Robert Pinsky, arguably America’s greatest living poet and the only one in history to serve three terms as U.S. Poet Laureate, has maintained a lifelong appreciation for jazz that is evident throughout much of his writing, though never quite to the degree of this tremendous collaboration. Pinsky reads 13 of his poems (plus Ben Jonson’s “His Excuse for Loving”) accompanied by pianist Laurence Hobgood, best known for his long and immensely fruitful musical partnership with Kurt Elling (who, closing the circle, once fitted Pinsky’s “The City Dark” to Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil”).
If the blending of poetry and jazz conjures images of smoky Greenwich Village coffeehouses where Jack Kerouac wannabes bleat to bongo beats, park that cliché. Pinsky and Hobgood establish a wholly simpatico artistic partnership. On all but two tracks, Hobgood improvised every note in the studio, concurrent with Pinsky’s readings. Pinsky proves himself an equally adept improviser. His are not dramatic interpretations of the poems but musical ones, the focus on cadence and harmony with Hobgood. The poet’s performances are rich with spontaneous touches—repeating phrases, doubling back on words, inserting freshly elucidating text—worthy of Ella, Anita O’Day or, most accurately, Mark Murphy and Elling.
As for the poems, Pinsky has carefully chosen works old and new that, while exploring wider themes, will resonate with jazz aficionados, particularly “Horn,” his homage to the trumpet and all players who aspire to its mastery; the epic slaveship-to-sax-colossi voyage of “Ginza Samba”; and “The Hearts,” with its doo-wop-dusted examination of love’s all-consuming power, extending from Romeo and Juliet to the equally fatal attraction of Art Pepper and heroin.