Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Review: Words & Music (Charles Simic, Robert Pinsky, Lonnie Plaxico, Mike Mainieri & Andrew Cyrille) at Jazz Standard Jan. 8, 2008

It sounded like an interesting show. I mean, how often do you get to see not one, but two U.S. poet laureates at the same show? As if that weren't enough of a draw, how often do you get to experience such top-flight poets as Robert Pinsky and Charles Simic reading with such top-flight jazz musicians as vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and drummer Andrew Cyrille? The potential seemed limitless. Alas, the result was like the end of a date with a man in need of Viagra. Warm, yes, Charming, sure. But lacking in the kind of memorable passion that changes the very nature of the world.

Perhaps the biggest let down came in the beginning of the early show on this balmy Tuesday evening. Pinsky took the stage with Simic and announced that this would not be a "exercise in nostalgia," i.e. "no berets required." Having thus smugly dismissed the artistic achievements of the poets who did know how to mix jazz and words--the so-called Beatniks, who clearly paved the path that allowed Pinsky to be a part of the show at all--Pinsky went on to state that the show we were about to see was one of real "artists" which he was proud to be a part of. Maybe Bob was trying to distance himself from such crass caricatures of the Beatnik scene as Roger Corman's cult film Bucket of Blood. Or maybe he was just trying to pave the way for the structure of the show itself, which was one of the least integrated concerts I've ever seen, and may well have been better had it been two separate acts: one poetry, the other jazz.

Simic did his best to try to prove there was a point in the musicians and the poets sharing a stage, and--in this club environment--his work came across as meaningful, humble and warmly humanistic. His love poem, with its great line, "Her eyes are two loopholes," was at least a relief compared to hearing Pinksy trying to be a man for the people by choosing poems that used the pronoun "I" more than you hear at an open mike poetry reading. Not to demean the poetry. It's just that to start a show called "Words and Music" with 15 minutes of somewhat high-falutin' poetry was like a right-handed prostitute starting a session with a john with a lengthy dissertation on the merits of her left hand. Poetry can stir the mind and, with music, has the even more cathartic potential of stirring the body too. The show was advertised as both; the result--for the most part--was delivered in two separate packages.

When the band finally kicked in with Thelonius Monk's classic "Well You Needn't, " it was a real relief. I mean--this is one of the city's top jazz venues and what the poets were doing in the first segment of the show was for the most part uptight and bound up in its own pomposity. I do agree with Pinsky's assertion that Poetry is the artistic kernel that influences all other forms of culture. But if you brag about it, and dismiss pop culture as somehow low brow or beneath "real" culture, you may as well stay out of the clubs and let the presumed cess pool of "pop" culture live or die on its own.

What was more clear than anything in this disappointing evening is how much jazz is about faith: the faith that in an art form so clearly devoted to listening and interaction, the cause of the devotion is the belief that the musicians, and the audience too, will discover the ethereal muse together. The poetry that was read on this evening required a different kind of listening: the listening to the poet who has already been inspired, and their interpretation of the muse. Like listening to a preacher. A soothsayer. A fortune teller. Hmm.... A professor?

As a reader, this is fine. As a listener, I want the space to groove on the sounds. Like any musician who practices too much in front a mirror, the poets on this evening seemed to focus more on "talking" than "sharing;" on "telling" than exploring."

Thankfully, mid-show, Simic did share a beautfiul piece about seeing Thelonius Monk on a frigid evening at the Five Spot on St. Marks Place (which my tablemate Jay informed me was originally on 5th Street, hence the name). This piece, followed by the band's tender version of Monk's "Round Midnight" provided the highlight of the evening.

But when Pinsky came back--sans jacket, more casual, attempting to connect?--with a poem offering sly sexual innuendos, it was like a guy trying to be accepted in the locker room by telling dirty jokes. You can't say he wasn't "being himself"--Pinsky is, truly, one of my favorite contemporary poets. But for this show, he just didn't seem to fit in, and the harder he tried, the more the gulf widened.

Pinksy's did achieve a fine moment, though, when he (say the magic word) "integrated" his work into what was going on around him, by reading a series of couplets, each of which the drummer responded to with a little drum cadence. It was humorous, sweet and it worked. Had more sure integration been a part of the show, it would have had far more impact.

Maybe the late show was better. Maybe not. In any case, there's definitely potential here. Too bad it wasn't met on this occasion. Fortunately, the evening ending on a real high point: the wonderful jazz stylings of Mainieri on a vibraphone solo version of "Lush Life." Now there's a song where music and words integrate like magic, calling those who hear it to find the muse common to us all.

How sweet that was...


Karen said...

You've fallen out of love with Mr. P! Good review - I don't disagree, tho what I took away from the evening is somewhat different. Thanks for this.

Three Rooms Press said...

I absolutely have not fallen out of love with RP, but I think he failed to live up to what was an inifinite potential. Sitting here reading poems from "Gulf Music," I feel like hiring the same musicians, renting out a club, and doing the whole show again, reading poems of both poets myself. There is so much great joy and love for poetry that could have been spread at that show. Instead, anyone unfamiliar with their work was turned off. I want to turn people onto their beautiful words. I'll let you know the date when I get it...

John said...

Thanks for an excellent review - you brought us there and gave us a flavor of the whole jazz-poetry confluence. Anyone interested in following up can check out Jazzmouth, the Seacoast Poetry and Jazz Festival in Portsmouth NH April 24-27. It's all about the combination. Billy Collins reads Friday night with Maestro David Amram and bandleader Larry Simon providing music. check out www.jazzmouth.org