For Benjamin Boone and the late, great Philip Levine, the poetry train keeps rolling
These are heady days for Benjamin Boone. As someone who was there at the beginning, I’m just so proud of him for “The Poetry of Jazz” project, the exquisitely rendered amalgamation of Boone’s music and Philip Levine’s words that has achieved international acclaim.
Pictured above: Philip Levine, left, and Benjamin Boone had a special chemistry that was captured in ‘The Poetry of Jazz’ series.
Yes, I like that word — amalgamation — because it suggests more than a simple sticking together or casual juxtaposition. Their collaboration is a much more intimate kind of mingling. Like two metals that become stronger when they are melted down and combined, Boone (and his fellow musicians) fortify Levine’s spoken performances in a way that make both seem more substantial.
The first “Poetry of Jazz” album was released last year, three years after the death of Levine — a Pulitzer Prize winner and Poet Laureate of the United States — at 87. Now the sequel has arrived. Volume 2’s official release date is Friday, Jan. 18. It will be feted at a big release party on Feb. 1.
In a far-reaching and moving interview, I dug deep with Boone, who wears a lot of hats (Fresno State professor, composer, ardent saxophonist, Fresno Philharmonic pre-concert lecturer, husband, father, lover of Ghana). I loved every minute.
Q: So, Ben, you and Phil (posthumously, of course), are back with Volume 2. Was there always a second album planned? Or was this one done on the strength of the first?
A: We never intended there to be a Volume 2. In fact, none of us could have predicted the reception of the initial release – it really exceeded our expectations and it sort of blows our minds that it’s gotten so many good reviews and so much exposure. But since it did do well, and people asked whether Phil recorded more of his poetry, and wanted to hear these remaining tracks, we decided to release them on “Volume Two.”
Q: I’ve written lots about you before, and there’s always a point in a story about an ongoing project like this when I struggle with how much background and context I should include for readers who haven’t been following it. I have to balance that with making things interesting for fans of yours who have been keeping up on the story. With that in mind, this question is for the first group: Give us a brief rundown — your one-minute sound bite, if you will — on how “The Poetry of Jazz” came to be.
A: I’m from North Carolina, so brevity isn’t my forte, but I’ll give it a try: Initial collaboration for a Fresno Filmworks fundraiser; people seemed to like it (including you in your review, Donald), so we recorded some of the tracks, then some more, then some more over the next three years – 29 total; jazz icons like Branford Marsalis said “yes” when asked if they would make appearances; Donald Brown agreed to produce it; it got several high-profile reviews and media stories; and so now we are releasing “Volume Two.’ How was that?
Q: I’m impressed. Volume 2 has a bit of a different feel than Volume 1. You described it to me as a little more “melancholy.” When I listened, I thought of the word “pensive.” Was that your intent?
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A: Well, it just turned out that way. When we chose tracks for the initial release, we made sure we changed feel and mood to create a dramatic arc that showed the diversity of Phil’s poetry. For Volume Two we didn’t have that luxury, and so it turns out that the poems are perhaps more introspective. That said, I am thrilled with the flow of the album – I think it works well in part because we included four instrumentals. Some of my favorite Levine poems are included, like “The Simple Truth,” “To Cipriano, In The Wind,” “Belle Isle, 1949,” “When the Shift Was Over,” and “Let Me Begin Again.”
Q: Why include those four instrumentals when there were none on the first album?
A: Good question! That goes back to your question a minute ago about whether we planned for a Volume 2. If we had, we would have included some of these instrumentals on the initial release. Instead, since we thought people would only get to hear one CD’s worth of material, we felt it should be tracks with Phil speaking. I happen to love the instrumentals on this album, and am thrilled we get to include those on Volume 2. I think they provide a contrast to the narrated tracks and help create an effective dramatic arc for the album. Listeners can also compare the instrumental versions with the shorter versions with Levine.
Q: Here’s your chance: Give a shout-out to the other musicians who contributed to both albums.
