Percaso 19

Mixing jazz with poetry probably reached its zenith in the beatnik era, with such hip versifiers as Langston Hughes (with Charles Mingus) and Jack Kerouac (with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims) recording with instrumental accompaniment.

Since that time, the concept has been tried with various degrees of success by musicians as different as Julius Hemphill, Steve Lacy, Steve Swallow and Don Byron. Most attempts have been less than triumphant, as the portentousness of the words either deadens the music or the vigor of the instrumental sounds buries the poetry.

Swiss saxophonist Christoph Gallio has tried a different approach. For a start Gallio, who would probably bristle at being called a jazzman rather than a European improviser, has created an instrumental setting for a small chamber jazz group made up of his alto and soprano saxophones, Thomas Eckert’s clarinet and bass clarinet and Marino Pliakas’ acoustic classical guitar.

Text is made up of the words of French-American poet Robert Filliou (1926 - 1987), a member of the irreverent Fluxus movement and a follower of Tibetan Buddhism. Although Filliou considered words and language an artist’s primary material, the poems used here are short — mere haiku length — and reproduced in 23 tracks that range from 18 seconds to little more than a minute. Instrumentals make up the other 13 tracks, which considering the entire disc clocks in at a tich over 42 minutes, makes the results even less than minimalist.

Classically trained mezzo-soprano Sarah Maurer takes the primary role using her lightly-accented voice to alternately speak, sing or dramatize the English words, which sometimes offer little more than one pithy thought. Around her the instrumentalists create breezy backing which seems to take more from baroque and other earlier chamber musics than pure improv.

The problem with this approach is that the entire structure rises or falls on the strength of the individual poems, which to be frank, often seems to promise more profundity than they deliver. Filliou’s creations, at least in this case, are shaped around word play, irony and often the reiteration of the obvious. On the printed page, perhaps, bookended by other verses, the triviality of many of these thoughts wouldn’t be as apparent. But recorded, Maurer arching tones promise wisdom that a close listen to the words doesn’t reward.

More dividends appear on the remaining tunes where the mezzo’s wordless tones, mumbles, rambles, sighs and repetitions are mixed with extended instrumental techniques. You can then appreciate the laid-back, protracted reed explorations indulged in by Eckert and Gallio — Pliakas confines himself to accompaniment — but then the whole point of including the poetry in the first place seems to be lost.

Gallio obviously thinks enough of Filliou’s work to have already written and had recorded a session of piano music honoring him in 1992. This time out, though, like other attempts at multi-media, the intent of mixing French-American, Japanese-influenced poetry with Swiss-composed or improvised music, appears to have been lost in translation.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Chocho 2. Te 3. Inù 4. [blank] 5. [blank] 6. Arùku 7. [blank] 8. Kyodai 9. Aburá 10. [blank] 11. [blank] 12. Pan 13. Yabá-jin 14. [blank] 15. Albert 16. [blank] 17. [blank] 18. Tsukaisugíru 19. Hanno 20. [blank] 21. Kawaíi 22. [blank] 23. O 24. Atsumáru 25. [blank] 26. [blank] 27. Dan-dán 28. Omóu 29. [blank] 30. Chokustetsú-no* 31. [blank] 32. Ana 33. Yami 34. [blank] 35. [blank] 36. Zutzu+nerú

Personnel: Thomas Eckert (clarinet and bass clarinet); Christoph Gallio (soprano and alto saxophones); Marino Pliakas (guitar); Sarah Maurer (mezzo-soprano) and guest Peter Schärli (trumpet and flugelhorn)*