The poet, translator, and editor Robert Pinsky was the U.S. Poet Laureate for three years. Ben Allison plays upright bass, recently debuted at Carnegie Hall, and is perhaps best known for composing the theme song for NPR’s On the Media. The two of them got together with guitarist Steve Cardenas and percussionist Rogério Boccato on a Tuesday evening in early May at Hunter College for a performance of what they called PoemJazz. As uncool as that sounds, the show had a lot to offer.
Robert Pinksy and The Ben Allison Band
May 9, 2012
Music paired with spoken-word performance—there are precedents for this kind of thing succeeding. “The Murder Mystery” by the Velvet Underground may be the pinnacle of the form, with that band’s “The Gift” a close second. David Berman drawls over casual noise on the track “The Country Diary of Subway Conductor” from the Silver Jews’ first record, Starlite Walker. Most Tom Waits albums include a harangue or two—“Frank’s Wild Years” and “9th and Hennepin” stand out. In all these examples, the players benefit from a carefree, tossed-off execution. The weighted terms “poem” and “jazz” don’t burden them.
The atmosphere inside Hunter College’s Danny Kaye Playhouse was far from light. Picture it: a stodgy auditorium on the Upper East Side, the seats half-filled, a mix of restless MFA students and the older, well-dressed neighborhood set. The two acts seemed poised to cancel each other out, a pair of pleasant forms, an evening calculated to deflect the listener’s attention. Halfway through the show the room was hemorrhaging audience members.
The format was simple: The band played, and Pinsky read his poems. The musicians all had copies of the poems so they could follow along onstage. There were few other guidelines for the band’s accompaniment—at most a key signature or feeling agreed upon beforehand. Pinsky would run through a poem once or twice per song, repeat a stray line or stanza, cue the band to stop or to keep going, or indicate a break for a solo.
The words didn’t fit the music. The effect wasn’t jarring, the sound wasn’t unpleasant—the words just didn’t fit the music, and this is what saved the evening. The music had its own particular structure that remained distinct from the structure of each poem. You could never quite listen to both the band and Pinsky at once, so each held your attention in turn as you constantly shifted between them.
Most of the poems Pinsky read were in free verse, while the band stuck to more conventional song forms. In navigating this contrast between the music’s stricter rhythmic structure and the arcane flow of poetic language, your reaction to one form colored your reaction to the other. Caught up in the music, you heard Pinsky’s words as a kind of challenge; struggling to make sense of the poems’ structures, you turned to the music for relief. Each half of the performance vouched for the other. Present in the logic of a standard twelve-bar blues progression was the promise of similar clarity in the poetry, while each poem, in turn, suggested levels of complexity below the surface of the music.
The performance succeeded as long as the performers maintained this tension. The evening lagged whenever Pinsky or the band tried to venture into the other’s territory. Occasionally Allison would lead the musicians in an arrhythmic, ambient stretch of sound. Against this backdrop, the poems felt lost. At one point, Pinsky read a poem by Ben Jonson, a contemporary of Shakespeare. The music muddled the poem’s tight Elizabethan rhythm. Poet and band seemed to be competing with one another. Rather than collide, the sounds overlapped.
Pinsky has teamed with other musicians for similar performances, including a PoemJazz CD recorded with pianist Laurence Hobgood. Pinsky and the Ben Allison Band played together once more in June at the New Haven Festival of Art and Ideas. The project touches on concerns that are apparent in the poems themselves. Lofty name aside, PoemJazz feels like a natural extension of Pinsky’s work. Being on stage enables Pinsky to give voice to the consciousness in his poems. He takes on a persona akin to the speaker in “Ginza Samba,” the poet as exalted listener, ecstatically attuned to the sound “echoing in the hearkening / Instrument of [his] skull.”