Riffs on the Avant Garde: Book & CD Reviews
Out of the shell's soft lunar entrails, and onto the beach in full daylight.
The ocean rasping. The waves rushing, breaking over sun-wet bodies that leap and flash. Women's laughter. Soaked to the knees, I splash about the glistening naked herd, and find myself among hermaphrodites.
Hundreds of miles from shore. Another country. I've left everything to walk over forest ruins, among dead leaves. I can see above me the sky ripening, the blue turning green with cold breaths.
Basso delivers us radiant poetic fragments harnessed to a prose narrative that keeps the action coming. As Stephen-Paul Martin observes, he "remains one of the most interesting writers in the country, someone whose work does not fit conveniently into categories like metafiction or language-centered poetry, but whose poetry, fiction and dramatic writing extend our sense of what terms like modernism and postmodernism mean."
The sheer rolling thunder of reading one dream scene after another (250 in all) builds a momentum that makes a "reel beyond real" sense of his adventures. Anyone can show up: Henry Kissinger, Aunt Gladys, Jonathan Winters, Bibi Anderson, Groucho Marx, Jean Cocteau. And anything can happen: rugs weave into diamond shapes and within every diamond, a sun; the image of his dead grandfather comes toward him reversed as in a house of mirrors. As Samuel Appelbaum wrote in Rain Taxi, "Basso deploys his unconscious mind with increasing efficacy and power."
Exquisite Corpse called him "a real renaissance man: poet, writer of theatre plays, short fiction, novels, painter and writer of musical scores," and it takes a writer of his montage-like state of mind to petal such a magic carpet and to narrate the ride in such cinematic detail. Like the jazz giants in Mandel's essay, Basso trusts his audience to their own flights.
Janine Pommy Vega's latest CD, Across the Table, finds her in excellent company with a variety of musical guests on both sides of the Atlantic. It's a collaboration that enriches our inquiry into the marriage of form and content, that is: readers of Vega may recognize these poems, some which are among her best, and fans of her readings may recognize her signature shaker keeping time, but in Across the Table she pops her verse off the page and into our minds not by way of reading but by way of the heart via the sound in the ear. The result is not just music accommodating or dramatizing verse but a wedding of word into song, an alchemy elicited by her remarkable performance. The sounds she emits, hums, prays, chants, shouts, whispers, laughs, weeps and repeats cause us to confront our more essential or Indio nature, one not split between the rational and the dream, as Basso noted in Revagations.
The first seven cuts feature Nina Sheldon on piano, Michael Esposito on bass and the project's "guiding spirit," Betty MacDonald, on voice, violin and kalimba as Vega elects to join the band rather than to limit them to mere accompaniment. The opening track, "Habeas Corpus Blues," welcomes us into that other America, the one that ain't never gonna get on the cover of the Rolling Stone. Having taught a poetry workshop in Sing Sing over the last thirty years, Vega doesn't need to dream up any of these Bill of Rights violations; nor does she have to remind us that what we do to the least of us in the slammer is we do to all of us sooner or later in the nation; she only has to report on her own eyewitness to bring the bite to these blues.
Piano and bass lay out in the next track as Vega incants while Macdonald sings and weaves in violin. "Madre di Tavolieri" follows with just Vega and her shaker, and in the stillness it becomes clear that she is calling out the luminous hidden in the ruins Vesuvius reveals, hidden in our most every-day activities, a catalogue which leads into "Food Song" with Sheldon matching on the piano's lower keys the lyrical riffs Vega runs. Here is an excellent example of the use of a chorus. Instead of boring us with repetition (as it might when read), the refrain makes its point over and over anew while giving spoken stanzas and instrumental solos a body and context.
When Esposito switches to electric bass on "Mean Ol' Badger Blues," the band swings hard with tongue-in-cheek good humor. Macdonald gets down to some earthy fiddling which fits the mood just right for this call-and-answer account on how "Arthur Eyetis," or the mean old badger, comes a callin' on the mountain-climbing poet. Like the tradition of the blues, it's funny and tragic at the same time. However, nothing that came before can prepare us for track six, Vega's "The Green Piano" meeting Chick Corea's gorgeous rehearsal for eternity, "Crystal Silence." From the first note, Sheldon's piano work is expert, a fountain of cascading serenity buoyed by Esposito's solid bass and MacDonald's sympathetic violin. Indeed, there are hidden worlds inside this melody. Meanwhile, Vega's timing and rhyme flow is impeccable; she slips in and out among the soloing musicians with ease and precision. The execution feels so inspired that the entire four minutes of the tune seem to float in an occult realm all its own. This is no longer poetic invocation; this is deliverance.
