TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says jazz and poetry are meeting on record these days as in the beatnik 1950s. Poet Philip Levine recorded with saxophonist Benjamin Boone. Bassist Ron Carter recorded an album with poet Danny Simmons. Kevin says clarinetist Ben Goldberg and poet Dean Young have worked out a new way to unite jazz and poetry.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEN GOLDBERG'S "DEMONIC POSSESSION IS 9/10THS THE LAW")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: So clarinetist Ben Goldberg and his producer David Breskin had an odd idea, spurred by their love of Dean Young's poetry. The plan was Ben would compose a dozen pieces inspired by specific Young poems. Then Goldberg, trumpeter Ron Miles and guitarist Nels Cline would record those compositions. While they recorded a piece, Dean Young in the studio would write a new poem in response. The printed poetry and the recorded music are all in the mini box "Good Day For Cloud Fishing."
(SOUNDBITE OF BEN GOLDBERG SONG, "GOOD DAY FOR CLOUD FISHING")
WHITEHEAD: Taking inspiration from poetry gives composers lots of options. They can shadow a poem's rhythms or hint at its mood or explore shifting tones of voice the way the poet does. The trio excel at that. Nels Cline, for instance, exploits different guitar voices and volume levels, and clarinetist Ben Goldberg has his other, very low voice - the big contra alto clarinet.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEN GOLDBERG SONG, "CORPSE POSE")
WHITEHEAD: To walk you through one example of how the process plays out, first, Dean Young wrote the poem "A Rhythmia," and then Ben Goldberg wrote his piece "A Rhythmia" for the trio. Here's the poem.
A mallet stops a horse race. There is a dwarf in my face. I rewind emptiness. It rains in my raincoat. A glance of glitter dislodges every cornea.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEN GOLDBERG SONG, "A RHYTHMIA")
WHITEHEAD: Listening to the trio record that, not knowing what poem inspired it, Dean Young wrote a new one - "Ornithology." It starts like this.
"See that smoke? It's a person. See that funny stick thing? That'd be me, lucky to be wherever here is - me and my spine; me and my billion neurons," unquote.
The playfulness on both sides of the equation makes this mixed media project work. It's an elegant little zigzag from literature to music and back again, a dialogue between aesthetic worlds. It works also because the players, like the poet, are so attentive to texture and surfaces, to the almost tactile nature of sound.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEN GOLDBERG SONG, "SUB CLUB PUNCH CARD")
WHITEHEAD: Dean Young's poems here are short. Their musical analogues run anywhere from 80 seconds to nine minutes, but even the longer tracks have a compact feel stemming from the stripped-down instrumentation. Clarinetist Goldberg mostly gives the short solos to the other guys. They all do a little light overdubbing without wrecking the intimate effect.
"Good Day For Cloud Fishing," the album and the poetry collection, demonstrates that creative people can always find new ways to generate material. With those fresh Dean Young poems in hand, Ben Goldberg could start the process all over again.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEN GOLDBERG SONG, "ANT-HEAD SUTURES")
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and The Audio Beat. He reviewed "Good Day For Cloud Fishing," the new CD by clarinetist Ben Goldberg that combines jazz and poetry. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interviews this week with guitarist James Burton, who played with Elvis, Sinatra, Merle Haggard and other iconic performers, or with journalist Ben Westhoff about the synthetic opioid fentanyl, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEN GOLDBERG SONG, "A RHYTHMIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.