Jazz has had a century to flourish in the company of poetry—Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance through the Beats, Umbra, Bob Dorough, the Barakas and Black Arts, Ishmael Reed, David Henderson, William Burroughs, Anne Waldman, John Giorno, Louis Reyes Rivera, Philip Levine and voices well beyond—and yet this commix stands boldly tenacious, seeking further expanse. Especially now, during National Poetry Month.
In his foray through the fused genre of spoken word/jazz, saxophonist Benjamin Boone now unites a dozen celebrated poets in The Poets Are Gathering. This album follows two posthumous releases Boone recorded with Levine, so he's all too familiar with the terrain. Boone's alto and soprano partner with Kenny Werner's piano, Corcoran Holt's bass and Ari Hoenig's drums, but multiple other musicians are called to duty on varying cuts, adding horns, guitars (Ben Monder and Eyal Maoz) and rhythm sections for seamless blends in the rage of emotions. Right from the top, Patricia Smith (author, Incendiary Art) launches into "That's My Son There", a piece at the very core of the Black Lives Matter movement. Boone seems to reimagine John Coltrane's "Alabama" as Smith, alarmingly static, embodies a parent grieving one more police killing, numbed with reality. The effect is nothing short of chilling. "That's my son there / shot as kill / shot as prey... / shot as payback / shot for sport / shot as history".
The album's liner notes cite injustices of the Trump years and Boone's 2017 start of this project, culminating in the leadup to the 2020 election. But under no circumstances is this agit-prop at the cost of creativity. Pulitzer-winning Tyehimba Jess emotes in "Against Silence" with Werner casting harmonies of perfect dissonance against the naming of the many murdered in police shootings: "I'm a question passed from one generation to the next...ask the silence about your rights...My name is a nation of funerals..."
Juan Felipe Herrera, 2015 U.S. Poet Laureate, has the title piece, one based on a driving rhumba by drummer Nathan Guzman, percussionist Richard Juarez, pianist Craig Vonberg, bassist Patrick Olvera and Boone. Symbolizing the words of poets as the people's voice, it's steeped in pathos. The album also includes poets Edward Hirsch, Kimiko Hahn, Patrick Sylvain, Dustin Prestridge, Lee Herrick, hip-hop artist Donald Brown II, Fresno Poet Laureate Marisol Baca and T.R. Hummer. The latter's "The Sun One", dedicated to Sun Ra, offers the virulent drama of spoken word matched by the pure joy of sound. The Poets Are Gathering stands as a vital addition to the proud history of verse in and as the jazz artform.