Track seven, the title song, weaves Jeffrey Eisenberg's waltz-like "Mediterranean Balcony" into Vega's community of seekers for "there is something about the cavernous heart, where all songs gather," which provides us with an introduction to the other bands who are not just Across the Table but across the sea. "Mad Dogs of Trieste" features Vega in a recorded concert in Naples with Ferdinando Gandolfi (flute) and Maurizio Carbone (percussion). The tune develops around a simple melody that actually becomes the poem's title spoken aloud. "Ode to Slippers" is about getting strip-searched in Walla Walla Airport, but the context is the message. A jazz quartet plays "Stella by Starlight" while Vega recites. Gaspare Di Lieto shows plenty of finesse, comping under Giovanni Amato's muted trumpet intro before adding sparkle to the humorous excesses Vega notes in her baggage handlers. Gianluigi Goglia on bass and Stefano Tatafiore on the drum kit keep it swinging and Vega responds in an animated, improvisatory fashion.
"Bird Mother of Caligari" brings back the flute-percussion team of Gandolfi and Carbone, now with Carmela Cordone on harp, as Vega literally role calls the names of the divine mother from Iran to India to Italy as one syllable slips into another, a brilliant act of embodiment. "The Draft" returns her to the blues and her observations on prison but this time from a concert in Sarajevo. Marco Collazzoni on sax fills and jabs and shouts and bends notes in his bare hands. With Ricardo Morpurgo on piano, Luca Colusi on drums and Almir Nezic on bass, this quartet invites Vega to let it all hang out, and that she does---with a skill that would make a po' critic like Alpaugh brighten to the fact that, in spite of the MFA-ification of the art, the oral tradition has never left us. In the finale, a duet with Carbone on conga, Vega demonstrates the primacy of the drum as she salutes the mystery of melody and lyric becoming one.
Bob Holman's The Awesome Whatever is another brilliant reminder that poetry has not lost its ear or its wit---or its spirit of collaboration. Accused of being "the ringmaster of the spoken word" (New York Daily News) on one coast and "his generation's Ezra Pound" (Poetry Flash) on the other, Holman is more like a poet looking to marry his form with other forms and see what offspring arises. For example, he produced for PBS The United States of Poetry which reached across the battlefields of the poetry wars to commemorate the range of our voices.
His most recent recording, a duet with guitarist-composer Vito Ricci, is excellent proof of the gestalt Holman builds, one that provides us with more insight into the marriage of form and content. The opener, the only track without Ricci, acts as prelude. It's Holman's hypnotic end-of-the-world voice over and under a repeating bass line with bits of cocktail piano, synth-strings and assorted sound effects thrown in to keep it nutty and ever-clever. Entitled "She Never Called Me Back," it's a stoney parody in the tradition of Lenny Bruce or Firesign Theatre. Holman captures the sinister-deep intonation of mock omnipotence that plays like a Dada phone message repeating in the Twilight Zone. It's pleasantly unsettling and creates a mood of anything-can-happen anarchy, which is a tip-off to the rest of the CD: the poem or text is up for grabs; that is, one can't be sure what's on the page and what just occurred to Holman to say on the spot. In a phrase, "It's rollin', Bob."
In the lovely "Love Lake," which Ricci keeps spare and acoustic underneath, Holman improvises not just on the words but on his delivery, turning his voice to a funky gravel as he sings-talks-'n'-fingerpops his way in and through these easy-goin', soft-shoe, down-home blues. But in "The Meaning of Meaning," from the opening moment when Ricci asks him, "Yes?," Holman launches into extemporaneous bits about clues and readiness that dovetail into the tune's first stanza. In fact, except for the chorus that they sing together, the entirety of Holman's manic spiel has a shiny sense of being electric-live and improvised with a rhyme on the two and the four. Once again, as with Vega, so with Holman: the chorus is there not to dumb down the poem but to breathe "structure," returning a stanza's meander back to its source. But if the source for Vega is the Vedas, the source for Holman is laughter. He seeks the cosmic via the comic.
"Pasta Mon," for example, features Holman as a crazed Caribbean dub-meister and dope-rhyme-sayer singin'-'n'-swingin' his "toast" in iambic pentameter sounding like Bobby "Boris" Pickett of "Monster Mash" fame. Ricci reaches into his synthesizer and drum machine to get the background right and then adds some tasty guitar as Holman jives, jokes and jests his way into an appreciation of how revolutionary culture gets flipped into the same old catastrophe.
In "For Paul, and Everybody Else," Ricci uses his drum machine and his guitar's repetition of a James Brown riff (by way of Talking Heads) to get a slow funky burn working under Holman as he tosses off commentary about art and justice. The remarks slowly become "Night of the Living Dead," which narrates a dream of Holman's in which he hangs out with writer friends Pedro Pietri and Spalding Gray, both recently deceased. Ricci keeps the eight minute song lively, and Holman manages to fit his yaks deftly into the spaces Ricci provides. "On the Street Named Pedro Pietri," a coda of sorts, follows. Behind the one-liners and the gallows humor and the Manhattan skyline, Holman signifies on the futility of having a street named after a poet who is too dead to walk on it.
