LED BY BENJAMIN BOONE, THIS RUMBLE OF A 'GATHERING' OFFERS A SEARING POETICAL TAKE ON TROUBLING TIMES
People who know him probably think of Benjamin Boone, Fresno's composer-saxophonist-poetry-lover extraordinaire, as an optimistic guy. I certainly do. His visage naturally leans far toward the friendly. But when he's serious — or artistically vexed — his face lets you know it.
That face is on display in the marketing material for Boone's new Origin Records album "The Poets Are Gathering." The album, which is being released today (Friday, Oct. 16), addresses ripped-from-the-front-page topics such as police murder, racism, immigration, poverty, inequity, and mass shootings.
These are troubled times.
In his liner notes for the album, jazz journalist Gene Seymour writes, "There are incantations and supplications to be found here. Also: elegies and headlines, howls and mantras, reveries and outbursts. They instruct and affirm."
Boone has assembled a large group of acclaimed American poets — 11 in all, including Tyehimba Jess (Pulitzer Prize), Patricia Smith (Los Angeles Times Book Award/National Slam Poetry Champion), Juan Felipe Herrera (U.S. Poet Laureate), Edward Hirsch (MacArthur), as well as Fresno Poet Laureates Lee Herrick and Marisol Baca — intertwining their work with that of 20 musicians, including pianist Kenny Werner, guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Corcoran Holt, and drummer Ari Hoenig, along with Fresno musicians Craig VonBerg, David Aus, Nathan Guzman, Ray Moore, Patrick Olvera, and Richard Juarez.
Still, even with the "gathering storm" rumble that the album promises, there's a lot of life, energy and optimism embedded in the project, especially in Herrick's poem, "Truths," which is about Fresno. It sounds like it was a lot of fun to make.
I asked Boone — who gave us 10 Things to Know about his earlier 2020 album, "Joy," to once again give us a backstage pass to the making of "The Poets Are Gathering." Here are his revelations.
WHY RELEASE AN ALBUM DURING COVID? ISN'T THAT A LITTLE CRAZY?
When I was in Ghana during my Fulbright year, I recorded an album with The Ghana Jazz Collective, "Joy," which was released March 20, 2020. Of course, this was a terrible time to release an album. COVID-19 was hitting us here in California and things were shutting down. In fact, I had canceled my last weekend of Rogue Festival performances a couple of weeks earlier.
Needless to say, my album release events were canceled. I was also supposed to play on a tour of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and France this past summer. It was a let-down, but really no big deal considering the horrid pain and suffering others were having to go through. Being quarantined did give me the opportunity to work on getting this album out before the election — which was a real push for the entire creative team.
Some suggested we wait to release it until we could do a tour, or at least a release event. After all, releasing a second album during COVID-19 seemed a bit nuts. But we decided that the album is vital to this time, extremely relevant, has a message that needs to get out there and be heard and digested prior to the election. I hope people listen to the poets' messages and that it resonates and causes them to have increased empathy and understanding, and prompts them to take action against injustice. One way to do this is to fully research all candidates and issues, and vote!
YOU GOT TO RECORD WITH JOHN COLTRANE'S PERSONAL WHAT!?!?
The story is that legendary saxophonist John Coltrane didn't like the selection of microphones at some of the studios where he recorded, so he decided to buy his own to bring with him to his sessions. His favorite mic was an RCA 77, but it was a color he didn't like — gray. So he contacted RCA and had them make him a custom version — one with a shiny chrome exterior.
Fast forward several decades, and his son, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, who inherited the microphone, loaned that very microphone to Systems Two Studio in New York, where he himself regularly recorded. Mike Marciano, who was the engineer for the New York Sessions, owns Systems Two and brought Coltrane's microphone with him for me to use! How daunting! And fun!
You can see this mic (the pill-shaped one) most clearly in the videos for the songs "Against Silence" and "The Sun One" (Homage to Sun Ra). On the latter, my friend saxophonist Hashem Assadullahi is being recorded on the original gray version (the bottom mic) and I am being recorded on Coltrane's chrome version (the bottom mic). Two other Coltrane connections: a) my alto saxophone mouthpiece was custom hand-made for me by famed mouthpiece maker Frank Wells, who worked on Coltrane's mouthpieces; and b) a track on my first album with U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine had the track "Soloing," which included a reference to John Coltrane.
