The persistence of the jazz/poetry connection: Pianist Helen Sung collaborates with Dana Gioia

Avoiding subcultural status when you practice an art that you believe deserves a major cultural position can be more than a matter of frustration. It can produce fresh new work, as in "Sung With Words" (Stricker Street Records).

Dana Gioia attracted unusual attention in the niche genre of essays about poetry when he wrote "Can Poetry Matter?" for the Atlantic years ago and attracted a tsunami of responses.

Since then, he has been George W. Bush's director of the National Endowment for the Arts and took
The cover of the new CD, an outgrowth of a mutual interest in jazz and words.
advantage of the position to make poetry and other arts matter more than they normally do in public life. With this recorded collaboration with Helen Sung and her band, Gioia has revived the practice of poetry recited to jazz accompaniments.

New public outlets for poetry are a consistent interest of the poet/teacher that has received enthusiastic support from a productive young pianist/composer, working with an excellent band: John Ellis, saxophones; Ingrid Jensen, trumpet; Reuben Rogers, bass; Kendrick Scott, drums, and Samuel Torres, percussion.

"Sung With Words" is an attractive blend of spoken poetry, songs related to the original poems, and instrumental commentary on Gioia's verse. The poetry strikes the ear first— conversational, relaxed as it sits easily in the poet's voice — inviting us  to return imaginatively to a little mecca of West Coast jazz, Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse. "Meet Me at the Lighthouse," Gioia says, in an inviting tone at  quite a remove of hipness from Robert Frost's "The Pasture." With a sly hint of ushering us into something disreputable, he wants the listener to "savor the smoke of that sinister century."

An advocate of accentual verse, Gioia in such lines (here heightened by alliteration) signals his receptivity to the rhythmic impulses and variations of jazz players. The depth of the poetry is immaterial: most of it is on the slightly heightened street level of popular songs. The final song urges a friend to "say what you mean, and mean what you say." If you vocalize those words, you automatically come up with a pattern that Sung uses in her concluding piece, "Mean What You Say."

Dana Gioia continues with missionary zeal to advocate for poetry in the public square.
This is one of the most easy-to-assimilate parts of the collaboration. There's also the social commentary of "Pity the Beautiful," whose shorter lines similarly guide the musical expression. This poem also has a Frostian analogue, "Provide, Provide." Both poems outline the decline of glamour with age and neglect. The folksinger Dave Van Ronk long ago set to music Frost's poem ferociously.

Gioia sometimes slows the pace and lengthens the line, as he does in "The Stars on Second Avenue." This gives Sung the inspiration for a slow piece, and the opportunity for one of the featured singers (Jean Baylor) to display her casually appropriate phrasing and wistful tone.

In the other direction, Gioia channels a significant accentual-verse ancestor, John Skelton (1463-1529), with short rhyming lines that have come to be known as Skeltonics. There's a lot of literary sophistication in verse that proves to be quite immediate to the listener, an indication of how sensible this Gioia-Sung experiment is. Can jazz with poetry matter? Can poetry with jazz matter? Definitely, "Sung With Words" replies unpretentiously.

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