In the last years of his life Pulitzer prize-winning former US Poet Laureate and jazz aficionado Philip Levine undertook a series of collaborations with saxophonist and band leader Benjamin Boone. Last year saw the posthumous release on Origin Records of the first volume with an all-star lineup, 2019 offers this second instalment.
Levine, the son of Jewish immigrant parents began his working life in the Detroit car industry in the 1930s as a manual worker. Around this time he also experienced antisemitism in the form of radio broadcasts by then mainstream radio priest Father Coughlin before Coughlin was forced off air at the end of the 1930s as a Nazi sympathiser. It was these early experiences which continued to inform his poetry long after he had broken free of the monotony of manual labour and established himself as a poet and academic. He explains that as a youngster he made the ‘foolish vow to speak for the voiceless working class of Detroit’. Levine describes his ideal poem in which ‘no words are noticed. You look through them into a vision of… the people, the place’. It was these words of explanation which I felt offered a key to the poetry of Levine and the historical context in which he was operating as well as his profound scepticism regarding traditional American ideals.
Saxophonist and collaborator Boone crossed paths with Levine while they both worked at California State University. Boone describes his long-held fascination with the inherent musicality of the spoken word and how he drew inspiration from Levine’s wry and emotionally restrained style of delivery.
Appropriately enough The Poetry of Jazz Volume Two’s first track is called ‘Let Me Begin Again’. On hearing Levine’s voice it’s easy to understand what attracted Boone, as a listener one is drawn in with a rare and intimate immediacy. The poetry and music describe a watery rebirth or a second chance at life, ‘let me go back to land after a lifetime of going nowhere’, the poet imagines his arrival at Detroit Hospital ‘like a speck of dust traveling on the wings of a gull through oily waters’ presumably those of the once notoriously polluted Detroit River. Boone’s sax and an array of electronics add a mood of liquidity and atmosphere to this desire for a second chance at life while being wise to what was wrong with the first life.
Some instrumental tracks recorded after the death of Levine pay homage to his best known poems, most notably ‘The Simple Truth’. A piano part by David Aus echoes the phrase of the tune’s title. Soprano sax by Boone and a vocal part by Karen Marguth lend the piece an ethereal quality as the soprano soars and merges seamlessly with the vocal. On my first listen to the record I wasn’t sure how much these instrumentals add to the album other than to remind us of what a great instrument Levine’s own voice is.
Towards the end of the recording in ‘When the Shift Was Over’ the narrator contemplates his life and place in the wider universe recalling the sense of quiet following a shift where ‘metal is slamming metal’ as he ‘tastes nickel under the tongue’. He looks up at the night sky to see ominous black clouds. Remembering his younger self in Poland, he marvels at the energy his people had to make it to the US only to be ground numb by a seemingly endless factory shift. Questioning his belief in God he somehow finds the will to sing in a hoarse voice ‘older than his years’ as a cleansing ‘clear rain falls’.
The album is a vivid snapshot of an important piece of American history wonderfully captured on record with the foresight of Boone and Levine. We’d better make the most of it as there won’t be any more where this came from.