THE TITLE TRACK WAS SUPPOSED TO BE BETWEEN FIVE AND SIX MINUTES LONG, BUT IT TURNED OUT TO BE ALMOST 12 MINUTES. WHAT HAPPENED?
Magic is what happened! A wonderful mistake! Juan Felipe Herrera's "The Poets are Gathering" is a long poem, and so in discussing how to record it, we decided to cut out several lines, with the goal of making the track about 6 minutes long. Why? My chart only used one basic harmony, and I figured six minutes was about as long as we could maintain a drive to a climax. The plan was that we wound do an introduction, then add a groove, then gradually and continuously build to a big climax — sort of like what Ravel does in his orchestral composition, "Bolero."
The track starts and you can hear that after the introduction, percussionist Richard Juarez, drummer Nathan Guzman and bassist Patrick Olvera lay down a compelling groove as pianist Craig VonBerg gradually gets more active and more dissonant. My saxophone is purposefully absent. When I do come back in, you hear a big build, things start to get intense, they get more intense as we build, and then we all realize - much to our surprise - that Juan Felipe is reading most of the lines we had previously cut out!
He is in the moment and really jamming and interacting with us in a magical way, but this is taking time, and we realize that there is no way this will end in 6 minutes! So you can hear the band back off, take the intensity way down, and recalculate our gradual rise up to our target, the phrase "The Poets are Gathering!" This takes longer than we imagined and you can hear the band pushing and pushing to try and keep the energy even higher and higher. We were exhausted after we finished! We regrouped, and decided to do another take, keeping it to six minutes by eliminating many lines. But that version lacked the passion, the excitement, the discovery and communication between Juan Felipe and the musicians, and the challenge of making something so long work. You can't recreate the magic!
So we decided to use the original, long version. It pushed us all creatively and emotionally to new levels. I hope you can hear the power of this very first track we played with Juan Felipe — he is a member of the band, and as Gene Seymour writes in his extensive liner notes, this is "one of those cases where putting words on a page doesn't begin to convey the poet's virtuosity with sound and space and its interaction with [the musicians]." It was magical.
YOU PUT THE AMPLIFIER WHERE!?!?
I was so fortunate to have two of the leading guitarists in New York at the sessions with Kimiko Hahn and TR Hummer: Ben Monder and Eyal Moaz. The problem was that they had to record in the same room. If both of the amplifiers were in that room, their sound would have bled into each other's mics. So Mike Marciano, engineer supreme, tried putting one of the amps in an adjoining room, but it still bled through. So he put one of the amplifiers in the attic, and ran guitar and recording cables up there. And it worked! What a creative solution!
HOW ABOUT THOSE CSU SUMMER ARTS CONNECTIONS?
I hosted a Summer Arts Course several years ago, and that is where I met guitarist Ben Monder, who was there with Theo Bleckmann as a guest artist, as well as saxophonist Hashem Assadullahi, who was there with the jazz group Bug. Also, composer/violinist Stefan Poetzsch was a Guest Artist for another CSU Summer Arts course I coordinated, and Juan Felipe Herrera led a prior Summer Arts course several years ago. Go Summer Arts! It's the place to connect!
REMEMBER THE STORY ABOUT THE FRESNO STATE CHAMBER SINGERS PERFORMING AT JUAN FELIPE HERRERA'S FINAL U.S. POET LAUREATE EVENT AT THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS IN WASHINGTON, D.C.?
I sure do. Along with my fabulous Fresno State colleagues Ken Froelich and Cari Earnhart, I was a part of that wonderful collaboration, setting three of Juan Felipe's poems for the choir to sing. In spending this time with him in Fresno State's Laureate Lab working on these compositions, I came to know and appreciate his vision of inclusion, that everyone has something valuable to say, especially those who have historically been marginalized. It was then I knew I wanted to record with Herrera, and we did just a few months later. So this project is a direct outgrowth of the Library of Congress collaboration.
