Thursday, March 13, 2008

Jazz, Poetry and Sam Sadigursky

I had actually heard of Sam Sadigursky when pianist Phil Aaron mentioned his upcoming gig to me. He appears on Peter Robbins’ Centric recording, which I reviewed last year among a handful of projects from rising stars on the modern edge of the New York jazz circuit. I was not familiar with his Words Project. Sadigursky is in fact one of the most highly regarded of a young generation of composer/performers on the New York jazz scene, playing such venues as Joe’s Pub, Jazz Gallery and Cornelia Street Café and releasing challenging new works that bridge music and literature. His 2007 Words Project (on New Amsterdam Records) brings together his ambition to compose music for the talented singers in his realm while allowing the words of modern poets to retain their centrality to the final work.

Jazz and poetry seem to have a natural affinity, from the work of the late Steve Lacy to Patricia Barber’s Metamorphises and locally from Prudence Johnson’s Millay Project and the recent spoken word/music presentation of the words of Sterling Plumpp at the Center for Independent Artists to the weekly open poetry night at St. Paul’s Artists Quarter and monthly performances of Soul Café. However, poetry as inspiration or presented in tandem with jazz is more common than the efforts to write new compositions using poetry as lyric to be sung. An exception is Fred Hersch’s acclaimed Leaves of Grass project. With a similar goal in mind, New York-based multi-reedman Sadigursky set out to identify modern poems that he could present musically. “I have to confess that I never have been a serious reader of poetry before starting this project,” Sam told MPR’s Maryann Sullivan (Jazz Connections). “I was playing in groups with singers and wanted to write materials for these groups. Much modern vocal material is wordless and I wanted to write something that incorporated words, and I did not feel confident enough to write the words myself, so I turned to poetry.”

After combing through volumes of poems at the Brooklyn Public Library and then turning his search to the Internet, Sam ultimately identified ten short works that suited his vision—words “with a certain sense of mystery” that grabbed his attention within the opening lines, poems that were easily understood and accessible. Sadigursky also regarded this project as a means of connecting with his own roots, as he elected to include works from Russian and Polish poets (Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelshtam, Czeslaw Milosz) after reading about the history of Eastern Europe and the experiences of families much like his own. With the exception of one piece presented as spoken word, the composer sought to use the poet’s words as if working with a lyricist, writing “songs in song forms.” The poem, the words were to be the guideposts to the music, not the other way around. Confessing to being “a closet singer” himself, Sadigursky found himself singing while composing, making adjustments later when he identified the vocalist who fit his vision for the work.

For the recording, he chose vocalists Monika Heidemann, Heather Masse, Becca Stevens, and (on the final track) Noam Weinstein. Heidemann, he notes, is an accomplished vocalist as well as composer busy with her own projects in New York. Recent New School graduate Becca Stevens also composes and leads her own ensembles, while Heather Masse tours with a bluegrass band, the Whaling Jennies. The three women all come to this project with considerable jazz experience as well as classical training (Heidemann and Masse from the New England Conservatory of Music). The ringer was Noam Weinstein, not known for jazz interpretation and the lone male voice.

The result—The Words Project-- is a triumph of concept, composition and execution. The CD a series of medium to longish tracks (running about five to nine minutes each) filled with haunting voices, often dark, sometimes playful melodies, and overall a stunning marriage of word and sound. Sadigursky, although describing his performing role as nonessential (“just icing on the cake”), handles an arsenal of reeds ranging from plaintive soprano sax and emotive flute to deeply melodic bass clarinet and multi-persona tenor sax; Pete Rende provides exquisite piano throughout as well as well placed touches of accordion and pump organ. Bassist Eivind Opsvik’s bass and Tommy Crane’s percussion support both singers and the rest of the instruments with great empathy and personal invention, while guitarist Nate Radley and cellist Robert Burkhart, in smaller roles, bring additional color and texture to a multi-hued whole. And in keeping with the composer’s vision, the voices of the poets are paramount, each an elegant match to words and the melodies, and no track more splendidly executed than Czeslaw Milosz’ “Love” in which Becca Stevens and Monika Heidemann sing as mirror images, a delayed echo. Other tracks include a playful tango interpretation of Penelope Shutter’s “In the Kitchen” (complete with overdubbed accordion); the appropriately dark reading of Sylvia Plath’s “You’re” featuring cello, bass clarinet and explosive percussion; Opsvik’s fluttering ascents and descents on Donald Justice’s “Epitaph for a Pair of Old Shoes,” and the jarring male voice in female perspective that closes the recording, Noam Weinstein’s vocals on “After Love” (Maxim Kumin).

Sam is in town, albeit without the Words Project ensemble. A Jerome Foundation grant brought him from New York, NY to New York Mills, MN, as an artist in residence to the community. He’s provided clinics in schools and concerts in town. Now he’ll be in Minneapolis with the Phil Aaron Trio at the Dakota Saturday night, part of the Late at the Dakota series. When he lived in Los Angeles, Phil used to play with Sam’s dad. Sam remembers Phil from 20 years ago—when Sam was just a youngster. Now he’ll share the stage with dad’s old pal. It won’t be original music scoring the lyrics of acclaimed international poets. It will be arrangements and originals from the best of Minneapolis and the best of New York. It will be the poetry of jazz.