I didn't have a proper appreciation for On the Road until I saw a video excerpt of its author, Jack Kerouac, reading an excerpt of the novel on Steve Allen's variety show. Allen made a habit of interviewing guests while vamping at the piano. Turns out it was a perfect setting for Kerouac, and he used it. [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzCF6hgEfto[/youtube]
Words and music have a history together, as Ben Allison reminded me recently. And it's a continuation of that history that Allison, a native of New Haven and one of the hottest bassists around, is going to do this week with none other than Robert Pinsky.
Pinsky is well known as a former poet laureate of the United States, a frequent commentator on PBS on poetry, art and culture, and a translator of Dante's Inferno. He is generally a spokesman for poetry though he once lent his voice to an audio book of a biography of legendary pitcher Sandy Koufax.
More importantly, at least where this latest project is concerned, is Pinsky's background as a musician. He once said that while he was translating the Inferno, he'd take a break to blow a few licks on the tenor saxophone, which always sat by his desk.
"Words and rhythm together are as old as words are," Allison says. "But over time, the poetry has been separated from the performance and Robert is doing what he can to bring that back."
Allison met Pinsky some years ago at the Arts & Ideas Festival, where Allison has played many times. Its director, Mary Lou Aleskie, introduced them with the hope that something would spark between them. He really didn't know Pinsky or his work, but Allison had worked with poets in the past. Just before Allison was set to go on stage, they improvised a little set and knew something sparked.
"His poems have a kind of Americanness to them," Allison. "It's very New Jersey, lots of subtle and not-so-subtle elements that I love. I'm a big fan of high art and low art and everything in between. Simple words carry a lot of meaning with Robert."
Allison is no stranger to poetry. His mother is an English teacher. His brother is a poet. But the musicality of poetry escaped him. It wasn't until he started working with Pinsky that he realized that poetry had to be performed to really come alive.
"It's like reading a screenplay or watching the movie," he says. There's really only one way it's meant to be.
Just before our conversation, Allison testified before the U.S. Congress on the unfairness of royalties. Currently, radio stations pay songwriters for the rights to broadcast their music, but they do not pay the performers who made the recordings.
He wrote on his blog after testifying: "What we’re talking about here is whether people believe that music has value – that after all the blood, sweat and tears that American musicians pour into their craft, they should be afforded the same rights enjoyed by musicians throughout the rest of the developed world."
Amen to that.
Click here to hear Pinsky read "Samurai Song." Samurai Song
Then play the video below to hear the same poem with Allison's group.
IF YOU GO: What: The Ben Allison Band with Robert Pinsky When: 8 p.m., June 27 Where: Morse Recital Hall, 470 College St. Tickets: $35-$45 Info: artidea.org
Why are we doing this? Click here to find out more.