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Chops: Poetry and Jazz

Mixing jazz with the spoken and written word has become a trend—but how do you do it well?

Ulysses Owens, Jr.
Ulysses Owens, Jr. used samples from interviews with Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, and Abbey Lincoln on his most recent album. (photo: Rayon Richards)

Long before Robert Pinsky became the only three-time poet laureate in American history, he was an alto saxophonist and clarinetist who couldn’t hack it in the music business. Now, in the third act of his career, the 79-year-old collaborates with pianist Laurence Hobgood on a live and studio project called PoemJazz. If the name evokes berets and bongos, don’t worry—they’re aware.

“Robert has very strong feelings about not in any way gravitating toward the stereotyped, clichéd, hepcat thing,” Hobgood tells JazzTimes. They circumvent this, he says, by treating poetry-jazz like any other musical performance and prioritizing sound above all.

“No aspect of a poem is more singular, more unique, than its rhythm,” Pinsky wrote in his 1998 book The Sound of Poetry. “His focus, like mine, is on sound,” Hobgood wrote in the liner notes to 2013’s PoemJazz II: House Hour. “The magic … is in shared spontaneity.”

Hobgood, who has previously worked with singer Kurt Elling, was introduced to Pinsky by producer Richard Connolly, a “repository of New York art history”—the pianist’s words—who runs the Circumstantial Productions label in Nyack, N.Y.

After meeting Pinsky, “I started reading everything. I started delving into heavy Pinsky poetry immersion,” Hobgood says. Their first collaboration was 2012’s PoemJazz, which, like its sequel, was recorded live in the studio.

“It’s important to note that I never, nor did he, on any of the records, overdub anything,” Hobgood says of both albums. “It’s complete, spontaneous, actual jazz. If we didn’t like a take, we did it again.”

Drummer/composer Ulysses Owens, Jr. combines words with jazz in a more curatorial sense. His 2019 album Songs of Freedom contains covers of songs written or interpreted by Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, and Joni Mitchell, interspersed with samples of the three women speaking.

“How do you connect Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ to Nina Simone’s ‘Mississippi Goddam’ and to Abbey Lincoln’s ‘Wholly Earth’?” Owens asks JazzTimes. “They’re three completely different songs—three different texts with different inspirations.” (The first two, sung by Alicia Olatuja and René Marie, are on the album; the third, sung by Marie, appears in the live show.)

Owens says he triangulated the artists by listening to their interviews. “When you listen to Joni talk, then you listen to Nina, then you listen to Abbey, they’re all saying the same thing, just in different ways.” The common thread, he says, is “freedom of speech, freedom of law, freedom of individuality, [freedom] to own your own femininity.”

When Owens brought Songs of Freedom to the stage, he introduced songs with samples of Mitchell, Simone, and Lincoln for context. “People would come up to me after saying, ‘Oh my God, that makes a lot of sense now,’” he says. “I brought the spoken word in to make the music more palatable and to make it easier for people to understand the connecting link.”

When Pinsky and Hobgood bring PoemJazz to the stage, they connect with audiences by performing the same piece in three different ways. First, Hobgood explains, Pinsky will “read it the way he’d do a poetry reading—I’m not playing. Then we’ll do it again, and I’ll play what would be the more immediately obvious approach.” (He mentions PoemJazz’s “An Old Man [After Cavafy],” a downbeat poem about an old-timer in a café.)

Finally, he says, “we’ll do it a third time, where I go into playing totally boisterous stride piano. It takes on a whole different thing. He looks out at the audience and he never fails to say this: ‘I don’t think there’s any question. The third version is the saddest one.’”

“Robert [is] so sensitive about anything smarmy or treacly or anything like that,” Hobgood notes. “Poets can be really pretentious. And he’s not.”

By connecting disparate sources and feelings and subverting audience expectations, Hobgood and Owens combine poetry and jazz in fresh, untapped ways. So how would they describe a bad fusion of the two?

“The first and foremost thing is people not listening to each other,” Hobgood says. “The same thing happens in instrumental jazz all the time. They’re doing something at the same time, but they’re not connecting.”

“When people don’t find what their personal connection is to the words, and it has no real connection to who they are, that’s when it can get a little dangerous,” Owens says.

In spite of the inherent risks, a growing number of artists are (winningly) giving jazz a verbal component. Pianist Helen Sung’s 2018 album Sung With Words flips Dana Gioia’s poetry into lyrics. Vocalist John Allee’s 2019 album Bardfly gives Shakespeare the mic. Trumpeter Marquis Hill’s 2019 album Love Tape features recordings of women elaborating on their ideas of love. And there are plenty more, including Robert Glasper and Gerald Veasley.

Laurence Hobgood
Laurence Hobgood at the Winter Jazzfest in 2012 (photo: Dave Kaufman)

Today, Hobgood is pondering a third PoemJazz disc with Pinsky, potentially featuring vocalist and saxophonist Stan Strickland. Owens released a book, Jazz Brushes for the Modern Drummer, in April of 2020, with another on the way. Both artists see language as essential to their craft and see words and jazz as having a lot to give each other.

“What poetry can do for jazz, and vice versa,” Hobgood concludes, “is reinforce the need to be constantly searching for real meaning in what you’re choosing to play and what you’re choosing to say.”

Owens too is succinct: “If I had my way, man, I would have poetry and writing infused into every record,” he says. “I’m addicted to ’em.”