Sunday, February 21, 2010
Poetry and Jazz done well, finally
As someone who has watched sundry attempts to combine music at the spoken word at poetry readings, and even gamely attempted himself to do it a couple of times (with fine personnel, but yet without in my judgment totally coalescing) I was staggered and stunned by the brilliance of the event I saw at the New School of Robert Pinsky reading his poetry with Vijay Iyer (on piano), Andrew Cyrille (on drums and Ben Allison (on bass); the musicians are all New School faculty members. Pinsky said at the beginning that the four should just be regarded as a quartet--with the spoken word as another instrument, like the singer in a band--and, astonishingly, this worked. Pinsky read his verse with an offbeat, syncopated, slightly ironic quality, very different from the straightforward, public, 'everyman' quality his regular readings are known for. I had not had such fun at a poetry event in ages, and several in the audience--including a distinguished elderly poet and some other veterans of literary readings--agreed. Pinsky's readings of "The want Bone" and of "Street Music" from his "City Elegies" sequence--which made such an impression when I read it in the New Yorker some years ago--were particularly impressive, and that the latter--with its complicated web of references to Memphis (the Egyptian, not the Elvis one) , Nineveh, Ashurbanipal, and Babylon--became a dynamic, engaged thread in a jazz tune was revealing--it indicated the coexistence of erudition and joy, learning and spontaneity, that I had otherwise only seem in a really good academic lecture--which can have its own music. Pinsky's "happiness" (a word he once used in a book title) was evident, he seemed to have the Orphic qualities in him released, which does not have the danger of being too cathartic when one has been trained by Yvor Winters. I am less of a music critic than a poetry critic, but the piano struck me as essential, as a complementary melody anchored by the backbeat of bass and drum, Kudos to all involved; I dragged myself to it as I was still tired from Berlin, and got a last-minute seat in the bacl, but I am immeasurably glad I was privileged to see this extraordinary performance.