"sweat&sex&politics" is an inspired manifesto on the value of self-expression. With only the drum machine underneath him, Holman lets loose a barrage of rhyme: "Communicate, reciprocate, conversate, don't hesitate: in the beginning was the rap." The poetic lines are simultaneously precise AND over-the-top, the style of delivery simultaneously an appropriation of hip hop AND a nod to its audacious rap-rap-rap-ability. "Picasso in Barcelona," the last track, gets a very Iberian feel thanks to Ricci's flamenco-like guitar passages that follow each of Holman's free verse stanzas. Making effective use of the dramatic monologue, Holman assumes the voice of the painter in all its oversized, cubist self-regard to deliver a disquieting meditation on how art and commerce and fashion and fame are made, culminating in the killer last line: "All I paint is death."
The hidden treasure is "January" (from which the CD's title is taken). Ricci and Holman are solidly hooked up and become one instrument, guitar and voice two halves of the whole story. Credit Ricci for delivering a most mysterious and haunted riff which anchors Holman's chatter-chops on the I Ching, the Seven Dwarfs, football, horniness and various existential gumbo. The mood is warm, at once absurdly funny and tender insight, and the timing delicate and unhurried with the repeating musical phrase from Ricci in all the right places.
Rachelle Garniez's Melusine Years offers us another perspective on form and content from the singer-songwriter vantage point. Her new CD of twelve original tunes highlights her lyrical grace with end rhymes and enjambed lines, spunned to melodies that take deep root in our memories, thanks to a trio of remarkably adept musicians. Not only does Garniez play her signature accordion, but she doubles on piano, guitar, claviola, bells and harmonica and also sings in a wide range of voices. With Matt Munisteri on guitars, banjo and cuatro and Dave Hofstra on bass and tuba, she's made a record that "flows like a lazy southern river past Mark Twain's mansion, thru the Sad Cafe, and right into the East Village," as Gaston Dominick Musella recently blogged. He adds, "Like a string of gramma's pearls you found under a pile of faded lace in the attic, the luster of these songs glows gently like memories flickering in candlelight. Humor, melancholy and charm blend easily and effortlessly into a haunting opus."
Garniez has mastered a difficult literary device and turned it into an appealing performance virtue: ironic ambiguity with Taoist logic and a touch of stealth feminism. The entire project---words, notes and instruments---comes at us double-edged and double-barreled, both one thing and another. We enter a sonic territory that is roots-familiar to the core yet oddly of another world with lyrics as Americana as Stephen Foster yet full of boho lore, what the New York Times called, "romantic, rhapsodic and casually hilarious." She achieves all three at once through combining the many talents at her disposal.
Note her lyrics. For example, confronted with love's either/or, she turns simile to metaphor as a reindeered Bobby Burns: "my love is like a red red nose / he runs his mouth & sleeps in his clothes / he done gone south oh thar he blows / my love is a red red nose / my love is like a crying shame / he gives right in & takes the blame no dimes or nickels to his name / my love is a crying shame / a stinking drunk a blinking blip / a steamer trunk on a sinking ship / a trickling tear a wrinkled rip / getting by on a wink & a prayer / my love is like a memory / a three-speed bike a Christmas tree / lights up the world when he sings to me / my love is a Christmas tree."
Note her choice of ax. In Garniez's embrace the accordion loses its a-one-&-a-two-&-a-three Lawrence Welk polka hokeyness and becomes a most enchanting foil (yang) for her free ranging voice (yin). Like Victor Borge's piano, Jack Benny's violin or elements in klezmer, there remains something comic about its Old World sound even when she plays it straight. Indeed, Garniez with her voice and squeezebox is a complete musical world unto herself: the song becomes the sea, the rolling accordion becomes the waves and her whacky voice becomes the key turning the tune from alehouse shout to nuthouse lament to a St. Vitus dance possession state.
Note her rhythm section, too. When her voice and instrument are woven into the textures Hofstra and Munisteri create, magical things happen. Think of The Band but in a sparser setting. With Hofstra's impeccable sense of time whether on bass or tuba, there's no need for a drummer. He's always where the song form needs him to be and that reliability is a pleasure to the ear allowing everyone greater musical freedom. Munisteri delivers some very tasty guitar work both acoustic and electric, and his banjo playing on "Shoemaker's Children" brings out the instrument's hidden power to evoke an American gothic alongside Garniez's haunted Appalachian echo.
Finally, note the tune themselves: they leap forward from the back of the mind while one walks or does tasks. Played over and over like a record on a jukebox in one's brain, this is how they marry romance, rhapsody and hilarity: they imprint so deeply that apparent contradiction burns away.
