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Poetry and Jazz: Bloom, Wilson, Eisenmann, and Hersch

Jazz and poetry are a natural fit. Langston Hughes, for example, a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, was inspired by jazz and recorded his poems with accompaniment by jazz musicians....
Fred Hersch recorded an album title "Leaves of Grass." (

Jazz and poetry are a natural fit. Langston Hughes, for example, a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, was inspired by jazz and recorded his poems with accompaniment by jazz musicians. The same was true of Jack Kerouac and other beat poets of the 1950s. New releases present current prominent jazz musician/composers performing jazz pieces inspired by poets of the past with whom they have a kinship.

‘Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson’

Winner of the 2017 Downbeat Critics Poll for soprano saxophone, Jane Ira Bloom has released her latest recording with her quartet, “Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson” (on Outline). The double CD set has one CD with just the music played by the quartet: Dawn Clement (piano), Mark Helias (bass), and Bobby Previte (drums). On the second CD, the group is joined by actress Deborah Rush, who reads the poetry.


Bloom feels an affinity for the poet, in part, because Dickinson (1830–1886) played piano and was known to improvise on the instrument. Also, the poet used language like a jazz musician, which Bloom described as “words [strung] together like pearls.”

Sometimes the music accompanies Rush’s recitations of the poems and then the jazz musicians take off on flights of lyricism and swing. Bloom’s compositions are melodic and accessible, matching the mood of each piece. She conveys the excitement of Dickinson’s jubilant experience at a circus as well as the poignancy of flowers that die “without the privilege to know/That they are beautiful.” The inevitable thought is of the poet herself, who lived in seclusion and was not appreciated until after her demise.

All the music was composed by Bloom except for the closing piece, the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart ballad, “It’s Easy to Remember,” which she performs beautifully as a saxophone solo.

Jane Ira Bloom Quartet will celebrate the release of “Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson” with the affecting Deborah Rush reciting the poems and same quartet from the recording, with the exception of Allison Miller, who will be playing the drums, on Saturday, Oct. 7 at 8 and 10 p.m. at Kitano (66 Park Ave. at 38th St.; 212-885-7119;

‘Honey and Salt’

Carl Sandburg (1878–1967) could be thought of as a polar opposite of Dickinson. He was probably the best known poet of his time. The winner of three Pulitzer Prizes (two for poetry and one for his biography of Lincoln) and a Grammy Award (for his narration of Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait”), he was a popular lecturer and media figure and was known as “the poet of the people.”


“Honey and Salt” (on Palmetto Records) is drummer/composer Matt Wilson’s tribute to Sandburg on the 50th anniversary of the poet’s death. Sandburg’s poetry is playful and often funny and his exuberance and wit clearly inspired Wilson and his ensemble. The poet’s satirical jabs at celebrity culture are especially timely.

Rather than use professional actors, Wilson opts for readings by jazz musicians: Christian McBride, John Scofield, Carla Bley, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano and Rufus Reid. The only actor is Jack Black (who has a connection to jazz in that he is married to bassist Charlie Haden’s daughter and had recorded with his father-in-law). Sandburg’s most famous poem, “Fog” is recited by the poet himself with Wilson on drums.

The musicians are the outstanding guitarist/vocalist Dawn Thomson, singing settings of some of the poems in various styles; cornetist Ron Miles; multi-reedist Jeff Lederer; and bassist Martin Wind.

“We Must Be Polite” is a sort of New Orleans boogie, perfect for the surrealist humor of the poem on the proper etiquette when you meet a gorilla or elephant. “Choose,” about deciding whether to have a closed fist or an open hand, is set to a martial beat. The poet’s Midwestern roots come to the fore in “Prairie Barn” with Thomson’s guitar and Wilson’s chimes. “Offering and Rebuff” has a country tinge, while “Bringers,” with its exhortation to “cover me over in dusk and dust and dreams” (with Thomson’s soulful vocal) has a gospel sound. “Trafficker” presents a grim slice of city life with a bluesy tune.

 “Honey and Salt” is a triumph for Matt Wilson but also a reminder of the originality of Sandburg, whose reputation has dimmed somewhat in the years since his death.

Matt Wilson will celebrate the release of “Honey and Salt” on Sept. 19 and 20 at Jazz Standard (116 E. 27th St.;; 212-576-2232. The musicians on the album will appear as well as surprise guests to read the poems.

‘The Free Poetics of Henrique Eisenmann’

“The Free Poetics of Henrique Eisenmann” (on Red Piano Records) is a reminder that jazz musicians come from all over the world and jazz settings of poetry are not limited to the English language.

The first track on the CD by Brazilian pianist Henrique Eisenmann is “Niños Peruanos,” a recording of a 6-year-old Peruvian boy reciting a poem in Spanish, to which the pianist joins in. This flows into a joyful group improvisation on Hermeto Pascoal’s “Zurich,” which despite its title has a South American melody.

Again, the human voice is the inspiration for “Jeneupti,” which ingeniously combines a field recording of a Ghanaian girl with chords from Charles Ives’s 1919 song “Serenity.” Eisenmann doesn’t understand the meaning of the words she is singing but is nevertheless moved by the emotion she expresses.

Eisenmann’s ballad, “Anthropophagy” is a meditative piece imaginatively derived from Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology.” “Dans un Fracas de Plumes” was inspired by the work of Israeli poet Hadassa Tal. Clearly, Eisenmann finds his inspiration all over the world.

The musicians playing with Eisenmann on the album are the Peruvian-born Grammy-nominated bassist Jorge Roeder and two Brazilians: percussionist Rogério Boccato and saxophonist Gustavo D’Amico.

‘Leaves of Grass’

Composer and pianist Fred Hersch’s recording of poems from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” is a landmark in jazz settings of poetry. There are spoken and sung sections and parts for pure improvisation.

Hersch is going to perform the work on Friday, Sept. 15 and Saturday, Sept. 16 at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Appel Room with the original singers from the recording—Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry—and an outstanding eight-piece ensemble featuring trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis, trombonist Mike Christianson, multi-reedist Bruce Williams, tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby, cellist Jody Redhage, bassist John Hébert, and drummer John Hollenbeck. For tickets, go to; 212-721-6500.

This is a concert that should not be missed by lovers of jazz and poetry.

Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.

By Barry Bassis


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