It was 1963 when Detroit born, Philip Levine, first had a collection of poems published with ‘On The Edge’, with over 20 others throughout his lifetime, some as early as 1973 receiving awards for poetry, with an early spell studying beside John Berryman proving to be a huge influence. His standing within the community somewhat strengthened in 1995 for ‘The Simple Truth’ by securing the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Levine left an enduring mark on the world of poetry prior to his passing in 2015 at the age of 87.
On this, ‘The Poetry of Jazz’, we first hear Levine on the opening theatrical piece, ‘Gin’, with leader Benjamin Boone on saxophone, Karen Marguth adding supportive vocals, whilst Craig von Berg; piano, Spee Kosloff; bass, and Brian Hamada; drums supporting the piece in an avant-guard fashion with more emphasis on the spoken word drawing the listener into the album. The said collection of musicians are also responsible for the ballad, ‘The Music Of Time’, further into the album, which is a much more structured composition, both numbers showing diversity between each other with the same formation. The American saxophonist/composer/professor, Benjamin Boone, is also responsible for gathering together some high-profile artists in Branford Marsalis, Chris Potter, Tom Harrell, and Greg Osby with respective homages to John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown and Charlie Parker – all perfectly placed as we listen to Levine’s iconic poems.
“My mother tells me she dreamed
of John Coltrane, a young Trane
playing his music with such joy
and contained energy and rage
she could not hold back her tears.” – Philip Levine
Of the 16 musicians involved, all delivering exceptional pieces of music, it is still the overwhelming sound of Levine’s narration that dominates. His phrasing and timing on what was to be his only work of this type, and a posthumous one at that, leaves no doubt of his presence in the huge world of poetry. And where one would immediately draw comparisons with the Beat Generation poets, it wasn’t the path he took. Whilst the likes of Lucien Carr, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were making ground in Greenwich Village, it was Detroit/Iowa/Fresno that Philip grew up, with a fascination of the Spanish Civil War, with unemployment and with violence, with topics of inadequacy, of loss and regret and an all too infrequent mention of jazz and the love for it. So it is to the latter passion that we would have never known had it not have been for this release. We would not have heard how perfectly balanced the two would sound, and for that alone we must applaud Benjamin Boone, for he has not only produced an exceptional musical album, but given to the ears of the world a groundbreaking document of Philip Levine perhaps enjoying what he had not previously had the opportunity to do.
Each of the compositions bring to the listener a different sense of satisfaction, the poems tightening concentration to each passage with wonderful music painting the scene for each story told, none more so than on ‘Yakov’, where David Aus’s piano intro draws in the story of wilderness, of a man surrounded by nature and beauty, enjoying each day to the fullest, sunrise, sunset, without human companionship – alone but content. Benjamin’s saxophone shining through the trees amidst his group as Yakov casts aside his apron of normality to venture out into nature’s bosom.
It is the longest piece on the album, ‘A Dozen Dawn Songs, Plus One’, that perfects the balance between instrument and voice. Taking the most risks and proving to be most rewarding. Its energy of playing, the shrill of the story, each musician perfectly tuned to the quickened pace and dramatic interchange – this is poetry of unquestionable authority. Dynamic and thought-provoking, serious music – the music holding its own at every step of the performance. An incredible band playing with supreme expertise. There should be no ear that passes by. Essential.
So where should we rank this album in history, in the not too overly populated jazz-poetry cosmos? Well, for this writer it is felt highly. It is not only a superb ‘jazz’ album but an incredible album of poetry, by a talent that has left us with much written work but far too little aural. It works perfectly. Benjamin Boone, recording between 2012 and 2014, has encapsulated the ‘sound’ to provide an album of unmistakable importance – one could say of historic importance.