Without knowing or planning it, saxophonist/composer Benjamin Boone has spent his life preparing for a collaboration with Philip Levine. Long fascinated by the inherent musicality of the spoken word, Boone crossed paths with the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet as fellow professors at California State University, Fresno, and they ended up working closely together in the three years before Levine’s death in 2015. Boone and Levine’s The Poetry of Jazz captures a genre-expanding partnership unlike anything else in the jazz canon. Produced by piano great Donald Brown, the 14-track project features a stellar cadre of special guest performances, including those by Tom Harrell, Branford Marsalis, Greg Osby, and Chris Potter.
A lifelong jazz fan who grew up in Detroit when the city served as a proving ground for a brilliant generation of bebop-inspired improvisers, Levine often wrote about jazz and the musicians he loved in his verse. But Boone, an award-winning educator, composer, and player, wanted to dig deeper. He drew inspiration not only from the subjects of Levine’s poems but also from the musicality of his language and his wry, emotionally restrained recitation. The resulting album provides a singular window into the work of Levine, an American original who interacts with the musicians like he’s a member of the band.
“I wanted to record Phil’s poems about Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane, as well as his poems that created melodies when he read them,” Boone says. “We talked a lot about the relationship of music and the voice, and I told him, I don’t want to react word by word. I need to figure out a core emotional quality, and use music to heighten that quality. The music and the poetry had to be equal and symbiotic.”
The album opens with a bracing shot of, well, gin, with “Gin,” Levine’s exhilarating and hilarious account of a young man’s inauguration into the world of spirits. The band and singer Karen Marguth respond extemporaneously to his recitation, and the loose and limber accompaniment envelops the intoxicated verse like whiskey flowing over ice.
A highly regarded composer who has often set text to music, Boone employs a vast and vivid sonic palette in writing and arranging for Levine’s poems. He recruited an impressive cast of California players, relying particularly on drummer Brian Hamada, bassist Spee Kosloff, and pianist David Aus, who also contributed compositionally.
On the intimate and closely observed “The Unknowable (Homage to Sonny Rollins),” Boone evokes the inner struggle and beatific quest embodied by the tenor sax titan’s famous sojourn on the Williamsburg Bridge, a search that materializes in the thick, sinewy sound of Chris Potter’s horn. In another perfect casting choice, Tom Harrell delivers a strikingly beautiful statement on “I Remember Clifford (Homage to Clifford Brown),” while the mercurial altoist Greg Osby darts and weaves around “Call It Music (Homage to Charlie Parker),” ),” about Bird’s infamous Dial recording session of “Lover Man.” On Boone’s poignant ballad “Soloing (Homage to John Coltrane),” Branford Marsalis’s sinuous tenor lines bring to life Levine’s comparison between his aging mother’s isolated existence and a Coltrane solo.
But music isn’t the only thing on Levine’s mind. Never far from his working-class roots, he describes the prejudice that marked Detroit during its industrial heyday in “They Feed They Lion,” which inspires some of Boone’s most bracing playing and writing. The album closes with David Aus’s forthright setting for one of Levine’s most famous poems, “What Work Is,” an anti-manifesto about the persistence of humanity in the face of industrial drudgery.
Born in Detroit January 10, 1928 to Jewish immigrant parents from Eastern Europe, Philip Levine started writing poetry while studying at Wayne State University. Mentored by John Berryman at the University of Iowa in the mid-1950s, he was a rising star in the world of poetry by the end of the decade. He joined Cal State Fresno’s English department in 1958 and taught until 1992, though he remained active on campus until shortly before his sudden death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 87.
One of America’s most acclaimed poets, Levine earned numerous distinctions, including the National Book Award for Poetry twice, and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his 1994 volume The Simple Truth. In 2011, he was named the U.S. Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress. Over the course of his career Levine collaborated with musicians in a variety of settings. He felt the results weren’t always salutary, which made the connection with Boone all the more satisfying.
Writing about earlier musical projects, he observed that “some of these encounters were disasters: Either I couldn’t hear what they were doing or they couldn’t get what I’d written. The most satisfying for me was the collaboration with Ben Boone. His ability to both hear and ‘get’ my writing was astonishing, and to put the poems to a music that complemented the language. It was the first time I’ve ever performed to accolades from my fellow poets.”
Born October 19, 1963 in Statesville, North Carolina, Benjamin Boone grew up in an intellectually stimulating family and could have devoted himself to any number of pursuits. He concentrated on the saxophone and improvising from an early age, but was also interested in composition. “I learned a great deal about science, literature, visual art, writing, history, politics, and music from my four older brothers,” he says. “So I’ve always gravitated towards interdisciplinary projects like this one, where I can combine playing, composition, literature, and oration to create an artistic statement that addresses history and topics relevant today.”
Boone studied jazz and composition at the University of Tennessee and went on to get a Master of Music degree in composition from Boston University and a doctorate from the University of South Carolina, studying with heavyweights such as Pulitzer Prize winner Bernard Rands, Gordon “Dick” Goodwin, Charles Fussell, John A. Lennon, and Jerry Coker. For his doctoral dissertation, Boone delved into analyzing speech from a musical perspective, research cited in Oxford’s New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. As a Fulbright Senior Specialist Fellow, he conducted musical research in the former Soviet Republic of Moldova, and is currently spending a year in Ghana performing and composing with African musicians as a Fulbright Scholar.
He traces his fascination with the music of spoken language with a hearing issue “that makes it hard for me to understand words,” he says. “When I hear people speak I hear it as music—a melodic line. For example, listening to blues musicians speak, I hear blues lines. This fascination with spoken language allowed me to use Phil’s voice as an instrument—something that makes this project unique.”
He actually applied for a position at Cal State Fresno because a writer friend told him that his favorite living poet was a longtime member of the faculty. Boone didn’t know anything about the campus or the city, “but my friend said if they can keep Philip Levine on the faculty, there must be some really cool things happening there,” he says.
After taking the Cal State position in 2000, he didn’t actually cross paths with Levine until a dozen years later, when a local film society brought them together for a fundraising concert. They performed several times over the next few years, and Boone also used excerpts from Levine’s recorded narrations in his orchestral work addressing California’s devastating drought, Waterless Music. Written for full orchestra plus two amplified 44-quart containers of water, Waterless Music premiered at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in June 2015.
As a performer and composer, Boone is heralded in both jazz and new music circles. His music has been performed in 29 countries and appears on more than 25 CDs. It’s been the subject of multiple national broadcasts on National Public Radio. With The Poetry of Jazz he’s opened up a new literary and musical frontier, and there’s more in store. The album features the first half of the 29 poems Boone recorded with Levine, who addressed his readers in his classic verse, writing “if you’re old enough to read this you know what work is.” And if you’re old enough to play this album, you’ll know what the poetry of jazz is, in all its poignant, uproarious, and unguardedly humane glory.