Review: POEMJAZZ feat. Robert Pinsky, Ben Allison, Dave Stryker and Steve Slagle

By: Becky Fine-Firesheets

Robert Pinsky’s poetry, especially when delivered in his baritone voice, is like silk.  But Pinsky (pictured left) didn’t just weave tapestries with his words at POEMJAZZ, the final WAMFEST event held on Thursday, October 25th.  Once he had lulled his audience to that sweet, silky spot, he would shout a graphic, realistic line into the microphone and everyone would jerk up on edge.  Then he’d easily bring them back down, only to jab them again, this time with a philosophical statement that hit just below the belly, a phrase that most likely churned there for days until its meaning finally clicked, a meaning completely unique to the listener, perhaps even opposite of what Pinsky intended.  But more than having his intentions completely understood, Pinsky seemed to want to be felt.

His delivery, phrasing, foot-tapping and hip-swaying all combined flawlessly with the impressive band backing him up, featuring jazz greats Ben AllisonSteve Slagle and Dave Stryker (pictured below).  Slagle’s saxophone squeals, winding solos and punctuated flute lines enhanced Pinsky’s sentiments, offering a new take or a different direction on the words without losing track of their original feel.  While Slagle often batted themes back and forth with Pinsky, Allison tended to actively play his upright bass throughout each piece, rooting the band in syncopated lines that mimicked Pinsky’s lilt.  Guitarist Stryker bounced back and forth between these two roles, sometimes offering strange yet beautiful solos, other times strumming chords that made the piece feel like a complete, composed song rather than a poem set to improvised music.

After an engaging hour of performance, Artist in Residence Wesley Stace joined the men onstage for a Q&A.  An interesting and thought-provoking conversation ensued.

“We’ve never played together before,” Allison explained.  “We, as musicians, share a common knowledge that we build from.”  He went on to discuss the experience of improvising and how listening closely to one another plays a major role.  Pinsky added that, to him, phrasing is the most important element of jazz.  Through paying attention to his poetic phrases, he can easily hear the music behind it all.

The attentive audience filled up Lenfell Hall with students even sitting on the floor.  While some people viewed the performance with a bit of skepticism, seemingly everyone took something valuable away from it; the chatter floating around afterwards was not just praise but also thoughtful extensions of the themes, ideas and emotions Pinsky so expertly planted inside of them.

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