A: This project would never have happened without the talent of Valley musicians and engineers. The folks here are some of the best musicians in the world – and I really mean that. And they are amazingly generous with their time. Pianist/composer David Aus, bassist Nye Morton, and drummer Gary Newmark have been a part of this from the beginning, and then to vary the sound I added the late great drummer Brian Hamada, bassists Spee Kosloff and John Lauffenburger, pianist Craig von Berg, vocalist Karen Marguth, trumpeter Max Hembd, German violinist Stefan Poetzsch, and my two sons, Atticus and Asher, on French horn and trumpet. Vince Keenan helped edit and Eric Sherbon at Maximus did the recording. All of these are from the Valley except Stefan. It’s a Fresno project through and through. It is a true honor and I am humbled by the opportunity to collaborate with these amazing people – especially Phil.
Q: The first album got a lot of recognition, including a story on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” a glowing review in The Paris Review, and it was voted No. 3 Jazz Album of 2018 in DownBeat Readers Poll. Though the reviews were great, a common critical sentiment went along the lines of: “Wow, I didn’t think I was going to like this. I’m so glad I was wrong!” There seemed to be almost a fear among critics that they’d be subjected to some mediocre 1970s hippie-infused, spoken-word-music debacle — perhaps along the lines of William Shatner singing, that kind of thing. Going into the project with Phil, did you realize that the format of what you were trying to do might carry some baggage?
A: Ha! I’ve heard those William Shatner tracks. Do you think he meant them as a parody or do you think he thought they were OK? In any case, yes, I knew that the poetry and jazz genre had some baggage. A reporter asked me what poetry/jazz collaborations influenced me, and I answered that most of them did, but in an inverse fashion: I heard them and didn’t like them, and promised myself I wouldn’t release anything like that. Then I started to analyze why I didn’t like them, and it was because the band was reacting to surface-level action in the poem rather than the core emotional content. They also either sounded like books-on-tape or they obscured the words. To me, the only reason to have music and poetry together is if the music somehow enhances the experience and meaning of the poem. So that was the guiding principle throughout this process, and it caused me to approach the project a bit differently from others.
Q: In a fascinating essay/review in the online arts and literature journal “Blackbird,” T.R. Hummer writes that the music you composed is designed not to support a singer, as a lyricist would do, but rather a speaker. Hummer writes: “Therefore the problem was not to devise melodies for Levine’s poems but to create a context, a milieu in which the poems could live, and become — ideally, at least — even larger and richer and stranger than they are on the page, or, perhaps more accurately, so that they could be alive differently than on the page.”
Here’s the part of the essay that really grabbed me: “This kind of composition is a different art from songwriting or setting. So far it has no name of its own. I have labored to produce one that will do it justice, without success.”
To which I thought: Wow. First of all, you’re doing something that isn’t even named. How cool is that? Second, it made me wonder: What is it about your relationship with Phil and his poetry that let you forge new ground?
A: Wow. Well, let me say first that I learned a great deal about poetry and the interaction of poetry and music from Hummer’s brilliant essay. It goes into concepts and ideas I had never been exposed to, and it explained concepts in ways I never had imagined. So I thank him for that. I highly recommend any of your readers interested in a deep-dive check out this essay.
Now to try and answer your question, which I am not sure I can do. Hmm. Well, I think Hummer is articulating in much more eloquent terms what I was trying to say a minute ago about how I viewed the project – that I wanted the music to provide depth for the poetry – space in which it was allowed to resonate. I think that is what he means when he said “a milieu in which the poems could live… and become… alive differently than on the page.” I wasn’t trying to do anything new; I just did what I thought served each poem the best. If the experience isn’t better when someone hears it with the music, then why have it?
In fact, for one of the poems – I can’t recall which – Phil sent an email that simply said, “This one needs music.” He had never read that poem in public before and at the time it hadn’t been published. But the music gave it a home. There were also a few poems he suggested, but when I tried to write music for them, it didn’t add anything, so we didn’t record those. For a few tracks, like “Saturday Sweeping” and “When the Shift Was Over,” David Aus’ great compositions seemed to work better than mine so we used those. Other contributing factors might be that my older brother, Joseph Boone, is an English professor at USC, and so I’ve always been interested in literature and the musicality of the spoken word – my dissertation was a musical analysis of spoken English. I’ve written musicals, operas, and songs. I also had the privilege of being able to work with Phil for several years, so I had the luxury of getting to know his voice really well. Whatever the reason, I think Phil knew I loved words, and his poetry, and that helped us forge a connection.
