The mingling of jazz music and poetry is not a new concept. It has always been an amiable, yet at times, uncomfortable fit. From a verse standpoint, it is in many ways liberating. While most vocalized lyrics and spoken word forms rely on rhyme to speak to cadence and rhythm, free verse poetry liberates the narrative from the confinements of structure, and much like an improvising instrumentalist, takes spoken language into a intertwining duality with the melody within harmonic dimension.
Canadian saxophonist/composer Andrew Rathbun is no stranger to blending these two creative worlds. On his release True Stories (Blue Moon, 2001), he first delved into the poetry of famed novelist/poet Margaret Atwood. At the behest of legendary trumpeter/composer Kenny Wheeler, Rathbun penned "Power Politics Suite" in 2001 with the voice of Brazilian vocalist Luciana Souza specifically in mind. That piece, and a second suite inspired by Souza's lyrical prowess, "Two Islands Suite," make up the first disc of Rathbun's new two disc project, Atwood Suites.
Souza is well informed as a musical interpreter of literary poetic grace. Two of her releases, The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop And Other Songs (Sunnyside, 2000), and Neruda (Sunnyside, 2004) utilize her unique ability to use her voice as an intimate instrument of empathy and cultural identity with poetic expressive intent. On this recording, she vividly captures the emotional imagery of Atwood's poetry.
These offerings from Rathbun appear plain, in a linear sort of way on the surface, but conjure interesting passages underneath, bubbling to the surface in evocative forms.
At times the lyrical wanderings of Atwood channeled through the perfect instrument in the voice of Souza, climb above, and drift apart from the musical structure composed by Rathbun. While it is perfectly understandable that many in the world of music may view this as an aberration from accepted harmonic and melodic norms, those from the world of free verse poetry may view it instead as a liberation, a free dance between musical and literary expressionism. Souza states this perfectly through the words of Atwood: "There are two islands—at least—they do not exclude each other."
The sweeping imagery of the two suites are captured aesthetically by Souza, Tim Hagans on flugelhorn, and the great drummer Bill Stewart, whose unique approach to big band drumming is the driving underlying force that illuminates the loose fitting pieces of free verse adventurism, and ultimately ties them together into poetic form. The composition, accentuated by the shifting components of the large ensemble sound, tends to travel in a collective propulsion forward, driven into myriad separate directions by the poetry of Atwood, and the beautiful poetic musings of Souza's lyrical wanderings.
As humans, we are first drawn to the human voice, to language, thus rendering Souza's contribution to this recording as the primary force to be reckoned with, as a gatekeeper allowing us to enter Rathbun's compositional world of colorful tonal variances. Her style brings the poetry of Atwood to life, magically conjuring imagery with her deft workings around Rathbun's melodic sense, and Atwood's speculative works.
The opening salvo on Disc two clearly delineates a change in direction from the first. "Fractured" is a study in syncopation, breaking free from the orchestral peaks and valleys of the prior two suites, offering the listener a brief respite from the intensive listen that is Disc One.
Personnel wise, only the voice of Aubrey Johnson replacing Souza is different, but Rathbun's compositions shed a significantly different light on the entire second disc. Guitarist Nate Radley, and pianist Jeremy Siskind on Rhodes offer scintillating solos, adding to Johnson's wordless vocal chants.
"V," "1," and "2" allow more rhythmic elasticity for soloists to freely solo, acting more like a smaller combo within the large ensemble concept.
Rathbun's use of the large ensemble as his creative voice is largely inspired by his work with the late, great Wheeler in the early 2000's. Wheeler's spirit is present throughout this ambitious, nuanced, poetic adventure. While all of Rathbun's work is thoughtfully rendered, and artistically significant, Atwood Suites may just be his masterpiece.