The tendency of poets to break out of the twodimensional boundary is often seen as a post-War phenomenon, yet poetry was oral long before written language emerged. The African-American jazz tradition, begotten from a brutal melding of divergent cultures, cast a certain boundlessness. The music's central swing and bop allows the poet to emote and embellish with shifts in meter, stress, dynamic, repetition and surely through improvisation.
The fusing of verse and music is exhibited quite classically on The Poetry of Jazz. This encounter pairs Philip Levine, Pulitzer Prize recipient and U.S. Poet Laureate, with alto saxophonist and composer Benjamin Boone. The two collaborated while teaching at Cal State, the latter a musician constantly drawn to words and the former a perpetual jazz fan who grew up with the music. The album was recorded in 2012, three years before Levine's death, documenting the moment and the movement. The poetry flows through Levine's lips most fluidly. Of special note are homages to jazz heroes backed by charts embracing the honorees and poet alike. The album opens with the poet's musings on drinking gin in youth and its symbolism of adulthood's challenges. Boone's music effortlessly captures the vibe of the late '40s-early '50s, particularly the West Coast sounds. Arrangements are clean, sumptuous and driving and the album boasts an array of musicians including Greg Osby and Tom Harrell (on a gorgeous piece dedicated to Clifford Brown). Karen Marguth's vocalization tops off the melody on two cuts
recreating the era anew. Oh, this is hip. But on "Making Light", Levine calls on "the blue light like no other", describing summer in the west within a cool waltz that ends abruptly, only to land upon "The Unknowable", a piece dedicated to Sonny Rollins' quest for a higher musical truth on the Williamsburg Bridge. "Singing through the cables of the bridge that were his home," recites Levine as Chris Potter's tenor obbligato becomes a solo flight and the poet wonders "how he knew it was time to inhabit the voice of the air." While most of the journey is a celebratory exercise of Levine's poetry of (and through) jazz itself, the album closes with a somber recollection of "What Work Is", here the struggle for dignity among the unemployed in painful expectance and those lost in toil.