Q: We’re friends on Facebook, and one thing I’ve learned from your posts is that jazz musicians LOVE to take photos with other jazz musicians. With this project, you got to hang out with a lot of great players. Is there one experience that really stands out?
A: You are right about that! It’s certainly a thing. And this project has certainly opened many doors, and that has been terrifying but also fun. A few scenes just passed before me: hanging out with saxophonist Kenny Garrett while he was working on his “Do Your Dance” album in New York; using John Coltrane’s personal microphone; meeting Branford Marsalis on the coast.
But topping these are my experiences with Phil, and next to that drummer Brian Hamada, who is well-known, but could have been world famous had he chosen to follow that path. His musicianship and Zen-like calm and intensity permeate this disc and it was a lifetime honor to have known him and to have been able to make music with him. One story – we were recording the instrumental to “They Feed They Lion,” and we finished a take and everyone but Brian was really happy with it. We listened back and he shook his head. He burst our bubble and said it would be great for a live performance, but we needed to stop thinking like that, that we needed to be more precise and intense rather than loud. He even insisted he cut out the long drum solo I had written for him at the end because he said it would detract from the flow. A drummer give up a feature solo? That was Brian. That’s one of many lessons I learned from him. And from Phil. We all miss them and their wisdom so much.
Q: You are “riding the poetry train” now, as you told me, with another similar jazz-and-poetry recording project in the works, this one with other famous poets and musicians. You just got back from New York recording it. You worked with some great poets, including two (Tyehimba Jess and Edward Hirsch) with Levine connections. What was it like to do this kind of work with poets who weren’t Phil?
A: That was a cool and telling experience. I am so lucky these poets wanted to collaborate. All five have a voice and message that need to be heard. They are all world class, and I admire them all immensely, and it was a thrill. But it also made me appreciate Phil and his poetry and his reading even more. His sense of flow is right with the music, and it is like he is a member of the band. Comfortable in every way. He had been a jazz fan all of his life, having gone to school with jazz greats in Detroit like Kenny Burrell, so he knew the music.
When you hear Phil it sounds like he is speaking to you and only you. It is comfortable, even if the topic might be challenging. And the musicians all had played with each other for years. That wasn’t the case in New York, we were all meeting for the first time, and some of the poets weren’t regular jazz listeners, so it was a great but different experience. It made me appreciate the arts community here even more.
Q: I can’t let this interview go by without a couple of questions about your recent lengthy stay in Ghana. I interviewed you by phone last year when you were at the University of Ghana on your Fulbright fellowship, and something you talked about has stuck with me ever since. You described a designated area on campus where people gathered to do spiritual things. It sounded wide-ranging: You could hear groups singing Protestant hymns, chanting from the Koran, exorcising demons, and more. You walked by this spot every day, and it really touched you. “There is something very mystical about that field,” you told me. “I’m a skeptic about everything except that human beings will never know everything, but just the sound of hearing all those people praying is very meaningful.”
I guess my question is: Do you miss that field?
A: Oh, wow, you just took my breath away. I wasn’t expecting this, and the sounds of the people in that field just came into my inner ear. So many different sounds combining to make a beautiful whole. You made me feel the moist air and see the bright stars and so I felt a huge sense of transcendence, but also loss. Loss because that is now a removed experience, and loss because in contrast I see so much anger, aggression and lack of tolerance here. The violent crime rate is Ghana is much lower than in Fresno, and they have a vibrant democracy. We returned to Fresno in mid-August and readjusting was really difficult the first couple of months. Music was intertwined in the fabric of life in Ghana, part of just living, and the culture was more communal. Peaceful coexistence and tolerance are the ideals by which they live. When you meet a Ghanaian they say, “Akwabaa,” which literally means “welcome,” but it is really an invitation to share space/being with the person. It is a wonderful way to truly “live” and a mind-blowing place to make music.
Q: Did your time in Ghana change you? Did it change your music?
