Saturday, November 25, 2006

So There

So There
Steve Swallow with Robert Creeley
ECM XtraWatt 12

Poetic collaborations with jazz are often frustrating. Unless one is a passionate devotee of the reciting poet, they rarely withstand more than one or two spins. However, there is an overall musicality to Steve Swallow’s posthumous collaboration with Robert Creeley, So There that does indeed reward repeated listening.

The poet did record the vocal tracks in 2001, but his death prevented anticipated follow-up sessions. Combining the jazz of Steve Kuhn on piano and elements of classical chamber music with the Cikada String Quartet, Swallow worked for years to compose the appropriate musical accompaniment for Creeley’s recorded words. Unlike other jazz and poetry efforts, Swallow’s arrangements do not fall into the predictable format—poet recites, musicians play a few bars, poet recites again, etc—that characterize too much of the subgenre. Swallow’s music, by necessity written around the pre-existing Creeley tracks, serve to frame and support his words in a unified whole. As a result, the poet is often not heard until relatively late in a track, but usually to great effect.

For instance, in “Sufi Sam Christian” Creeley’s words are not heard until around the 2:25 minute mark, after the beautiful melancholy of Swallow’s bass solo and the mournful strings. When Creeley speaks in a soothing, world-weary voice: “Lift me into Heaven slowly, because my back’s sore, and my mind’s too thoughtful,” rather than jarring, it is a fitting conclusion to an elegant track.

Steve Kuhn, a frequent collaborator with Swallow, is also employed to good effect, bringing a light bluesy touch to tunes like “Later.” The overall tone of the CD is wistful, but not maudlin. Indeed there is a strong rhythmic drive to most of the tunes, like “Just in Time,” which artfully combines the jazz piano and bass duo with the string quartet.

There is humor of the unexpected too. “Riddle,” a Monkish sounding piece, showcases Kuhn solo, until Swallow’s bass introduces Creeley asking: “What did you throw it on the floor for? Who the Hell you think you are?” Through out So There, Creeley’s vocal tracks are seamlessly integrated, as on “Ambition,” where Kuhn’s piano perfectly echoes the poet’s staccato delivery.

So There is beautifully conceived and crafted. Creeley’s voice blends so effectively with Swallow’s music one has to concentrate to hear his words distinct from the whole. So There is a high water-mark for jazz and poetry, which should challenge future such collaborations with its refreshingly original conceptions.