2:03 pm Sep. 21, 2012
The saxophonist Roy Nathanson considers himself more a jazz musician than a poet. But as he told me on the phone from his home in Brooklyn last week, he feels most like a storyteller.
Nathanson, 61, who leads the Jazz Passengers and another jazz group called Sotto Voce, likes to incorporate spoken word into his music. He's published one book of poetry, Subway Moon, which dwells on things like family, nostalgia, Brooklyn, politics, and words themselves. His poems are gritty and urban, and so is his music. He was a part of the downtown music, art, and theater scenes in the 1980s (he was a member of the Lounge Lizards), when, he explained, "non-professionalism and professionalism were very blurred."
"It was always about story-telling through the music," he said. "Through the theater and through the words."
With that in mind, the string of performances he's curating at The Stone in the East Village through Sept. 30 seems like a partial throwback to that downtown world. Nathanson's booked a bunch of interesting and serious and playful sets—some of which he's involved in—exploring the nature of language and the connection between music and poetry.
This Saturday, for instance, Gerald Stern, the former Poet Laureate of New Jersey, will read his poetry accompanied by Sotto Voce, which incorporates beatboxing into its music. (Nathanson told me that he's scored one of the poems in imitation of the way Stern speaks.) Next Thursday, the jazz bassist Henry Grimes, also a poet, will perform with the pianist Dave Burrell and the drummer Tyshawn Sorey. And two days later, the vibraphonist Bill Ware is set to lead a group with the Nuyorican poet Tato Laviera.
Wednesday night, Nathanson played music in a sextet over which the poetry critic David Orr recited a series of centos—poems composed entirely of lines from other texts. Orr wrote the poems himself, basing them entirely on pop songs.
"For hundreds of years, poetry has been without a song," Orr said by way of introduction, couching a lecture in performance as the sextet riffed behind him. He went on to explain that the ancient Greeks used the same word for poetry as they did for music, but that today, the relationship between poetry and music is like a "lover's quarrel between siamese twins." He added, however, that at base, poetry and music have form as their common ground.
Orr said that the poems he wrote probably wouldn't make sense, and that they were intended just to be amusing. He added, dryly: "They sound to me like John Ashbery on methamphetamines."
I jotted down some snippets. And he was right; it was best not to read into them. Over a rockabilly beat, Orr read:
I've been working on the railroad,
Where it comes where it goes.
But I still haven't found what I'm looking for,
When I wore a younger man's clothes.
Sometimes the stolidity of Orr's phrasing seemed out of sync with the music itself, especially Nathanson's earthy solos. But it was all in the service of levity.
The band included Nathanson, playing soprano, alto, and baritone saxophone (he sounded best on alto); Dave Schraam on guitar; Lloyd Miller on bass; Ely Levin on drums; Chris Johnson on piano; and Andy Laster on baritone saxophone.
For the last and loveliest song of the set, Miller sang a country-inflected version of "Who Goes With Fergus," a poem by W.B. Yeats. As the band had been doing the entire set, it went down to a hushed volume as Orr read:
At first I was afraid, I was petrified,
Because your friends don't dance.
And if they don't dance,
I know that somebody's watching me.
If the first set felt slightly didactic—albeit tongue-in-cheek—the second set asked you to draw your own connections.
Nathanson played in a duo with the guitarist Marc Ribot in which the focus was old jazz standards. Nathanson wrote poems inspired by the songs, which he recited solemnly throughout the set over Ribot's spare and spooky acoustic lines.
Nathanson spoke abruptly and with a knowing tone. In "All The Things You Are," he said: "All the things you are are not enough to forestall the financial crash of headaches." And in "Darn That Dream": "Darn that nightmare breathing dream beneath the street lamps and maples."
Ribot and Nathanson played the song's melodies obliquely; at times, you had to cock your ear to catch what tune they were on. And the music swung back and forth between tenderness and wild intensity, creating a sort of narrative arc. At one moment, Nathanson was playing some hushed whispers on his baritone and at another he was belting it out on his alto with earthy, gutbucket yowls.
He was finding his way, telling a story in the language he knows best.
Roy Nathanson's jazz and poetry programming continues at The Stone through Sept. 30. More information here.
More by this author:
- In a 17th-century stone farmhouse, holiday shopping, done differently
- In the Garment district, a milliners' parade declares that hats still matter