Sunday, December 16, 2007

Jazz Meets Poetry at Soul Cafe'

A few years ago I attended my first evening with Soul Café. I probably would have paid little attention to a Sunday night concert at the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Loring Park, but the jazz trio included pianist Laura Caviani and the flyer indicated that the music would be combined with poetry. I figured it would be worthwhile for the piano alone.

I’ve been a faithful follower of Soul Café ever since, “faithful” in the secular sense. While the supporting venue since the ensemble’s debut has been the church, the programs offer eclectic combinations of jazz and poetry, feeding the spirit and soul, certainly, but in a thoroughly ecumenical, open-to-all atmosphere. Intrigued by the whole idea, I spent some time interviewing the musicians and posting articles on Jazz Police (see for a fairly comprehensive article about Soul Café), and attend their monthly offering as often as I can. Through Soul Café, I first encountered the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon. And through Soul Café also first encountered the marvelous music of alto saxophonist Brad Holden and guitarist/leader Steve Blons, who when joined with Caviani create harmonies that soar.

There’s always a theme or juxtaposition of composer and poet—merging Rogers & Hart with Neruda, Beat poets and Thelonious Monk, e.e. cummings and Wayne Shorter, themes of Light and Darkness. Sometimes the poets are local children reading from their own works; and often there is a guest musician or accomplished poet. Tonight, a few days before the winter solstice, the theme was “A Little Night Music”; the poet a Methodist cleric named Jan Richardson who writes about loneliness, loss and faith. The music was more upbeat while still honoring the theme— “A Night in Tunisia” (rarely played by such a small ensemble but perhaps the trio format allows the listener to focus more on the melodies and structure?); “Monk’s Dream” (no Caviani set is complete without Monk); “Night and Day” (the darkness lifted by a samba rhythm), “Autumn in New York” (gilded by Brad Holden’s alto sax weaving in and out with Steve Blon’s guitar chords); “Stella by Starlight” (deconstructed to the degree that I never figured it out); and a closing, delightfully obtuse “Silent Night” (complete with a straight final verse of community sing-along).

Jazz and poetry have enjoyed a long association, from the presentations of the late Steve Lacy to Fred Hersch’s Leaves of Grass project to Patricia Barber’s recent reinvention of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (on Mythologies), and locally from Prudence Johnson’s Millay Project to the weekly open poetry night at St. Paul’s Artists Quarter.

The intersection of jazz and literature is the subject of at least one journal (Brilliant Corners) and a number of books, including several by Brilliant Corners’ editor Sascha Feinstein. Feinstein edited the recently released Ask Me Now: Conversations on Jazz and Literature (Indiana University Press, 2007) and authored a collection of jazz-themed poetry, Misterioso (Copper Canyon Press, 2000). Like Laura Caviani, it seems Feinstein can not help but connect the music of Thelonious Monk to poetry…. which, with its emphasis on time and cadence in a context of free expression, indeed seems to be the literary equivalent of jazz.

You can experience Soul Café throughout much of the year, on the third Sunday of the month at 7 pm at the Hennepin Avenue Methodist Church on Groveland (in Loring Park near the Hennepin/I-94 exit). You can also enjoy two recordings of their efforts, Soul Café and Jazz & Poetry.