School is in again, so I finally feel inclined to consider this most academic of contemporary jazz endeavors, which has been in my inbox for a while now. Though it hearkens back to '50s and '60s poetry-and-jazz products involving Jack Kerouac and various California "cool school" players, or Langston Hughes and Mingus, the context of this record is much more, let's say, establishmentarian: Levine was Poet Laureate during the Obama era, and already one of the most anthologized and honored of contemporary American poets. Boone is a saxophonist, much younger than Levine (who died in 2015), but seems to spend most of his time teaching and leading school bands rather than gigging or making records. There are indications on YouTube that Boone might be characterized as a nebbishy technician in the Michael Brecker tradition, with a similarly populist taste in material, but there is little sign of those qualities here.
The album was recorded over a long period of time, starting in 2012 and concluding shortly before Levine's death. Although there are signs of editing - the interweaving of Levine's recitations and the music is occasionally uncanny in its timing - it seems that Levine was present at the band sessions, and the record came together as a collaboration rather than a posthumous tribute made of old tapes.
Boone's settings for Levine's poems are modest, dignified, institutional small-group postbop, their attractiveness not at all diminished by occasional obviousness - a disjunct tenor blues like "Blue 7" for the Sonny Rollins tribute "The Unknowable," ably carried by Chris Potter; Branford Marsalis's paraphrase of "Naima" for the touching Coltrane tribute "Soloing"; an alto contrafact of "Lover Man" by Greg Osby on Levine's invocation of Bird's famous performance of that tune, "Call It Music." Boone himself is a self-effacing musician, soloing at length only a few times on the disc, not even taking his first feature until track 4, "Yakov," where — on soprano, as on the immediately following track - he clearly establishes himself on the Coltrane-Shorter spectrum for the instrument. The Monkish "Gin," with scat vocals by Karen Marguth, and the Spanish-tinged "A Dozen Dawn Songs, Plus One" (which, long ago, would have been called avant-garde) are among the few tracks that really surprise; the others are content to seduce.
Levine taught with Boone at the University of California Fresno. Although his work is known for its social realist and working-class themes, and those themes are very apparent here, another near-constant thread here is jazz and, perhaps, the meaning of modern jazz for American Jews of a certain age. (Levine was around the same age as the Jewish-Californian-Lestorian "brothers" of the '40s and '50s like Stan Getz, Al Cohn, and Zoot Sims, and it's easy to imagine their sympathy with the perspective here.) The Jewishness of this project is easy to overlook, but it's crucial. I'm not sure whether Boone himself is Jewish, though - a relation named Asher plays on the record, but then, so does another one named Atticus.
Although my training is in writing about poetry, not music, I don't have much to say about Levine's work here that probably hasn't already been said over and over about the laureate. He writes talky (or perhaps "discursive") free verse, which is also uncommonly lucid and funny. It is like if Frank O'Hara had been a construction worker. It has the quality great poetry does, though, of furnishing new metaphors for familiar experiences. I didn't know his work before, but now, in these settings, and in his own probing rabbinical voice, it's got its hooks into me.