As someone who has been a fan of poet Philip Levine (1928-2015) for over three decades, when the album "The Poetry of Jazz" (Origin Records) arrived in the mail in early March of this year, I was thrilled. This collaboration with alto saxophonist and composer Benjamin Boone began in 2010 when Boone met the poet on the campus of Fresno State University in California. Levine was a "jazz poet" throughout his career, his collections peppered with poems about Erroll Garner, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and others. I once saw and heard Levine read at Wesleyan University in a duo setting with a vibraphonist, a fascinating combination of melody, words, and rhythm.
For their collaboration, Boone composed music to fit Levine's words and his voice. He surrounds that voice on most tracks with the fine rhythm section of David Aus or Craig Von Berg (piano), Spee Kosloff or Nye Morton (acoustic bass), and Brian Hamada or Gary Newmark (drums) plus a slew of guests. Many listeners will be attracted by the appearance of tenor saxophonist Chris Potter on "The Unknowable (Homage to Sonny Rollins)", trumpeter Tom Harrell on "I Remember Clifford (Homage to Clifford Brown)", alto saxophonist Greg Osby on "Call It Music (Homage to Charlie Parker)", and tenor saxophonist Branford Marsalis on "Soloing (Homage to John Coltrane)" - those songs are fascinating with great playing from all involved supporting poems that speak to the joy of the musicians they pay tribute to.
Yet, there are many other treasures on this 14-song program. The sweet homage to "Yakov", an immigrant whom the poet met as a young man working in an automobile factory in Detroit. Boone contributes a wonderful soprano saxophone solo, keening high above the band withy support from the trumpet of Max Hembo. One of Levine's most famous poems (a poem he wrote in 1968, a year after the riots in Detroit), "They Feed They Lion", arrives in a frenzy of soprano saxophone, trumpet, and French horn (the brass played by Boone's sons Atticus and Asher) - it's a riot of sound and fury.
The album closes with "What Work Is" (another of Levine's most famous works as well as the title of one of collections), a lovely recollection of the poet's older brother who worked on the third shift at the Cadillac factory while studying opera during the day. It's a stunning piece, especially with Boone's alto saxophone wrapping around Levine's voice, a handsome way to end a powerful program.
If you have never encountered the poetry and essays of Philip Levine, please check him out. Benjamin Boone is a new name to me. A native of North Carolina, he studied at the University of Tennessee and did graduate work at Boston University and University of South Carolina. He has performed in many countries around the world and did work as a Fulbright Scholar in both the former Soviet Republic of Moldova and in Ghana. This album was recorded at four different sessions over the course of two years (2012-2014), then took a while to find a home and was finally released in late March of this year. Find the album, dig into the program, go back to the music and to the poetry, and celebrate this brilliant collaboration.
To learn more about Philip Levine, go to www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/philip-levine.