Jane Ira BLOOM: Wild LInes: Improvising Emily Dickinson – Outline 143, 55:41, 61:48 (9/8/17) ****:
(Jane Ira Bloom; soprano/ Dawn Clement; piano/ Mark Helias; Bass/ Bobby Previte; drums/ Deborah Rush; voice)
Superb compositions for jazz quartet inspired by verses of Emily Dickinson, with ten readings integrated into alternative versions.
The idea of a modern jazz quartet taking its inspiration from the poetry of Emily Dickinson is ingenious but not obvious. By the standards of her poet-contemporaries she was deliberately unmusical–staccato, dissonant and ironical–features more readily associated with modernistic poetry or even bebop. To these features, we might add a hidden strength and a playful contrariness. Taken together, we have a banner for a band that plays serious original music without undue concern for categories or genre expectations. So what can we expect from a double cd dedicated to the Concord Solitary?
The answer is to be found in a appropriately divided project that amounts to a musical encounter with the spirit of Dickenson. The first disc features 15 works (and oddly, one standard) that are titled after her poems or famous lines within. The second has unadorned reading (mercifully no singing) of the poems now attached to the musical charts, followed by improvised treatments. This allows the band to reimagine the tunes while negotiating the exacting compositions.
On the purely instrumental versions, a number of Emily’s poetic virtues hover over the quartet as general instructions. Clarity first. Nothing is half-finished or incompletely articulated. The kind of expressive wailing which is the regrettable legacy of Coltrane’s later soprano playing is not to be found here. Not that there isn’t emotion in Bloom’s tone. In comparison to the other strictly soprano master Steve Lacy, who attained a uniquely neutral tone, she is capable of warmth and animation. Secondly, attentiveness is evident everywhere. The quartet is always listening, alert to changes, nuances, and silences. A key figure here is the drummer, Bobby Previte. Famous for kicking up a righteous storm on so many of his own projects, he prefers to work the toms and shun the busy stick of the boppers. His playing is melodically compelling and perfectly in accord with the muscular undercurrent of bassist Mark Helias. Thirdly, one feels an almost transcendental calm over the whole session which fits the irenic nature of both Poet and Musician who have both found the center of their respective art forms.
I lived on Dread —
To Those who know
The stimulus there is
In Danger — Other impetus
Is numb — and vitalless —
As ’twere a Spur — upon the Soul —
A Fear will urge it where
To go without the spectre’s aid
Were challenging Despair.
This confession, articulated as “Dangerous Times” by the quartet aims for posture of bracing self-examinations. The soliloquizing gets by without much harmonic support and no excessive notes. It is a terse improvisation which, to my ears, conjures a spell against danger (relying on the tom-toms for most of the magic), drawing on traditions of prayer and lamentation filtered through a free-jazz sensibility. “Mind Gray River” derives from the well known. “I felt a Cleaving in My Mind- As if my Brain had split” read in a bizarrely teasing way by Deborah Rush (whose readings are high on theatricality, undoing some of the aloof and hard-won detachment which are Dickensonian trademarks). The saxophonist makes peace with the two chord form which wilfully does not arrive, instead following, meanderingly, two distinct paths. There is much beauty in the bass dialog. This duo treatment with voiceover reappears on Say More, in which “etiquettes, embarrassment, and awes” are pondered in a pulseless, fragmented way. This sounds like completely improvised music and fails to find a footing; a fragment of self-examination which never gets beyond a sigh.
There are straightforward swinging tunes which engage the entire quartet without the self-conscious baggage of “acciduous spiders,” “phantom Battlements,” and “gorgeous Nothings”. The instrumental (redundant on disc two) Big Bill is the best of these. “Singing the Triangle” is another. On both, we recognize that Dawn Clements is a first-rate pianist, equally adept at both backing and fleet and stylish soloing. She handles the tricky bebop accents of “Alone & In A Circumstance” and can also work floating McCoy Tyner grooves or spare Paul Bley obliquities. In fact, she is ideally suited to this open and exploratory notion. I hurriedly set off to examine other recordings she has been involved in as this was my first exposure to this fine musician.
Oddly, both discs end with an a capella treatment of the standard “It’s Easy to Remember”, played straight and affectingly. It might seem to some as an admission that the poetic framework of the album was too thin and might as well be discarded. I prefer to see it is as the composer’s humble measuring of her own tunes against a truly great standard.
This is a bold and rewarding project by a musician who is nudging her way into great-composer status in the course of a long and fruitful career. I would guess that jazz crowd will be puzzled by uses of the enigmatic verse, while the poet crowd will be charmed by the idea if not the readings. Fans of Mark Helias and Bobby Previte will readily appreciate that this is more evidence of their preeminence in the field of creative improvised music.