The Clare Daly Band's Rah! Rah! is a most encouraging CD with which to conclude our form and content inquiry. As the title suggests (Rah was his nickname), it's an homage to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, composer, multi-reedist and musical original. By evoking his spirit rather than imitate his mannerisms, Daly demonstrates the avant garde's use of the tribute as a naturally self-correcting element within the jazz tradition, something musicians have been doing since before Buddy Bolden: making it new and making it last.
Like Herbie Hancock's Gershwin's World (1998), Daly's Rah! Rah! invites us into the subject's zeitgeist by playing a full scope of the soundscape from which his unique genius emerged. Kirk, one might say, was plugged in to the muse on his own terms, "blind" to musical divisions. But his unique style united any undertaking, and Daly has similarly stamped these ten tunes in her own voice while fashioning a musical journey into the spirit of Rah.
From the first eight measures of "Blue Lady," Daly's own composition based on the chord changes of Kirk's "Lady's Blues," itself a tribute to Billie Holiday, the rhythm section lays down what might be called a mid-tempo slaughterhouse style, and Daly's baritone sax slips in warm and melodic. The unhurried atmosphere seems full of invention, and right away the foot is tapping. The quartet, which has been playing together for over ten years, has mastered the art of swinging hard without necessarily playing loud. Indeed, even when Daly dives into the baritone's lower register during her first solo, every note comes through clear and distinct. Drummer Peter Grant and bassist Dave Hofstra are brothers from the same mother of economy, graduates of the "say more by playing less" school. Pianist Eli Yamin can comp just as bare boned, but when he solos, he's more like Daly: effusive, far-reaching, all-encompassing. These two approaches create a dynamic tension that results in every soloist taking another "helping" of some heavenly joy of cooking.
On Kirk's "Serenade to a Cuckoo," Daly switches to flute and the mood becomes one of mystery in quietude. Grant on brushes is the band's secret weapon. He can kick more ass with brushes than many can do with sticks as first Daly, then Hofstra dive into solos that stretch open the marvelous and deliver us tentacles of exquisite subtlety. By contrast, Kirk's "Volunteered Slavery" is all bad-ass assault. Opening with bari and bass, everyone takes the tune apart when drums and piano enter, swirling the rhythm bits about and putting 'em back together but in a feisty 'out' mode which morphs into "Everyday People." Jay Martini sings two choruses of Sly Stone's Sixties classic, and Yamin trinkles the keys toward entropy before Daly returns to play the head---a helluva seven and half minute ride.
"Simone," a gorgeous tune by his friend Frank Foster that Kirk often covered, shows yet another side of Rah as well as the depth of this quartet. Grant opens with explosives from every arsenal in his kit. Daly plays the melody as Yamin paints the in-between spaces with intriguing commentary. Hofstra is a force of nature moving underneath as Daly exploits the baritone's altissimo register in her solo, unleashing notes that turn into streams of golden sunlight pouring out over the melody's container. Yamin solos next, building a kaleidoscopic momentum as his bright rolls reveal their fuller story while Hofstra and Grant shift the ground beneath him. The effect is like weaving the song into "diamond shapes and within every diamond, a sun," to quote Basso.
Daly returns to flute on "Funk Underneath," what may well be the happiest blues Kirk ever composed, but it also sounds like why these four musicians were born. Daly purrs and echoes and haunts while Hofstra walks, and everyone stays buoyant with smiles on their faces. "Theme for the Eulipions," Kirk's manifesto for uniting musicians, dancers and poets, is played as a montuno. Daly on baritone takes the first solo, digging deeply into the low notes followed by Yamin's splashes of dissonance which he turns into remarkably articulate constellations before trading with Grant who shakes the foundations.
"Alfie," the Hal David/Burt Bachrach chestnut that Kirk loved to cover, features Martini in a heart-on-the-sleeve vocal. Yamin creates a luscious accompaniment, a contrast to the singer's unadorned style, with Grant and Hofstra solid and delicate underneath, yet another side of what this band can do with material from Kirk's milieu. "Momentus Brighticus," Daly's tune based on the changes in "Bright Moments," shifts dynamics again. Daly's flute playing is quietly delicious, pensive but expansive, and the rhythm section responds with all manner of good humor. Bird's "Blues for Alice," another Kirk cover, swings its ass off without having to flex its muscles. That most loving of send-offs, "I'll Be Seeing You," is the band's final shout to the spirit of Rah. By choosing in her fourth CD as bandleader to celebrate this jazz legend, one whose contribution remains less than fully understood even today, Daly provides us with a proof-in-the-pudding corrective to those aspects of Kirk that have confounded his critics but inspired his cohorts who continue to advance the music.