Gregor’s Bed – What Is The Beautiful?

Recent Discoveries From the Realm of the Experimental and Avant-Garde

Album: What Is The Beautiful? (Cuneiform Records, 2011)

Artists: The Claudia Quintet + 1 (John Hollenbeck, drums; Drew Gress, bass; Matt Moran, vibraphone; Ted Reichman, accordion; Chris Speed, clarinet and tenor sax; Matt Mitchell, piano)

?The narrowing line.
Walking on the burning ground.
The ledges of stone.
Owlfish wading near the horizon.
Unrest in the outer districts.

from the poem ?What Is The Beautiful?? by Kenneth Patchen

The Thoughtful Beatnik’s Chamber Jazz and Spoken Word Ensemble

You’re in a coffeehouse in L.A. in the late 1950s. It’s dark, and there are candles on the rickety round wooden tables. The place smells of coffee and lemon oil. A poet in black-framed glasses mounts the stage, poem in hand. He’s joined by a handful of jazz musicians. They start up, tripping out notes redolent of Coltrane, Coleman, and Davis. Your heart swells with the sweet elation of freedom communicated by the clarinet and drum kit.

The tracks on What Is The Beautiful? are extremely evocative of this segue in American cultural history. The brilliant poetry of Kenneth Patchen arrived simultaneously with the beat generation?and now his poetry recalls the era without being beat poetry per se (his spoken word experiments actually inspired beat poetry performances). The music of New York’s Claudia Quintet, though nodding to late ?50s free jazz, is a new mode of free jazz that carries with it whiffs of the serious avant-garde.

The album was recorded live, so we can aurally witness the symbiosis among the players. There’s a startling degree of originality and intuitive responsiveness among the musicians, who are also highly aware of the words spoken and the intonations used by the speakers. But none of it feels studied; the band delivers refreshing summer showers of exquisite tones, coming in slow pulses like waves.

To mark the late Patchen’s 100th birthday in 2011, the University of Rochester commissioned the Claudia Quintet, led by percussionist John Hollenbeck, to set some of Patchen’s poems to new music.

Performing poetry to musical accompaniment is tricky; it either comes together or it doesn’t, and no amount of deliberate preparation can steer a bad project straight or derail a solid one. When I fulfilled one of my bucket list items by assembling a group of jazz musicians for a spoken word event, we were all amazed at how we quickly and easily it came together. We tried to repeat the process the following year with a different set of poems and music, and the whole thing fell flat.

You just can’t call it. So if the Claudia Quintet has any ambitions of doing more Patchen in a similar vein, I would urge them to think again, because the odds of putting together an album this phenomenal are not likely repeatable.

Two of the most important male singers in improvised music, Kurt Elling and Theo Bleckmann, lend their subtly exquisite talents to the album. Each singer brings out different aspects of Patchen’s art: Theo channels the refined elegance (?Beautiful You Are?), while Kurt portrays the rough and crude realism that refuses to take itself seriously (for example, his great working-class accent on ?Job?).

Patchen’s unusual combination of concrete and metaphysical poetry moves you from space to space, examining and questioning each conceptual locale. In the avant-garde tradition (if we’re permitted to embrace such an oxymoron), Kenneth Patchen’s poetry is still ahead of the times. So is the music of the Claudia Quintet.

I love how they got their name. A cute, vivacious girl named Claudia approached them after a gig, gushing about how great they were and swearing she was going to come see them everywhere they played. They never saw her again, but from time to time they would claim they had, bolstering their occasionally buffeted egos by pretending that Claudia was still gaga over their music. Claudia was at once the symbol of avant-garde music’s limited appeal and the promise that deserved adulation was just around the corner. I can’t think of a better person for whom to name an avant-garde jazz band.

Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.