A: Profoundly. I think I am more content, more peaceful, I listen better, and have a much greater understanding of the world and how it works. I also see that while Ghana is poor it is invaluably rich. Musically, I hear layers of rhythm I didn’t know existed. How that will reveal itself in my composition and performance I don’t yet know. I can’t think of a non-cliché way to do it yet. But it is percolating.
Q: OK, we’ll wind down with some important basics. It used to be that you’d walk into a record store on album release day, plop down your money and take the music home. Now there are more choices. Give us a rundown on how you can buy or listen to “The Poetry of Jazz: Volume 2.”
A: Origin Records is releasing the album and so it is being distributed to all retailers and all digital platforms. So people can find it on the Origin Records site, Amazon, Target, Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes and all similar places. If someone wants a personalized autographed CD and/or hi-res download, then search “Bandcamp Benjamin Boone.” Or come to the concert Feb 1, and the band will all sign the CDs.
Q: Tell us more about that CD concert release party.
I am so excited about it, and I hope your readers can come. When “The Poetry of Jazz” was released last March, I was still in Ghana, so I wasn’t able to celebrate with my collaborators and the folks in Fresno who had supported the project. So I am thrilled to be able to do that this time, and also to take the opportunity to honor the contributions of Phil and Brian, who are no longer with us. The rest of the collaborators I mentioned earlier will be there, and we will play a few tracks from the CD, have some guest poets read poems from the CD, perform the instrumentals, and perform live with some poets.
The concert is on Friday, Feb. 1. I am excited we are doing it at California Arts Academy Severance Theater (1401 N Wishon Ave, Fresno), because Phil and I performed there at the Rogue Festival several years ago. It’s a great space, and more intimate than a concert hall. The admission will be $15 and drinks, food and CDs will be available.
Q: Finally: Let’s say your present-day self could go back to your few-years-ago self on that night of your first collaboration with Phil at the Tower Theatre when “The Poetry of Jazz” was born, just before the concert started, and you told yourself what was ahead. How do you think your Tower Theatre incarnation — who, by the way, was quite nervous because Phil didn’t show up for rehearsal or sound check and barely made it in time for the performance — would have responded?
A: That is so difficult. Well, I would have been terrified at how little hair my future self had, and how many wrinkles. I’m using humor as a defensive mechanism and stalling for time, which I guess is telling. Are you sure you aren’t going to fill in for Terry Gross next week, Donald? Hmmm, well, I guess it is possible I could have believed my future self, and if so, I’d probably have more hair and fewer wrinkles now, because I wouldn’t have doubted myself so much and been so hard on myself. Most artists are insecure on some level, and I certainly am.
This reminds of what happened when saxophone superstar Chris Potter recorded his track for volume one. He would play an amazing solo, but be dissatisfied, ask if he could go practice 30 minutes, then try it again, then be dissatisfied, go off and practice and then try it yet again. He finally said, “Well, I guess that’s the best I can do today.”
I said, “Chris, its fabulous! Are you ever satisfied with your playing?”
He said, “No, but that’s OK, because then I know what I need to practice the next day to get better.” So maybe the project wouldn’t have been as good if I hadn’t been as anxious about it. Hard question, Donald!
Q: OK, and a final finally: Is there anything you’d like to add about this amazing and wonderful experience? I’ll let you have the last word.
A: That is very generous. I’ll tell my kids I got the last word and see if they will allow that, too! Well, firstly, this wouldn’t have happened without Fresno Filmworks and the encouragement of people like you, Donald. The positive response to the project is what propelled it forward. And of course, Fresno State’s College of Arts and Humanities Dean’s Council provided support, and I’ve gotten some research grants to help defray the massive cost of the production, and all the local musicians generously donated their time and talent. Many tracks were improvised on the spot, like “The Conductor of Nothing” and “Ordinary Morning,” and so these musicians made magic happen. I’m not sure this project would have happened if I’d lived in San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York, because it took a community to make this happen, and that is one of the many great assets of Fresno. And you, Donald, have played a huge role in helping create that sense of community, through your work at the Bee and now with the Munro Review, which I hope everyone reading this will support so that we can continue that sense of connectedness and awareness.
So, the last word is, Donald, “Thanks!”