Erika Dagnino/George Haslam/Stefano Pastor/Steve Waterman

Narcéte
SLAM 542

By Ken Waxman

Mixing jazz with poetry or prose has been attempted almost from the music’s beginnings, reaching an apogee in the ‘50s when a clutch of writers, including Jack Kerouac and Langston Hughes, recorded with instrumental accompaniment. But reciting words alongside improvised music isn’t the same as blending the two forms. Only a few of these efforts, most notably The New York Art Ensemble’s “Black Dada Nihilismus” and Charles Mingus’ “Scenes in the City” are wholly satisfying. Rather than being jazz with spoken word, these two were jazz and spoken word, with the speaker’s cadences intertwined among the music.

Narcéte isn’t in that category despite the players’ qualifications. Erika Dagnino, who wrote the 10 selections, is an Italian author of nine books of poetry and three of prose, and has performed alongside musicians such as saxophonist Ras Moshe. Italian Stefano Pastor, an award-winning violinist who has performed with pianist Borah Bergman, also reveals an unexpected talent as a bassist here. From England, trumpeter Steve Waterman was in Carla Bley’s big band and baritone saxophonist George Haslam has played with almost everyone in his lengthy career.

So what’s the problem? With the musicians playing exemplarily, the drawback is Dagnino and her material. For a start the English translations which Dagnino emotes aren’t the highest form of prose-poetry. Many of the 10 “chants” seem either needlessly prosaic or rife with pseudo-classical allusions that don’t jibe. It’s also beneficial that the words are published in the CD booklet. For when the music pauses for Dagnino, she’s often difficult to understand. While her accented English isn’t the same as foreign singers who learns lyrics phonetically, misplaced accents or mumbled expressions add confusion. For instance “pinches” sounds like “beaches”; and “sticking fingers” like “chicken fingers”. Plus if she wants idiomatic English, the expression is “hemming and hawing”, not “humming and hawing” – poetic license or not.

On their own, the musicians’ easy-flowing, stacked harmonies reference the blues plus some extended techniques. Pastor occasionally adds electronic oscillations to his showy triple stopping, while stacked harmonies cleanly balance the trumpeter’s grace notes or plunger tones with the saxophonist’s mellow vamping or low-pitched runs.

Perhaps in Italian Dagnino performs with the aplomb and confidence of a Leonard Cohen. Narcéte offers neither of those qualities – or much else.

Tracks: Chant I; Chant II; Chant III; Chant IV; Chant V; Chant VI; Chant VII; Chant VIII; Chant IX; Chant X

Personnel: Steve Waterman; trumpet; George Haslam: baritone saxophone and tarogato; Stefano Pastor: violin and double bass; Erika Dagnino: voice

—For New York City Jazz Record November 2012