightly frustrating since they had little opportunity to ‘open out’ over several choruses as they would normally. On the other hand, the poetry didn’t get lost in, or overwhelmed by, the music. Poetry is something a listener can’t drift away from without losing the thread completely. Music, being more abstract, allows the listener to be slightly lazier (if he or she is so inclined). This implies that, if there is to be a struggle between the two forms for centrality in the performance, it is probably better that the poetry should win.

In all these performances there has been some prior discussion with the musicians on the music to be used, a short rehearsal and then the performance itself. The music might vary from vamps on a certain chord or two, ‘free’ improvisations in response to the poem broken up into stanzas, blues in 4/4 at various tempos and so on. I have found such backing and interactions force me read at a more intense level than usual – and certainly in a more definitively rhythmic way.

[audio:|titles=Parable in 4/4 – Geoff Page]
Parable in 4/4 (3:03)
Written by Geoff Page
Performed by Eric Ajaye

Courtesy of River Road Press

Parable in 4/4

Life, he said,
   is a set of chords
and looked at me sideways
   along the piano,
you might even say
   the solo itself.
It runs the ancient
   inner stairways,
first to fifth
   to fourth to first.
Many I've known . 
   are a popular song,
those thirty two bars 
and the bridge lifting through 
   its cycle of fifths.
Others are given
   a shorter course,
the twelve bar blues
   with three chords only
or a few substitutions
   to smooth out the curves.
Some shorter ones
   are free form purely,
a few are fixed
   in a single mode.
Life for most
   is major triads,
standard sevenths -
   a few have flattened
ninths and fifths. 
   And time, he said,
is mostly common – 
   4/4, 8/8.
Some are waltzes; 
   the smarter ones
incline at times
   to the harder fractions,
   that style of thing.
Choice of instruments 
   is crucial.
Some thirty twos
   are tenor sax always,
fibrous and strident –
   others I've seen
are clarinet only, 
   skating exactly
the same round of chords.
   Certain lives
are blues throughout,
   a muted trumpet 
growling in corners.
   Some should always 
have been a flute -
   then end up tuba 
in Dixieland.
We're all of us solos 
   one way or another.
Haven't you felt it 
   certain mornings?
You're running up fast 
   to the middle eight,
the drummer goes for his 
   fancy fill,
your trumpet hits 
   the top note from
the next chord on 
   just to lift
the height a little. 
   Or weren't you once
like me, he said, 
   the last held chord
of a Gershwin ballad, 
   a glassy arpeggio
floating up slowly
   and off the piano.
The number of choruses 
   varies a bit
but the freedom of 
   the notes is endless -
scales of the chords, 
   scales of the scales,
passing notes
   	you get away with,
chromatic runs, 
   infinite splittings
of the beat. 
   So many solos,
so many patterns ... 
   He stared at me hard 
and hit an F7. 
   Life, he said,
is a set of chords –
   and God, of course,
a jazz musician.

(Geoff Page)

This raises the inevitable (and perhaps fundamental) issue of reconciling the two sets of rhythms involved – that of the poem and that of the music. Since most of my poetry in recent years has been strongly iambic, I find I’m inclined to align the poem fairly strictly with the (generally) 4/4 or 8/8 rhythm of the music – assuming that rhythm is laid down by the musicians and not out of tempo, for instance.

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