ARE THERE CONNECTIONS TO PHILIP LEVINE?
• Poet Edward Hirsch was Phil's dear friend and is the executor of Philip Levine's poetry.
• Poet Tyehimba Jess studied with Phil at NYU.
• Tyehimba Jess is from Detroit, Phil's home town.
• Poet Lee Herrick lived down the street from Phil.
• Lee Herrick's poem "Truths" opens with a quote from Levine's poem "The Simple Truth."
• Lee and Marisol Baca participated in the concert celebrating the release of my album with Phil, The Poetry of Jazz.
• Pianists David Aus and Craig VonBerg were integral collaborators on both volumes of "The Poetry of Jazz" with Phil.
• We recorded with Phil at Maximus Studio in Fresno, and it was mixed at Systems Two Studio in New York - we used these on this project as well.
• Famed producer/pianist Donald Brown produced the Levine Albums as well as this album.
• Saxophonist Chris Potter and trumpeter Tom Harrell recorded at Systems Two and used the Coltrane microphone I mentioned above when they recorded their tracks for "The Poetry of Jazz."
• There is no way I could have done this project without having had the experience of working with Phil.
WHY THE FRANTIC CALLS TO DAVID AUS FROM NEW YORK?
Ha! This brings back a frantic moment! I had written some music to accompany Edward Hirsch's poem "Song," but it wasn't working. I kept trying to think of a compositional solution, and when it came, I realized that what I was hearing in my head wasn't actually my idea, it was a tune David Aus had composed for one of our Rogue Festival performances. I frantically texted and called him, and thank heavens he responded immediately, and emailed me the music. See, it pays to return phone calls, young people! I had the studio print it out, and we rehearsed and recorded it with Hirsch.
Afterward, famed pianist Kenny Werner came up to me and said, "Wow, Ben, wonderful tune! It works great with that poem." I said, "I agree and I wish I could take the credit but that was by my friend David Aus, in Fresno." He looked surprised and said, "Tell him it's a great composition." I agree, and I hope you think so, too! I am a real fan of David's writing. I also used one of his compositions for Patrick Sylvain's "Ports of Sorrow."
HOW DID A CUBAN PIANIST COME TO RECORD A TUNE CALLED "BLACK MAN" IN ERLANGEN, GERMANY?
"Black Man" was written and conceived during COVID, and so all work on it was done remotely. I did the first round of recording myself, putting in the bass line and harmony on synthesizer, then overdubbing the saxophone. At that point it was just an instrumental. I shared it with an old friend who liked it, and I started to hear that maybe a rap might work.
I remembered being in New York in the studio with Kenny Garrett and Donald Brown when Brown's son did the vocals for one of Kenny's tunes. So I called him up and he agreed to write a poem and perform it. Concurrently, I contacted Max Hembd, who runs the music program at Clovis Community College and is a former colleague of mine at Fresno State.
He helped me understand that my tracks were pretty lame and that it could be much better. We all need friends like this — who tell us the truth!!! They are few and far between and that is why I love working with Max - such a musical genius on so many levels. So in response to Max's insights, I had producer Donald Brown do some synth tracks, as well as his son Donald Brown II, but I felt I needed something more.
I asked long-time collaborator German violinist Stefan Poetzsch to add a track, and then his friend, Cuban pianist Alberto Diaz Castillo, added additional keyboard and bass tracks. He recorded them at Stefan's house. I was there on zoom listening and producing, and we sent tracks back and forth. So this tune was created in Fresno, Knoxville, and Erlangen — we never met each other.
BOONE TIMES THREE?
My two sons, Atticus and Asher, perform trumpet and tenor sax on Dustin Prestridge's poem "Deconstruction of Idols." They recorded it at home during "shelter-in-place." It was a fun project during a difficult time! Atticus took up the sax at the beginning of COVID - so only a few months before recording this track. Wow. Asher had been focusing on mandolin (he is taking lessons from the amazing Eva Scow) so he had to dust off the trumpet. Impressive!